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Prime minister apologises to children abducted from Africa during colonisation
Prime minister Charles Michel delivered an official apology today from the Belgian state for the systematic removal of hundreds of children from colonial Africa. The children were born to African mothers and Belgian fathers during Belgium’s colonisation of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi.
In the 1940s and ’50s, Belgium systematically took children from their mothers in the three countries and brought them to Belgium, where they were either put in orphanages or placed with adoptive families. The children were all born to fathers working for the Belgian administration in one of the three countries.
The state conducted the round-up in the years leading up to independence, so the children ranged in ages. They were not automatically granted Belgian nationality, which caused administrative problems later, especially as most of the fathers refused to recognise them. Many of the fathers were married to Belgian women when their children were conceived in Africa.
Now adults, many of the victims have spoken out over the years about the trauma they experienced being removed from their homes and families. And some have gone back to Africa in search of their mothers and siblings.
‘Third class citizens’
“We have long felt like third-class Belgians,” said Georges Kamanayo, a former VRT camera operator. “In the colony, we were kept away from the white children. It was pure segregation. And in Belgium, they tried to make sure we were low profile, that we didn’t stand out.”
That worked to an extent. The first televised news report about the children was in 1974.
“I worked on a Panorama report, the first one ever done on this subject,” says Kamanayo. “But the then VRT director wouldn’t allow me to be in front of the camera. He found it inappropriate for a black man to be a presenter.”
Kamanayo did return to Rwanda and found his mother. It was a tearful reunion, caught on camera by VRT. “Unfortunately, she couldn’t see me,” said Kamanayo. “She had gone blind.”
Michel’s apology follows a House vote last year to officially admit the facts of the situation and take measures, such as to ensure that all of the victims have Belgian nationality and to help find their families in Africa.
The Centre for Historical Research and Documentation on War and Contemporary Society in Brussels is working on a project to record the names of all the children brought to Belgium. The exact number is not officially know, thought Kamanayo says he knows of at least 300.
‘I apologise to these children’
Michel is not fond of official apologies, and it is unusual for him to offer one. Aside from parliamentarians, many victims were present for the statement today.
“In Belgian colonial Africa, a system of segregation of children from their families was in direct conflict of fundamental human rights,” said Michel. “Therefore, I recognise in the name of the federal government the targeted segregation and forced abduction of which these children were victims in the Belgian colonial Congo and Rwanda-Burundi from 1962 until after colonisation. In the name of the federal government, I apologise to these children of the Belgian colony and to their families for the injustice and suffering that they have experienced.”
Michel went on to say that, despite their history, the victims purposefully helped to create a more tolerant and diverse Belgian society. “That allowed hope for the future, a positive message, for a respectful and strong alliance between Africa and the EU.”
The statement was followed by a long applause and the parliamentarians turning to acknowledge the victims and their families sitting in the gallery.
Photo: Prime minister Charles Michel looks upward at the parliamentary gallery, where the colonial victims were present, following his speech