Belgian authorities returned a gold-capped tooth belonging to the slain Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba in Brussels on Monday — in another step toward reconciling Belgium's bloody colonial past.
Lumumba was the charismatic leader who led Democratic Republic of Congo as it gained independence from Belgium in the 1960s. He was then executed by a hit squad led by Belgian officials in a most gruesome manner. Lumumba was buried in a shallow grave and his remains were virtually erased with sulfuric acid.
But one of his gold-crowned teeth somehow survived.
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On Monday, Belgium returned the tooth to DR Congo and to Lumumba's family.
The private ceremony came weeks after Belgium’s King Philippe visited DR Congo to express his "deepest regrets" for his country's abuses in the former colony. After the return of the tooth, Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo told Congolese officials and Lumumba's family that the restitution came way too late.
“It is not normal that Belgium held onto the remains of one of the founding fathers of the Congolese nation for six decades," De Croo said.
Congolese Prime Minister Jean-Michel Sama Lukonde said that the return will serve as an essential part of his country's national memory.
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To discuss the return of the relic and its significance, The World's host Carol Hills spoke with Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja, the DR Congo's representative to the United Nations.
Carol Hills: George, the discovery of Lumumba's tooth is a story in itself. What happened?
Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja: Well, the story was known for quite a while because the person who did it, the Belgian police officers who took the tooth, bragged about it openly and was interviewed by researchers. Professor Ludo De Witte wrote this really excellent book on Lumumba's assassination.
So, it was a Belgian who was involved in Lumumba's assassination who took the tooth after killing him?
Yes. He's the one who sliced his body like an animal, put that into sulfuric acid and then he took the tooth as a trophy, as a hunter's trophy somehow.
And how did the tooth then end up with Belgian authorities to return to the Lumumba family?
The Belgians, after the publication of Ludo De Witte's book, "The Assassination of Lumumba,"
the Belgian authorities learned about this. The Belgian police went and raided the house of the policeman and took the tooth that he had left behind with his daughter.
It's really just an unbelievable story of just heinous behavior. What makes this moment — the return of Lumumba's tooth — so important?
You do have some peace of mind once you know that the remains of your loved ones have been, you know, set to rest in a peaceful place. According to our culture, it is extremely important to bury the dead. We don't like the dead being left to rot in the sun or to be thrown in the rivers or lakes. We like to have them buried. And so, for the Congolese, it is another important moment in our history to honor this man or this mausoleum and to have a place where people can go and reflect on Lumumba's importance to our country's history, helping our country become independent and his dream, his vision for the future, which he wasn't able to fulfill.
It's interesting, because the Belgians literally tried to erase him from Congolese history.
Exactly. And [we] would have completely forgotten about that. And I think they didn't want to have a place where people can go and honor Lumumba. This is exactly what we have achieved.
Do you believe Belgium should offer some kind of financial restitution to Democratic Republic of Congo for its involvement in the political instability there?
Well, I'm speaking for myself and not for the government, but in my own view, I think that that is something that has to be negotiated [by sitting] down to see what form reparations should take. It may not necessarily have to be money, but it could be in terms of services, improving the health care system, the school systems, infrastructure, roads, for example. We have a country that has no paved roads, there are very few. Those are issues that should be negotiated by the two governments.
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.AP contributed to this report.