His skull was taken from the Congo as a war trophy. Will Belgium eventually return him?

Once a powerful local Congolese leader, Linga Iwa Ng'ombe fought against Belgian colonial invaders in the late 19th century.

He was such a thorn in his side that Émile Storms, who commanded Belgian troops in the region, predicted that his head would “eventually end up in Brussels with a little label: it wouldn't be out of place in a museum.”

This is exactly what happened. Mr Storms' troops killed and beheaded Mr Lusinga in 1884, and his skull ended up in a box at the Brussels-based Institute of Natural Sciences, along with more than 500 human remains taken from former Belgian colonies.

His descendants are fighting for the return of his remains, and their efforts take place against the backdrop of a broader debate about Europe's responsibility for colonial atrocities, reparations and the restitution of plundered heritage.

Several European countries, including Belgium, have established guidelines for returning artifacts, but the process has been painfully slow.

Even more difficult was the return of human remains, which were often illegally and cruelly removed by European invaders from colonized territories, ending up in private hands or museums. In Belgium, the economy has been held back by a deep reluctance to address the country's colonial legacy.

Belgium has drafted a law to regulate the return of human remains, but it will likely face a parliamentary vote only after national elections in June. If approved, it would establish the second regulatory framework in Europe for the return of human remains held in public collections, following a similar law passed in December by France, which established strict conditions for the return.

King Leopold II of Belgium conquered a large part of central Africa in the mid-1880s, including the modern Democratic Republic of the Congo, which he exploited for personal profit with immense cruelty. Although no official statistics exist, historians estimate that millions of people died under his rule, succumbing to mass starvation and disease, or killed by colonizers.

Yet today that bloody chapter in Belgian history is not a compulsory part of the school curriculum, and some Belgians have defended Leopold as a seminal figure. There are numerous streets and parks that bear his name and squares decorated with statues of him.

In 2020, King Philippe of Belgium expressed his “deepest regret” for his country's brutal past in a letter to the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo marking the 60th anniversary of its independence, but stopped short of apology – which many feared would open the door to legal action by those seeking compensation.

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

The idea was, Couttenier said, “to measure the skull to determine the breeds.”

Mr. Couttenier, together with colleague Boris Wastiau, broke a decades-old silence about the acquisition and continued preservation of the remains, which was known to only a handful of scientists, by making the information public through conferences and scientific exhibitions.

Subsequently, the discovery of Mr Lusinga's skull was brought to light through an article published in 2018 in Paris Match, a French weekly. The news reached as far as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Thierry Lusinga, who described himself as the great-grandson of Mr. Lusinga, the boss.

Moved by the find, Thierry Lusinga wrote two letters to King Philippe of Belgium, asking for his ancestor's remains, and a third to the Belgian consulate in Lubumbashi, his hometown.

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

He said he never received a response.

Thierry Lusinga described himself as a great-grandson of Mr. Lusinga, the boss.Credit…via Thierry Lusinga

In an interview with the Times, Lusinga expressed hope that it is still possible to resolve the issue. “We asked to do it amicably,” she said. “We hope to be able to sit around a table and try to talk about repatriations, and why not compensation for our family”.

When asked for comment, the Royal Palace confirmed that it had received but had not responded to one of Mr Lusinga's letters, “as it did not mention any postal address and was not addressed directly to the palace”.

The letter had been transferred to the palace by the Paris Match journalist and the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences, the palace said, with the institute stating in writing that “the matter was carefully monitored and handled by the relevant authorities.” .

Questions about Mr Lusinga's skull have prompted Belgium to try to make a full inventory of human remains held by its institutions. At the end of 2019, scientists decided to locate them in the warehouses of museums and universities and reconstruct the origins of some of them.

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

Nearly half of the remains were removed from the former colonies long after the Belgian government had taken control from King Leopold.

One of the researchers working on the report, Lies Busselen, discovered that from 1945 to 1946, a colonial agent, Ferdinand Van de Ginste, ordered the exhumation of approximately 200 skulls from graves in the Congolese provinces of Kwango and Kwilu.

Ms Busselen also rediscovered the long-lost skull of Prince Kapampa, a local Congolese leader killed in the 19th century, hidden in a storage room in the Africa Museum.

Thomas Dermine, the Belgian state secretary responsible for science policy, said in an interview that he was “surprised” by the number of human remains found in Belgian institutions. His office drafted the bill regulating requests for the return of human remains.

The bill also requires a formal request from a foreign government, which could request restitution on behalf of groups that still have “active culture and traditions.” Similar to French law, this also allows restitution for funeral purposes only.

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

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

“Belgium cannot unilaterally set the criteria for restitution,” said François Muamba, special advisor to the president of the DRC, in a written comment to the Times.

“Unfortunately, Belgian methods do not appear to have changed,” he added.

Fernand Numbi Kanyepa, professor of sociology at the University of Lubumbashi and director of a research group working on the topic of restitution, said that the return of Mr. Lusinga's skull is important for the entire Tabwa community, to which he belonged .

“For us, an individual who has been killed, but not buried, cannot rest with other ancestor spirits,” said Kanyepa, himself a member of the Tabwa community. “That is why we believe that, at all costs, Chief Lusinga's skull must return to the community, and even family, to receive a burial fit for a king.”

Thierry Lusinga, whose request would not be considered legitimate under the bill, said he believes there must be “something hidden behind” the failure to return the skull. “Maybe Belgium doesn't want to be denounced as genocidal,” he said. “Maybe Belgium doesn't want to hear this story.”

The skull of his ancestor is still preserved in a warehouse of the Institute of Natural Sciences. Institute authorities said that, at the request of the African Museum, the skull was transferred from a collective box to an individual one as a “sign of respect”.

Aurelien Breeden contributed a report from Paris.

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