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His skull was taken from the Congo as a trophy. Will Belgium finally return?

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Lusinga Iwa Ng’ombe was once a powerful local leader in Congo who fought back against Belgian colonial invaders in the late 19th century.

He was such a thorn in their side that Émile Storms, who commanded Belgian troops in the area, predicted that his head “will eventually come to Brussels with a little tag — not even in a museum.” It would look out of place.”

That’s exactly what happened.Mr. Storm’s Troops In 1884 Mr. Luzinga was killed and beheadedhis skull ended up in a box at the Institute of Natural Sciences in Brussels, along with more than 500 human remains from the former Belgian colony.

His descendants are fighting to return his remains, and their efforts come against the backdrop of a larger debate over Europe’s responsibility for colonial atrocities, reparations and the return of plundered heritage.

Several European countries, including Belgium, have developed guidelines for the return of artifacts, but the process has been extremely slow.

The return of human remains, which European invaders often illegally and brutally seized from colonies and ended up in private hands or museums, is even more fraught. In Belgium, the process has stalled due to a deep-seated unwillingness to address the country’s colonial legacy.

Belgium drafted Laws regulating the return of human remains, but it will likely not face a parliamentary vote until after national elections in June. If passed, it would create the second framework in Europe for the return of human remains in public collections, after France passed a similar law in December that set out strict conditions for return.

King Leopold II of Belgium occupied much of Central Africa, including the modern Democratic Republic of Congo, in the mid-1880s, exploiting the region for his own personal gain in an extremely ruthless manner. Although there are no official statistics, historians estimate that millions of people died under his rule, succumbing to mass starvation and disease, or being killed by colonists.

Today, however, the bloody chapter of Belgian history is no longer a compulsory part of the school curriculum, and some Belgians still regard Leopold as a foundational figure. Several streets and parks are named after him, and squares are decorated with his statues.

In 2020, King Philippe of Belgium Expressed “deepest regret” On the occasion of the 60th anniversary of the DRC’s independence, he wrote to the DRC’s president, thanking the DRC for its brutal past but not apologizing – which many feared would open the door to legal action by those seeking reparations.

The conquest of the Congo coincided with the birth of modern anthropology, and Belgian scientists were busy comparing the skulls of residents of Belgium’s Flanders and Wallonia regions. Maarten Couttenier, a historian and anthropologist at the African Museum, said these colonial expeditions often included doctors, which was seen as opening up new research opportunities. Belgian colonels were encouraged to bring back human remains to provide evidence of racial superiority.

The idea, Mr. Courtney said, was “to determine race by measuring the skull.”

Mr Courtnier and colleague Boris Wastiau broke decades of silence about the acquisition and continued storage of the remains, which only a handful of scientists knew, and made the information public through scientific conferences and exhibitions.

Later, the discovery of Mr. Lucinga’s skull came through a news article Published in French weekly “Paris Match” in 2018. The news spread all the way to the Democratic Republic of Congo and Thierry Ludinga, who claimed to be the great-grandson of Chief Ludinga.

Inspired by this discovery, Thierry Lucinga wrote two letters to King Philippe of Belgium requesting the remains of his ancestors, and a third letter to the Belgian consulate in his hometown of Lubumbashi.

“We believe the right to claim his remains or the remainder of his remains belongs to our family,” he wrote in his first letter, dated Oct. 10, 2018, seen by The New York Times. “We hope this Things will happen amicably with mutual forgiveness and a new page in history will be written.”

He said he never received a reply.

Thierry Lusinga claims to be the great-grandson of Chief Mr. Lusinga.Credit…by Thierry Lucinga

Speaking to The Times, Lucinga expressed hope that the issue could still be resolved. “We ask that this be done amicably,” he said. “We wish we could sit together and try to discuss deportation and why not compensation for our families.”

Asked for comment, the palace confirmed it had received a letter from Lucinga but had not responded “as it did not mention any postal address and was not addressed directly to the palace.”

The palace said the letter had been forwarded to the palace by a reporter from Paris Match and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, which said in writing that “the relevant authorities are paying close attention to and handling the matter.”

Questions about Mr Lucinga’s skull have prompted Belgium to try to conduct a complete inventory of human remains held by its institutions. In late 2019, scientists began finding them in museum and university storage rooms and tracing the origins of some of them.

More than a year after the project officially ended, a final report listing 534 human remains from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi was discreetly posted online this year without notifying some of the scientists involved in the project or the public.

Nearly half of the remains were removed from the former colony long after the Belgian government took over control from King Leopold.

Lies Busselen, one of the researchers who wrote the report, found that from 1945 to 1946, colonial agent Ferdinand Van de Ginste ordered about 200 skulls to be exhumed from graves in Congo’s Kwango and Kwelu provinces.

Ms Busseren also rediscovered the long-lost skull of Prince Capampa, a local Congolese leader who was killed in the 19th century and hidden in a warehouse closet at the African Museum.

Thomas Dermine, Belgium’s state secretary for science policy, said in an interview that he was “surprised” by the number of human remains found in Belgian institutions. His office drafted legal proposals to regulate claims for the return of human remains.

draft law A formal request is also required from a foreign government, which can request return on behalf of a group that still has a “vibrant culture and tradition.” Similar to French law, it also allows restitution only for funerary purposes.

Dermine said his government consulted the authors of the inventory report, but they recommended that Belgium unconditionally return all human remains in federal collections directly related to its colonial past.

The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo said it was surprised to learn that the law had been drafted “without consulting Congolese experts or the Congolese parliament.”

“Belgium cannot unilaterally set the criteria for return,” François Muamba, special adviser to the president of the Democratic Republic of Congo, said in written comments to The Times.

“Unfortunately, the Belgian approach does not appear to have changed,” he added.

Ferdinand Numbi Kanyepa, a professor of sociology at the University of Lubumbashi who leads a research group working on the restitution issue, said returning Mr Lucinga’s skull would be a huge benefit to the entire Tabwa community to which he belonged. Very important to the community.

“For us, a person who was killed but not buried cannot rest in peace with the other souls of his ancestors,” said Mr Kanyepa, a member of the Tabwa community. “That is why we believe that, at all costs, Chief Luzinga’s skull must be returned to the community, and even to the family, to receive a burial worthy of a king.”

Thierry Lusinga, whose request would not be considered legal under the draft law, said he believed there must be “something hidden” behind the failure to return the skull. “Maybe Belgium doesn’t want to be accused of genocide,” he said. “Maybe Belgium doesn’t want to hear this story.”

The skulls of his ancestors are still preserved in the storage room of the Institute of Natural Sciences. The institute authorities said the skull had been moved from a collective box to an individual box at the request of the African Museum as a “mark of respect”.

Aurelien Breeden Reporting from Paris.

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