Five women file complaint against Belgian state for human rights abuses in Congo
Five women who were taken from their mothers as children, raised in a missionary post in the Belgian Congo and eventually brought to Belgium are filing a complaint against the state. All now in their 70s, they are demanding €50,000 in damages each.
The plight of the mixed-race children of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi was in the spotlight in 2019, when then prime minister Charles Michel issued an official apology to this community of people. In the years leading up to independence from Belgian colonial rule, children who had been born to African mothers and colonialist fathers were systematically brought to Belgium.
Most of the fathers – some married to a Belgian woman back home when their children were conceived in Africa – refused to recognise them. The children were placed in orphanages and adoptive families in Belgium.
Though it is not known exactly how many children were brought to Belgium, it is known that about 300 came from Rwanda alone. Belgium is now helping these ‘children of the colonies’ to find their parents and siblings in Africa.
Father state and mother Fabiola
What got a little lost in the conversation in 2019 was that many of the children were sent to live in missionary posts years before being shipped to Belgium. The five women who are filing the complaint got left behind after independence at a mission in Katende, Congo. Abandoned to military forces, they ranged in age from nine to about 16. They had no food, no sanitary facilities and no idea if Belgium would ever intervene on their behalf again.
“We are not interested in putting colonisation on trial,” said the Brussels lawyer Michèle Hirsch, one of the group’s lawyers. “We are asking that the Belgian government be ordered to repair some of the damage that has been done to these women.”
The complaint is claiming damages for kidnapping, abuse, separation of families and theft of identities, all on the basis of ethnicity. The women are asking for €50,000 each.
“We were children of the Father State, and Queen Fabiola was our godmother,” one of the women – Simone Ngalula – told De Standaard. “But our ‘father’ abandoned us. From the moment we arrived in the missionary post, we were on our own. We slept on wooden beds without mattresses or sheets. We had little blankets, like prisoners. We were barefoot. We were only allowed to wear shoes and decent clothes when administrators came to visit.”
‘It was a nightmare’
There was little food, she said, mostly rice made with palm oil. And there were no sanitary facilities. “A hole in the ground, without toilet paper,” says Ngalula. “In the afternoon, we were all marched to the river to wash, but we didn’t have any soap.” In short, she says: “It was a nightmare.”
Ngalula was taken from her mother and placed in the mission when she was only two. “I cried day and night,” she said. “I was so little, my mother was still breastfeeding me.”
She had two older brothers, but they were sent to other posts. “Fortunately there were older girls. They washed me and fed me. I’m not entirely sure how old I am; the nuns wrote that I was born in 1950, without being precise about it. They determined my entire identity from then on.”
When Congo declared independence, UN troops evacuated the nuns and priests first, leaving the children in this mission behind. “The new regime sent soldiers to protect us,” said Monique Bitu Bingi, one of the group of five plaintiffs. “That’s not what they did. Every night, we were objects in their sex games. I was 10 or 11 years old.”
Eventually the nuns returned, and the girls were brought to Belgium, with no attempt made to locate or inform their Congolese families.
Should the women win the case, it would be the first time that Belgium is forced to pay damages for human rights abuses in the Congo. It could set a precedent for other children of the colonies who were brought to Belgium, without their mothers’ consent or knowledge.
Belgium’s official apology two years ago was a long time coming, and it wasn’t enough, say the women. “It’s important for them to be awarded more than a token amount of money,” says Hirsch. “But do you really think money can make up for what happened to them?”
Photo: Monique Bitu Bingi can be seen in the front row on the far left of this photo taken at the Katende mission for girls. They were only allowed to wear decent clothes during state visits and photo ops