Friday

6th Dec 2019

Feature

Colonisers speak - 60 years after Congo's independence

  • André de Maere in his original colonial uniform - which he hadn't worn for decades (Photo: Saskia Vanderstichele)

André de Maere loves telling stories about his travels through the rainforests of Congo, where as a colonial ruler in the 1950s he settled disputes in local tribes and executed Belgian law.

He's far less likely though to talk about how Belgium pillaged the wealth of a nation for almost eight decades and was responsible for, what some historians call, one of the largest genocides in human history.

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  • Huberte Culot at home in Tervuren, just outside Brussels (Photo: Saskia Vanderstichele)

"They were the best years of my life," de Maere, who is 90, said of his colonial career, sitting in his service flat in Brussels on a recent afternoon.

Belgium is in the midst of a nation-wide reassessment of its colonial past.

Under pressure from a younger, more activist generation and a growing African diaspora, Belgium has taken some steps over the past year: the government recognised and apologised for the segregation and deportation of thousands of children of mixed race in colonial Africa; it opened up its colonial archives to Rwanda, another former dependency; it named a square in Brussels after a Congolese independence leader and elected its first black mayor, Pierre Kompany, a man born in colonial Congo.

But for an older generation of Belgians, including about 20,000 former colonial officials who are now well into their eighties, reassessing Belgium's colonial past means reassessing their own lives and undergoing a battle of conscience while in their twilight years.

Most haven't traveled the intellectual journey that is expected from them by a younger generation and quietly still hold racist views that were once acceptable.

Their denial and silence – until now – has played an important role in the creation and persistence of the postcolonial amnesia that Belgium is still facing today.

De Maere is a proud member of a Belgian aristocratic family with a tradition of colonial service in Congo. He was the last "territorial administrator" of the eastern province of North-Kivu, an area of about 60,000 square kilometers with a population of about 1.5m inhabitants, until Congo became independent in 1960.

His father also served as a territorial administrator in Congo in the thirties, and his sister owned a tobacco plantation there. But it's his grand-uncle, Baron Théophile Wahis, of whom he is most proud.

Wahis was personally appointed by King Leopold II of the Belgians to be governor-general of Congo from 1892 to 1908, the highest office in the colonial administration. Under his governorship the colonial administration imposed a population-wide tax in the form of rubber, an abundant commodity at the time.

When the Scottish inventor John Dunlop improved the production process of the rubber tire in 1888, global demand for rubber rose, as Americans and Europeans wanted to fit out their cars with rubber tires.

And King Leopold II, who had invested his personal fortune in Congo and was desperate for returns, ordered governor Wahis to maximise rubber collection from the local population.

For a period of two decades, governor Wahis, from his seat in the coastal town of Boma, ordered low-ranking officials in outposts scattered across Congo's vast jungles to collect a so-called "rubber tax" from every individual, if necessary by force.

State officials proceeded to terrorise the local population, using coercive measures and punishment techniques such as dealing out whiplashes, taking female hostages, raping, torturing, mutilating, mass executing and in some cases even performing cannibalism, official documents from that time show.

A single punishment expedition could lead to the destruction of dozens of villages and thousands of deaths. As a result, a climate of fear ruled the country, agriculture and trade broke down, and famine and disease broke out.

Most historians estimate that during the governorship of de Maere's grand-uncle, between three to 10 million people perished – roughly a third to a half of the population – either by execution, by disease, or because they fled and were never seen again. (Exact numbers are not available as population registers didn't exist.)

"He was a great man," Mr. de Maere said of his ancestor, governor Wahis. "I met him, he was my mother's favourite uncle."

De Maere does not like to speak of "genocide" when describing Congo's massacres around the turn of the 19th century, because "it was never Belgium's intention to kill the Congolese," he said.

It was the "system of rubber politics" with blind rapacity at the top and "mad men" at the bottom with a long chain of command in between, which was responsible for the atrocities, he explained.

"Not in my time," he asserted, "but yes, it did happen, I won't deny it."

Architectural legacy

As the colonial administration extracted vast amounts of wealth from the rubber trade, King Leopold II did not reinvest it in the development of Congo. Rather, he used it to refurbish Brussels, Belgium's capital, and built several megalomaniac monuments across the country, earning him the nickname of 'Builder King'.

Today, an imposing three-part arch at a stone's throw from the European Union's headquarters in Brussels, an Africa museum modelled after the Palace of Versailles just outside the city, and a giant Venetian gallery in the coastal town of Ostend, are just a few silent architectural reminders of that time.

But as rumours of the horror in Congo reached Brussels and international criticism grew, the Belgian government pushed aside King Leopold II and took over most of Congo's colonial rule in 1908, with the promise of stopping the misdeeds and developing the country.

Whereas in the early years the colony attracted mostly young men, inspired by a more adventurous life and the potential for glory and richness, after the first world war, the Belgian government regulated the colonial civil service more closely and increasingly sent over often well-meaning civil servants who believed in the official colonial mission of bringing "Western civilisation" to Africa.

Huberte Culot, 88, grew up in the suburbs of Liège in the 1930s and lost her mother at a young age. A growing conflict between her and her stepmom pushed her to seek independence by studying nursing. After she earned a degree in tropical medicine in Antwerp, she left for Congo in her early 20s.

On the boat to Congo, she met her future husband, Guido Bosteels, whom she married a few years later, when both of them were posted in Stanleyville, which today is called Kisangani. (They still live together.)

For years she worked as a nurse in the paediatric and women's health department of Stanleyville's sole hospital, which wasn't just responsible for the health of the city's 40,000 inhabitants, but also for the whole of the province of Orientale, which was twice the size of France. The hospital was divided into two buildings, one for whites and one for blacks, Ms. Culot explained, as segregation rules stipulated.

"I worked in both," Ms. Culot said, "we treated both the same way."

Culot deeply believed in Belgium's colonial mission of bringing Western knowledge to Africa, she said, especially in the field of medicine, and she still does. She loved her daily work and said that she often drove back to the hospital at night to admit a new patient.

Common diseases included dysentery, polio, lepra and malnutrition, she explained, and on more than one occasion, she said, she donated her own blood to a malnourished Congolese child of the same blood group.

But when asked about the systemic political and economic suppression of the Congolese people by the Belgian colonial administration, of which she was a part throughout the fifties, she laughed.

"What nonsense! I love Congo, I loved the people, we did what we could," she exclaimed throwing her hands in the air. But after calming down she said about the Congolese that "they were uneducated, so I'm sorry, we treated them like children."

Asked about the massacres of which plenty of historical proof exists in official Belgian government documents, she retorted: "Prove it to me!"

Lumumba

In early 1959, Culot met Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese independence leader who would go on to become Congo's first elected prime minister one year later, and shook his hand when he visited her hospital, she remembers.

"He was one of those politicians who promised everyone easy money," she said of Lumumba, "the people all wanted independence, everything was going to be theirs, but they had no notion of independence, they knew nothing."

Shortly after, Mr. Lumumba was arrested by the colonial authorities for inciting a riot and was sentenced to several years in prison. But in June 1960, his political party won the national elections, making a freed Lumumba the first premier of an independent Congo.

Tumult quickly grew during Lumumba's short term in office, and after only a few months he was deposed and killed with the help of the Belgian authorities.

Tens of thousands of Congolese died in ensuing revolts, and so did some Belgians. Though most Belgians were able to flee at the last moment.

Luc Dens

Luc Dens, 86, was born in Congo and grew up in Djugu, a tiny village in the outer northeastern corner of Congo.

"I imagined my whole life in Congo," Dens said, with tears in his eyes.

His father served as the local colonial district chief. "They called him 'Le Chef.' He had the last word in all state affairs, and ruled an area as big as Belgium," Dens said.

Djugu was a small town, Dens recounted, with a commercial centre, a tribunal, a few Indian shopkeepers and a cinema. A hill overlooked the town, and the higher up the hill you lived, the more important you were, he explained. "I lived at the top," he said.

"I never felt as fantastically joyful again, as I did when I drove my bike through that town at the age of nine," he said. "Everyone was friendly to me and so helpful, I was the son of 'Le Chef,' I was like a little prince."

Dens went to a mixed school, where colonial officers as well as local chieftains sent their children.

"The evolution was ongoing," he said. "People were consciously making the transition towards a mixed society. Though not always willingly – there were definitely racists, like there still are today," he said.

In 1960, while in high school, Mr. Dens started hearing rumours about sedition. "Lumumba's party spread rumours that the blacks would drive the white man's car following independence. This caused stress among the population. The whites were afraid of what would happen."

In the summer of 1960, Belgians started leaving Congo and so did Dens, who at the age of 17 took a plane from Bujumbura, in Burundi (which was a Belgian protectorate at the time together with Rwanda), to Brussels, in Belgium.

Fleeing to Belgium, a country he had never seen before "was the end of the world," he said, "it broke all my ideals."

"I had never imagined another future for myself than in Congo, with a career and a family. It was the end of a community, the end of an era."

"We considered ourselves Congolese and called the Belgians 'the Belgicains,' a diminutive word, because of their grocery-shop mentality. We found them narrow-minded, not very interesting. They weren't people we could hang out with."

"Belgium had a totally different mentality – small things – you had to call before you visited someone at home – not so in Congo. We didn't get along well."

"I felt very angry, because as a white man I had been rejected by the black Congolese."

Zaire

Dens returned to Congo in 1968, after finishing a degree in engineering in Belgium, to work for Congo's national railways and found a different country, now called Zaire and ruled by a dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko.

Things initially went well, but after a few years Mobutu started the 'Zairisation of Congo,' Mr. Dens said, introducing drastic reforms that increasingly took power away from foreigners.

"After a few years nothing worked anymore, not the roads, not the electricity, and certainly not the railways. Since then Congo has declined, and Congo today is a disaster," he said.

Dens left for good in 1981 and returned to Belgium. Like many former colonisers, he sees himself as a victim of decolonisation. He now runs a club in Belgium for veterans of the Congolese railways, which still has 240 members.

"It's difficult to talk about my colonial past these days," he said. "The principle, that people don't let you speak about your life and get very angry when you do, is wrong. It's impossible to have a debate like that."

Taking some distance from his own life, he said: "I'll say it clearly, the principle of colonialism should never have existed. It was wrong from the beginning to the end. The suppression by our regime, however, was not controversial at the time, and we thought we were doing well. The truth is that our way of life clashed with their way of life. We came in like an elephant in a porcelain shop and caused a lot of damage."

Having said that, Dens added that he was reluctant to debate colonial history in public, because it entails his own life: "I only have a few more years to live, and I'd like to believe that I'm not a bad person."

Author bio

Milan Schreuer is a freelance journalist who has worked for the New York Times.

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