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Belgium sued for colonial-era family separation

By Yong Ooi Dec. 8, 2021

Resurfacing with five elderly, biracial women and one landmark lawsuit against the state, Belgium’s colonial past will soon be challenged in its own Brussels court. Deprived of their childhood and their original ties, the five women—Lea Tavares Mujinga, Monique Bintu Bingi, Noelle Verbeken, Simone Ngalula and Marie-Jose Loshi—are demanding reparations for the intense psychological and physical damage they suffered due to Belgium’s colonial-era separation of multiracial families.

Xintong Zhao Art


Similar to many colonial states, Belgium invaded Africa in an alleged effort to spread civilization but focused on taking the rich natural resources within Central Africa—specifically those in modern-day Congo. Ruled by Belgian King Leopold II, the segregationist Congo Free State implemented forced labor in a system based on race—either distinctly Black or distinctly white.


Between the ages of 2 and 4, the five mixed-race women were removed from their African mothers and placed into religious institutions by Belgian authorities to separate mixed-race children—referred to by the French word métis—from the rest of the population. At these homes, they were given insufficient clothing and food, Mujinga testified. She points to the scars throughout her body from physical abuse and ulcers as a result of malnutrition as evidence. Meanwhile, Bingi states that many of them also endured sexual abuse. Most importantly, she argues, the métis were “destroyed psychologically.”


Between the ages of 2 and 4, the five mixed-race women were removed from their African mothers and placed into religious institutions by Belgian authorities to separate mixed-race children.

According to archivist Delphine Lauwers, métis were seen as a threat to the binary colonial system and white supremacy, so Belgium decided to forcibly isolate the mixed-race children in an “in-between, liminal space” that excluded them from both racial categories to prevent interracial unions. The goal was to guarantee that métis would not claim a link to Belgium later in their lives. As a result, the children grew up knowing the brutality of the discriminatory Catholic institutions as their only home.


The women, who moved to Belgium in 1980, are now suing the Belgian state for crimes against humanity, demanding initial reparations of at least 50,000 euros ($56,000). These charges come as many criticize Belgium’s past attempts of restitution: in 2018, it admitted to the assassination of a Congolese leader and renamed a square in his honor, while it removed a statue of King Leopold II last year. In 2019, the Belgium government formally apologized for the forceful separation of mixed-race families—the first time the state has expressed regret for its history of violence towards colonized populations. However, no reparations followed the statement, which the women claim is not enough for the pain caused.


[The] children grew up knowing the brutality of the discriminatory Catholic institutions as their only home.

“Though it is respectable for the Belgian government to both acknowledge and apologize for the crimes of its past, the gesture could be seen as only symbolic. Due to their diverse backgrounds, it is nearly impossible to compare the experiences of these mixed-race individuals,” Senior Jasper Wu said.


According to the women’s lawyer, Michelle Hirsch, the lawsuit forces Belgium to take full responsibility for the damage, setting a precedent for further action by the state on similar human rights violations. Though the verdict is still being considered as of December, many hope Belgium will continue its positive trend of historical recognition by finally atoning to its hidden generation.


 

About the Contributors

Yong Ooi

Viewpoint Editor


Yong Ooi is a senior at Leland High School and is the Viewpoint page editor. She likes language and travel. Recipe experimentation is a particularly favourite side effect of traveling. The kitchen is always a mess.







Cindy Zhao

Editor-in-Chief, Media Manager


Cindy is a senior at Leland High School and the Editor-in-Chief for Lifestyle, Entertainment and Feature World as well as the Media Head for The Charger Account. They are a big fan of cameras, skies, and the human capacity for growth. Send them nice poetry and art prints, and they will love you forever.

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