Expatica news

Belgian king decorates last Congolese WWII vet

Belgium’s King Philippe on Wednesday decorated the last surviving Congolese World War II veteran, on the second day of his historic visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The Belgian sovereign landed in DRC’s capital Kinshasa on Tuesday for a six-day visit billed as an opportunity for reconciliation between the vast central African country and its former colonial master.

On Wednesday morning, Philippe visited a memorial for combat veterans in Kinshasa and laid a wreath.

He also decorated 100-year-old Corporal Albert Kunyuku, who enlisted in Belgium’s colonial Force Publique in 1940 and saw service in Burma — the former name of Myanmar.

Kunyuku, the last surviving Congolese veteran of World War II, shook hands with the king for a long time.

Belgium’s colonisation of the Congo was one of the harshest imposed by the European powers that ruled most of Africa in the late 19th and 20th centuries.

King Leopold II, the brother of Philippe’s great great grandfather, oversaw the conquest of what is now DRC, governing the territory as his personal property between 1885 and 1908 before it became a Belgian colony.

– Brutal rule –

Historians say that millions of people were killed, mutilated or died of disease as they were forced to collect rubber under his rule. The land was also pillaged for its mineral wealth, timber and ivory.

In 2020, Philippe wrote a letter to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi to express his “deepest regrets” for the “wounds of the past.”

Near the combat veterans’ memorial on Wednesday, some bystanders suggested that decorating Kunyuku was a cosmetic gesture.

“We should also compensate the families of these veterans who lost their lives in a war that did not concern them,” said Madeleine Yowa, a 43-year-old nurse.

Marie-Therese Bakuku, a street vendor, also urged financial reparations and called the ceremony hypocritical.

“There were thousands of them,” the 73-year-old said, referring to Congolese WWII veterans.

“Now there’s one left and they’re trying to save the day.”

– Looted art –

King Philippe afterwards visited DRC’s national museum in Kinshasa, established in 2019, where he handed over a mask the ethnic Suku group use in initiation rites.

The ceremonial mask is on “unlimited” loan from Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, he announced.

The Belgian government last year set out a roadmap for returning art works looted during the colonial era, a sensitive topic in DRC.

“The coloniser hauled away our artworks, it’s right that they should be returned to us,” said Louis Karhebwa, a 63-year-old businessman.

Prince Pungi, a young civil servant, agreed. “Congo is changing, moving forward,” he said. “It’s time to take back what belongs to us”.

Philippe is due to hold a ceremony with President Tshisekedi at the Congolese parliament later Wednesday, and then on Friday, deliver a speech to university students in the southern city of Lubumbashi.

On Sunday, the Belgian sovereign will visit the clinic of gynaecologist Denis Mukwege, co-winner of the 2018 Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against sexual violence, in the eastern city of Bukavu.

The visit is King Philippe’s first to DRC since ascending the throne in 2013. His father, King Albert II, visited the country in 2010.

His trip comes as Belgium is preparing to return to Kinshasa a tooth — the last remains of Patrice Lumumba, a hero of the anti-colonial struggle and short-lived first prime minister of the independent Congo.

Lumumba was murdered by Congolese separatists and Belgian mercenaries in 1961 and his body dissolved in acid, but the tooth was kept as a trophy by one of his killers, a Belgian police officer.