On the 60th anniversary of the independence of Congo the city of Ghent removes the bust of Leopold II in Zuidpark as part of a decolonisation project. Ghent, East Flanders, Belgium, June 2020. Photograph by Matteo Cogliati/Hans Lucas/REUTERS

Protests against racism sparked by the police killing of George Floyd continue to sweep the globe, including in Belgium, where activists have demanded the removal of statues of King Leopold II, and an acknowledgement of the horrors he inflicted on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Pointing to a statue of King Leopold II, an activist told Reuters, “We won’t accept this until the government understands that this belongs in a museum, not in public space. Because it is a shame.”

Leopold’s descendant King Philippe expressed regret in a letter amid the protests, and as Congo celebrated 60 years of independence on June 30.

“Our history is made of common achievements but has also experienced painful episodes. During the period of the Congo Free State, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory,” he wrote.

But the King’s letter fell short of apologizing for the country’s actions. Many argue that’s not enough.

An estimated 10-15 million people were killed during King Leopold’s rule, one of the bloodiest atrocities in modern history.

“What Congolese are demanding is bigger than apology, it is justice, and justice looks like reparations,” Kambale Musavuli, a human rights activist and native of the Democratic Republic of Congo, told The Real News.

Under the guise of a humanitarian mission, and with the backing of the United States and Europe, King Leopold II of Belgium claimed control of the Congo in 1885. An area the size of Western Europe, the region was rich with ivory and rubber. Colonial forces worked the Congolese to death harvesting these natural resources, without pay, to meet a growing demand from the nascent automobile industry.

“Congolese were literally slaves on their own land. Their hands were chopped off, they were killed,” said Musavuli, who works for the Center for Research on Congo.

Congo’s exploitation did not end when the atrocities were exposed in the media and a global campaign forced Leopold to relinquish his control of the territory in 1908, which was then transferred to Belgium: “Congolese fought in World War I and World War II, not because they wanted to go fight, but because they were under colonial rule. And many of the ex-combatants actually received no pay as they fought these wars.” Musavuli said.

Belgium continued to exploit Congo’s natural resources, including uranium, which was sold to the United States to make the nuclear weapons that bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki at the end of World War II.

In 2002, Belgium apologized for its role in the Jan. 1961 killing of Patrice Lumumba, a Congolese independence leader and the nation’s first elected prime minister. Lumumba was assassinated by Belgium and the United States for this opposition to the exploitation of the country’s natural resources by corporate interests. The apology did not mean Lumumba’s killers were brought to justice.

“[After the apology] Belgian mercenaries were doing interviews in documentaries, explaining how they removed Lumumba’s teeth. And one of them actually said that he kept one of Patrice Lumumba’s teeth. And no one has been arrested,” Musavuli said.

Belgium continues to exert influence over Congo till this day: “The United Nation reports in the early 2000s about 85 companies were being paid for income with resources during the latest war, that’s claimed the lives of 16 year millions Congolese During that period, there were Belgian companies again trading Congo’s resources illegally pilfered by rebels in the DRC,”  Musavuli said.

For there to be justice, Musavuli argues, Belgium must pay for its past and ongoing crimes and exploitation of the Congolese people: “Congo doesn’t need charity, Congo needs justice,” Musavuli said.

Jaisal Noor

General Assignment Reporter

Jaisal is a host, producer, and reporter for TRNN. With his expertise in education policy and systemic inequity, he focuses on Baltimore, Maryland. He mainly grew up in the Baltimore area and studied modern history at the University of Maryland, College Park. Before joining TRNN, he contributed print, radio, and TV reports to Free Speech Radio NewsDemocracy Now! and The Indypendent.

Jaisal's mother has taught in the Baltimore City Public School system for the past 25 years.