A tooth. A Belgian court announced that it would return just that to Patrice Lumumba’s family. The tooth in question, which had been under seal prior to the ruling because it was evidence in an inquiry opened by Belgium into Lumumba’s death, is the only known remains of the leader who is still regarded to this day as the hero of the country’s independence.
Lumumba, the short-lived prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which had just gained its independence in 1960, known for his famous independence day speech, was overthrown and arrested a few months later.
On 17 January 1961, in Moïse Tshombe’s briefly secessionist Katanga province, Lumumba was tortured under the supervision of Belgian officers before being executed under circumstances which, 60 years on, have yet to come to light.
His body was never found, and for good reason. In a television documentary from 2000, the Belgian police commissioner Gérard Soete recounted how he had dismembered the former prime minister’s body and then dissolved the remains in acid. With evidence in hand, he said that he had kept a tooth belonging to Lumumba, a relic later seized in 2016 as part of an investigation opened in 2012 by Belgium’s federal prosecutor after several children of the deceased prime minister filed a complaint.
Although she praises the court’s ruling as a “victory”, Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana Lumumba, stresses in particular its symbolic significance and reiterates that many unknowns persist around the assassination of the Congo’s independence hero.
How did you react when you learned that a Belgian court had ruled to return the relic seized in 2016 at Soete’s home to your family?
Juliana Lumumba: It’s a major victory and truly satisfying to know that, 60 years later, my father’s remains will be returned to his home country, that we’ll finally be able to give him a proper burial in the land of his ancestors and that, we, the Congolese people, will be able to pay our respects to him. It’s a relief after a long fight.
In recent weeks, I sent a letter to King Philippe of Belgium [on 30 June, editor’s note]. We also made a video. In addition, I wrote to President Félix Tshisekedi and met with Belgium’s chargé d’affaires to the DRC, who wanted to learn more about my initiative.
It’s a necessary gesture to help us move past this shared, and certainly dramatic, history. It’s no longer 1960, and there’s a real desire to see the two country’s relations improve. It’s a positive step in that direction.
Many unknowns persist around the circumstances of your father’s death. A Belgian court opened an investigation in 2012 after your family filed a complaint. The inquiry has yet to be completed, but do you know if there have been any significant developments?
I can’t say exactly if there has been any real headway. On both sides, justice has never been very swift.
However, today, there’s a new impetus to make progress in the inquiry. When Belgium’s federal prosecutor says that court proceedings are under way and that he is ready to follow through with the investigation, that’s a positive sign. Another good sign is his assurance that he’s ready to request the removal of the closed-door restriction applicable to a portion of the work of the parliamentary commission charged with getting to the bottom of this case. Their findings were made public in 2002.
Are you worried that one day you’ll have to let go of the idea of finding out who exactly was responsible for the assassination?
Finally learning the truth about what happened is a legitimate right. It’s also a collective duty. In this story, the Belgians weren’t the only ones who were the bad guys. Certain Congolese actors were also complicit in Lumumba’s murder. We have the right to know what really happened.
There’s a demand for truth and justice, but currently, there’s no one to accuse. Officially, no one is guilty and that isn’t acceptable. For years we’ve been waiting for the authorities to shed light on the circumstances – which we know were abhorrent – in which Lumumba was killed.
What we know is what we heard a policeman say in front of a camera in a documentary. It wasn’t confidential. Can you imagine what it feels like to hear this kind of account? In this situation, the return of his remains, which we have demanded, can help ease wounds that have been open for 60 years now.
How will the repatriation be carried out in practice?
My father was this country’s first prime minister. He was assassinated. He is a national hero and 17 January, the day on which he was assassinated, is a holiday. Belgium recently unveiled Patrice Lumumba Square in Brussels and named a street after him – Rue Lumumba – in Charleroi.
Our father is a national and international figure who still doesn’t belong to us. This is why talks are under way with the Congolese and Belgian authorities to see under what conditions we can organise a proper, simple return of his remains.
On 30 June, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his ‘deepest regrets’ for his country’s colonial past in the Congo. Can the return of your father’s remains help further reflection about the past?
As is the case for every ex-colony, there are many disputes with the former colonial powers and their legacy doesn’t go away from one day to the next. There is still anger, pages that haven’t been turned and things gone unsaid.
How can a country hope to have a healthy relationship with a country that used to dominate it? There has to be an ongoing dialogue. This makes it all the more important for the truth to be told. That way, the past can influence the present of both countries.
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