A gold-crowned tooth is all that remains of Congolese independence hero Patrice Lumumba.
He was shot dead in 1961 by a firing squad with the tacit backing of the former colonial power Belgium.
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His body was buried in a shallow grave, then dug up and transported 200 km to be reburied. He was later exhumed and then cut into pieces.
They finally dissolved it in acid.
The then Belgian police commissioner, Gerard Soete, who oversaw and participated in the destruction of the remains, took the tooth, he later admitted.
He also said there was a second tooth left, as well as two fingers from the corpse, but they haven’t been found yet.
Belgian authorities returned the tooth to the leader’s family at a ceremony in Brussels.
A “hunting trophy”
Soete’s impulse to pocket the body parts reveals the behavior of the European colonial officials of the time: they used to take some remains home as macabre memories.
But it also served as a final humiliation for a man Belgium regarded as an enemy.
Soete, who appeared in a documentary in 1999, said he considered the tooth and fingers he took as “a kind of hunting trophy.”
The language used suggests that for the Belgian policeman, Lumumba, who was revered throughout the continent as one of the leading voices for African liberation, he was worth less than another human.
However, for Lumumba’s daughter Juliana, the real question is whether the perpetrators were human.
“How much hate do you have to have to do that?” he asks.
“This is reminiscent of what happened with the Nazis, who took pieces of people. It is a crime against humanity,” he told the BBC.
Lumumba became prime minister at the age of 34.
It was elected in the last days of colonial rule and headed the cabinet of the newly independent nation.
In June 1960, at the time of the handover of power, Belgian King Baudouin praised the colonial administration and referred to one of his ancestors, Leopold II, as the “civilizer” of the country.
He did not mention the millions of people who died or suffered brutalities under his reign in what was then known as the Congo Free State, which he ruled as prized personal property.
This lack of acknowledgment of the past heralded years of denial in Belgium, which has only now begun to come to terms with it.
Lumumba was not so reluctant to acknowledge the past.
In a speech that was not included in the official programme, the then prime minister spoke openly about the violence and degradation that the Congolese had suffered.
In devastating rhetoric, interrupted only by rounds of applause and a standing ovation at the end, the leader described “the humiliating slavery that was forced upon us.”
Belgians were stunned, according to scholar Ludo De Witte, who wrote a groundbreaking account of the murder.
Never before an African black had dared to speak like that in front of Europeans.
The prime minister, who de Witte says had been described as an illiterate thief in the Belgian press, was seen as humiliating the king and other Belgian officials.
Some have said that with his speech Lumumba signed his own death warrant, but his assassination the following year also occurred in the context of the Cold War and the Belgian desire to maintain control of the territory.
The Americans were also plotting his death because they feared a possible turn of the country towards the Soviet Union and its uncompromising anti-colonialism.
For his part, a British official wrote a memorandum suggesting that killing him was an option.
However, many feel that there was a personal element to the way Lumumba was vilified and persecuted.
The total destruction of the body, in addition to the way of disposing of the evidence, seems like an effort to erase Lumumba from the collective memory.
There would be no memorial, which would almost possible to deny that it ever existed. It was not enough to bury him.
But he is still remembered.
Especially for his daughter Juliana, who was one of the main promoters of the campaign to return the tooth and who went to Brussels to receive it.
Juliana lets out a small smile as memories of her childhood come to mind.
As the youngest and the only girl in the family, she says that She was always very close to her father..
Juliana Lumumba was “less than five years old” when her father became prime minister. She recalls that she was allowed to be in her office “sitting and looking at my father when he was working.”
“For me he was dad,” he adds.
“You have to go back to your country”
But he acknowledges that his father “belongs to the country, because he died for the Congo… and for their own values and convictions of the dignity of Africans”.
He acknowledges that the delivery of the tooth in Belgium and its return to the Democratic Republic of the Congo is symbolic “because what is left is not really enough.”
“But he has to go back to his country where he spilled his blood“.
The tooth will be taken to different places in the vast country before being buried in the capital.
dismissal and arrest
For years, the Lumumba family did not know exactly what had happened to their father, as silence surrounded the circumstances of his death.
The turn his life took, passing from prime minister to assassination victim, It took less than seven months.
Shortly after independence, the country was hit by a secessionist crisis when the mineral-rich southeastern province of Katanga declared that it was seceding from the rest of the country.
In the political chaos that followed, Belgian troops were sent in on the grounds that would protect Belgian citizensbut they also helped support the Katangan administration, which was seen as more accommodating.
Lumumba was fired as prime minister by the president and just over a week later, the army’s chief of staff, Colonel Joseph Mobutu, took power.
The prime minister was placed under house arrest, escaped, and then arrested again in December 1960, before being held in detention in the west of the country.
His presence there was seen as a possible source of instability and the Belgian government encouraged his move to Katanga.
During the flight to the province on January 16, 1961, he was mistreated. He was later beaten upon arrival, while the Katanga leaders decided what to do with him.
Shooting and destruction of remains
They finally decided that he would die by firing squad and on January 17 he was shot along with two of his allies.
It was then that Police Commissioner Gerard Soete intervened. Realizing that the bodies might be discovered, they made the decision to “make them disappear once and for all! No trace should remain,” according to testimony quoted in De Witte’s book The Assassination of Lumumba (The murder of Lumumba).
Armed with saws, sulfuric acid, face masks and whiskey, Soete led a team to move, destroy and dispose of the remains. It was a process that he would later describe as a journey “to the depths of hell“.
But it wasn’t until almost 40 years later, in 1999, that he publicly acknowledged that he had been involved and that he still had a tooth in his possession.
Said he got rid of the other parts i had taken of the body.
Juliana Lumumba sighs deeply as she remembers hearing that a part of her father still existed.
“You can understand how I felt about it,” he says, his voice full of emotion.
It is not known what Soete did with the tooth when it was in his possession. A photograph shows him in a padded box, but it is not known if he was on display.
But he did stay within his family.
It resurfaced in 2016 when Soete’s daughter, Godelieve, gave an interview to the Belgian magazine Smokepublished just before the 55th anniversary of Lumumba’s assassination.
“A consolation for the family”
He said that his “poor daddy” had to suffer with the memory of what he did.
Godelieve Soete also thinks that the authorities should apologize to your family by order given to his father.
She claimed that he had kept a private file and although after his death in 2000 many things were thrown away, she “was able to save interesting things”.
Among those things was the tooth that he pulled out to show the interviewer and the photographer.
It was then seized by the Belgian police after De Witte filed a complaint and after a four-year legal battlea court ruled that it should be returned to the Lumumba family.
As part of the campaign to get it back, Mrs. Lumumba wrote a moving and poetic open letter to King Philip.
“Why, after his terrible murder, have Lumumba’s remains been condemned to remain forever as a wandering soulwithout a tomb that shelters his eternal rest?”, he asked.
With the return of the tooth, the former prime minister will have a final resting place in a special mausoleum in the capital, Kinshasa.
“This is what we usually do in our culture, we like to bury our dead“, explains the Congolese historian and the country’s ambassador to the UN, Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja.
“It is a consolation for the family and the people of the Congo because Lumumba is our hero and we would like to give him a proper burial.”
De Witte’s book, which broke years of silence on the part of the authorities, led to the creation in 1999 of a parliamentary inquiry tasked with determining the “exact circumstances of the murder… and the possible involvement of Belgian politicians”.
In his conclusions two years later, he found that “the norms of international politically correct thinking were different” in the 1960s.
However, despite the fact that they did not find a document ordering Lumumba’s murder, the investigation concluded that certain members of the government “were morally responsible for the circumstances that led to his death”.
I, Ronald Payne, am a journalist and author who dedicated his life to telling the stories that need to be said. I have over 7 years of experience as a reporter and editor, covering everything from politics to business to crime.