Belgium takes down statue, king regrets colonial violence

A vandalized statue of King Leopold II of Belgium is removed on the 60th anniversary of Congolese Independence, Ghent, June 30, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 30 June 2020

Belgium takes down statue, king regrets colonial violence

  • King Philippe expressed regret for the violence carried out by Belgium when it ruled over what is now Congo
  • King Leopold II, who ruled Belgium from 1865-1909, plundered Congo as if it were his personal fiefdom

BRUSSELS: Belgium confronted its colonial past and looked toward reconciliation Tuesday, with the king expressing regret for the violence carried out by the country when it ruled over what is now Congo. Later in the day, the bust of a former monarch held responsible for the death of millions of Africans was taken off public display.
As Belgium marked the 60th anniversary of the end of its colonial rule in Congo, King Philippe’s words had resounding significance since none of his predecessors went so far as to convey remorse.
In a letter to the Congolese president, Felix Tshisekedi, Philippe stopped short of issuing a formal apology, but proclaimed his “deepest regrets” for the “acts of violence and cruelty” and the “suffering and humiliation” inflicted on Belgian Congo.
The removal of King Leopold II’s statue took place only hours after Philippe’s letter was published. The monarch, who ruled Belgium from 1865-1909, plundered Congo as if it were his personal fiefdom, forcing many of its people into slavery to extract resources for his own profit.
The early years after he laid claim to the African country are especially infamous for killings, forced labor and other forms of brutality that some experts estimate left as many as 10 million Congolese dead.
Following a short ceremony punctuated by readings, Leopold’s bust in Ghent was attached to a crane with a strap and taken away from the small park where it stood amid applause. It will be transferred to a warehouse of a Ghent city museum pending further decision from a city’s commission in charge of decolonization projects.
“Removing statues does not erase history, it rectifies history and makes new history that rightly calls into question dominant narratives,” said Mathieu Charles, an activist from the Belgian Network for Black Lives.
Belgium has long struggled to come to terms with its colonial past, instead focusing on the so-called positive aspects of the colonization. But the international protests against racism that followed the May 25 death of George Floyd in the United States have given a new momentum to activists fighting to have monuments to Leopold removed.
Earlier this month, about 10,000 people gathered in Brussels despite the social distancing measures implemented to fight the spread of COVID-19, with many protesters chanting anti-colonialist slogans.
The Leopold statue in Ghent was vandalized several times in the past and again after Floyd, a handcuffed Black man, died after a white Minneapolis police officer knelt on his neck. Several other monuments of the former king scattered across Belgium were defaced over the past few weeks and a statue of the monarch in the port of Antwerp was removed from a marketplace by local authorities.
Meanwhile, regional authorities also promised history course reforms to better explain the true character of colonialism while the federal Parliament decided that a commission would look into Belgium’s colonial past.
Belgium Prime minister Sophie Wilmes has called for “an in-depth” debate conducted “without taboo.”
“In 2020, we must be able to look at this shared past with lucidity and discernment,” she said Tuesday. “Any work of truth and memory begins with the recognition of suffering. Acknowledging the suffering of the other.”
After Leopold’s claimed ownership of Congo ended in 1908, he handed it over to the Belgian state, which continued to rule over the colony 75 times Belgium’s size until the African nation became independent in 1960.
In his letter Philippe stressed the “common achievements” reached by Belgium and its former colony, but also the painful episodes of their unequal relationship.
“At the time of the independent State of the Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed that still weigh on our collective memory,” Philippe wrote, referring to the period when the country was privately ruled by Leopold II from 1885 to 1908.
“The colonial period that followed also caused suffering and humiliation,” Philippe acknowledged. “I want to express my most deepest regrets for these wounds of the past, the pain of which is today revived by discrimination that is all too present in our societies,“
Philippe also congratulated Tshisekedi on the anniversary of Congo’s independence, ruing that he was not able to attend the celebrations to which he had been invited due to the coronavirus pandemic.


Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

Updated 11 July 2020

Religion, no bar: Muslim group cremates Hindus as virus fear grips Mumbai

  • Officials say a majority are under lockdown or afraid to perform last rites

NEW DELHI: Pratamesh Walavalker was always proud of living in a well-connected area with neighbors and relatives who look out for each other.

However, the resident of Dombivali East, nearly 70 kilometers from India’s financial capital Mumbai, experienced a harsh reality check on Thursday.

None of his neighbors or more than 100 relatives responded to his calls for help when his 57-year-old father died of coronavirus-related complications.

Help, he said, finally arrived in the form of Iqbal Mamdani and his group of Muslim volunteers, who took his father’s body to a cremation ground for his last rites.

“No one came to our help, not even my close neighbor. There is so much panic among people about COVID-19 that our own don’t come near us. The Muslim volunteers helped us in this hour of crisis,” Walavalker, 28, told Arab News.

That same night, 50-year-old Mamdani and his group of volunteers helped another family perform the last rites of an 80-year-old Hindu woman who had also fallen victim to the disease.

The group was formed in late March after a local civic body said: “All dead bodies of COVID-19 patients should be cremated at the nearest crematorium irrespective of religion.”

After reports of a Muslim man being cremated in the Malwani area of the city angered the community, several members met with the authorities and managed to revise the order.

Since then, Mamdani said members of Mumbai’s Bada Qabrastan — the largest cemetery in the city — have extended their services to other communities as well.

“We get calls from different hospitals and people, and they seek our help in taking bodies to their final resting place. We decided to help the victims at this hour of crisis when there was chaos and panic in the city with the number of coronavirus cases increasing every day,” he told Arab News.

So far, the group has buried 450 Muslim bodies and cremated over 250 Hindu bodies.

He said their efforts would have been impossible without the Jama Masjid Trust, which oversees the Bada Qabrastan.

“On our request, the government allowed us to bury the dead bodies in seven burial grounds in the city,” he said.

There was one problem, however.

“No one was willing to come forward to collect dead bodies from the hospital and bring them to the cemetery,” Mamdani said.

Through word of mouth, Mamdani said seven Muslim volunteers quickly offered to help out.

The first challenge the group faced was a lack of ambulances, due to a shortage in supply as a result of the pandemic.

At first, they tried renting a private ambulance, “but the owner would not rent their vehicles for carrying COVID-19 victims,” Mamdani said.

With no other option left, the group decided to pool their resources and buy abandoned ambulances.

Mamdani said: “We managed to get 10 such vehicles from different parts of the city. With the help of mechanics and other resources, within eight days we managed to roll out the ambulances on the road.”

When the volunteers began gathering Muslim bodies from the hospital, they realized that several Hindu bodies had been left unclaimed, as their relatives “were too scared to perform the last rites.”

Mamdani said another factor behind unclaimed Hindu bodies was quarantine. The lockdown forced relatives to stay indoors and avoid the cremation grounds.

Experts have praised the efforts of the group.

“The Muslim volunteers have been really great support. They started working at a time when there was total chaos and panic in Mumbai,” Dr. Sulbha Sadaphule of Cooper Hospital, Mumbai, told Arab News.

Of the 820,000 COVID-19 cases in India, 100,000 are in Mumbai, where around 5,500 people have lost their lives from the nationwide fatality count of around 22,500.

“The morgue was overflowing with bodies because of a lack of ambulances and staff. When hospital staff and health workers were short in numbers they were helping us and the people,” added Dr. Sadaphule.

Mamdani said they would not have done it any other way.

“India is a country of religious harmony and we believe there should be no discrimination on the basis of religion. With this motto we decided to perform the last rites on behalf of the Hindu families with the support of the police and relatives,” he said.