Belgium returns Congolese hero’s golden tooth

A gold-crowned tooth was all that remained of assassinated Congolese independence hero, Patrice Lumumba.

Shot dead by a firing squad in 1961 with the tacit backing of former colonial power, Belgium, his body was then buried in a shallow grave, dug up, transported 200km (125 miles), interred again, exhumed and then hacked to pieces and finally dissolved in acid.

The Belgian Police Commissioner, Gerard Soete, who oversaw and participated in the destruction of the remains, took the tooth and he later admitted.

He also talked about a second tooth and two of the corpse’s fingers, but these have not been found.

The tooth has now been returned to the family at a ceremony in Brussels.

Soete’s impulse to pocket the body parts echoed the behaviour of European colonial officials down the decades who took remains back home as macabre mementoes.

But it also served as a final humiliation of a man that Belgium considered an enemy.

Soete, appearing in a documentary in 1999, described the tooth and fingers he took as “a type of hunting trophy”. The language suggested that for the Belgian policeman, Lumumba – who was revered across the continent as a leading voice of African liberation – was less than human.

For Lumumba’s daughter, Juliana, the question was whether the perpetrators were human.

“What amount of hatred must you have to do that?” she asked.

“This is a reminder of what happened with the Nazis, taking pieces of people – and that’s a crime against humanity,” she told the BBC.

Lumumba had risen to become prime minister at the age of 34. Elected in the final days of colonial rule, he headed the cabinet of the newly independent nation.

In June 1960, at the handover of power, Belgian King, Baudouin, praised the colonial administration and spoke about his ancestor, Léopold II, as the “civiliser” of the country.

There was no mention of the millions who died or were brutalised under his reign when he ruled what was then known as the Congo Free State as his personal property.

Failure to acknowledge the past foreshadowed years of denial in Belgium, which it has just begun to come to terms with.

Lumumba was not so reticent. -BBC

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