The Belgian government has apologized for the country’s role in kidnapping thousands of mixed-race babies from their African mothers during colonial times.
Thousands of children in what are now the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi were taken away and raised in Belgian institutions.
Prime Minister Charles Michel said in a statement Thursday that “on behalf of the federal government, I present our apologies to the mixed-race children born from Belgian colonization and their families for the injustice and suffering they were subjected to.”
He expressed “compassion for the African mothers, whose children were torn away from them,” and concern for the emotional stresses the children went through.
The children were taken from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi between 1959 and 1962.
According to Radio France International, the kidnapping of mixed-race children in the former colonies started around the turn of the 20th century.
Belgium had created a policy of “racial segregation during the colonial period whereby marriages between white and black people were illegal but many relations took place between white [Belgian] men and African women,” Assumani Budagwa, the author of Noirs-Blancs, Métis – La Belgique et la ségrégation des Métis du Congo belge et Ruanda-Urundi (1908-1960)(Black-White, Metis – Belgium and the segregation of Metis in Belgian Congo and Ruanda-Urundi), told RFI.
When many of the Belgian men were on mission to a village for a few days or weeks, they would often ask the chief of the village for a female companion.
Often this female would be the young daughter of the chief. These ‘companions’ led to many ‘illegal’ mixed relations.
Other times, the Belgians had a female companion as part of their entourage who travelled with them. In other situations, the women were simply raped.
Most of these children would grow up with their mothers in the village. But as more and more of these children became visible, Belgium felt it had to do something.
“These children posed a problem. To minimize the problem they kidnapped these children starting at the age of two and placed them in boarding schools that were cut off from both the European and African world, a kind of cocoon to ensure they had relations with no one,” says Francois Milliex, the director of the Belgian Association of Metis, who was brought to Belgium under the same policy.
He adds that the Belgians feared that once these children became of age they might try to incite revolt– as had been the case in Canada in the Red River Rebellion of 1869-1870.
The also feared that they would demand certain privileges from the Belgian government as Europeans.
“The presence of these metis children in the villages was also seen as a blow to the white race and so they decided to keep these children away from the looks of the natives,” explains Budagwa.
In some cases, the children were hidden and raised amongst family, adds Milliex.
However, the majority of these children were brought up in these isolated Catholic institutions or orphanages by priests or nuns away from family and often away from their country of origin as the majority of these schools were in what was then Ruanda-Urundi (now Rwanada and Burundi).
Once they came of age, they were married off to another metis, explains Budagwa.
When the colonies began seeking independence, the Save convent in Rwanda – Save was one of the first Catholic missions in Rwanda – was worried about the welfare of the children after independence.
“The Belgian government and the missionaries believed that these children would be subjected to major problems by the local population if they stayed on in these independent countries. And so they brought some 1000 children….to be adopted, raised in boarding schools or to live amongst foster families” in Belgium, explains Milliex.
Many of the mothers were contacted and forced to sign a letter allowing their child to be taken to Belgium.
Many of those who refused, Budagwa says, were threatened with having to pay the school fees for their child. In other cases, the mothers weren’t contacted at all.
This apology from Belgium is the first time the country has taken any responsibility for atrocities committed during its colonial rule of over 80 years.
The government says it will provide assistance to those who need it and ultimately open up the archives to everyone so they can have a way of tracing their family lineage.