Lawyers for the plaintiffs, five biracial women born in Congo, opened their case against the Belgian state at a Brussels court on Thursday.
The women — four with Belgian citizenship and one with French — want the Belgian state to acknowledge responsibility for the ordeals of thousands of children snatched from their families.
What happened to the women?
The five — Lea Tavares Mujinga, Monique Bintu Bingi, Noelle Verbeken, Simone Ngalula, and Marie-Jose Loshi — were born between 1945 and 1950.
Legal documents show that in each case the fathers did not act as parents to the girls.
The plaintiffs’ lawyers say they were aged 2 to 4 when they were taken away from their Black families.
Such children would be placed in religious institutions or homes and kept away from their African roots.
The plaintiffs were all were placed at a religious mission in the province of Kasai, now in the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the Sisters of Saint Vincent de Paul.
They lived there, in harsh conditions, with some 20 other biracial girls and Indigenous orphans.
Legal documents released after the DRC’s independence from Belgium suggest that the children were abandoned by the state and church.
Some of them were sexually molested by militia soldiers in Congo.
What is the case about?
Lawyers say the separations came at the request of the Belgian colonial administration, which ruled from 1908 to 1960.
Officials reportedly threatened the families with reprisals if they did not give up the children.
Families say the separations took place with the cooperation of the Catholic Church within the Congo.
Thousands of other biracial children in Congo — known as Metis — are believed to have suffered similar plights.
“Their identity was taken away from them,” said a lawyer for the plaintiffs, Michele Hirsch. “They have been speechless for nearly 70 years, unable to tell.”
The women filed their lawsuit last year as pressure increased for the Belgian state to reassess its colonial past.
Systematic effort by state
The plaintiffs say the separations amounted to crimes against humanity, with a systematic effort to isolate biracial children.
This was reportedly to prevent the so-called children of shame and any descendants from later claiming a link to Belgium.
“During the colonization, the mixed-race was considered a threat to the supremacy of the white race, it was necessary to remove it,” Hirsch said, speaking of a “generalized system” put in place by the Belgian state.
The women are demanding compensation of €50,000 (about $58,000) each.
“This is not for the money,” Hirsch said. “We want a law that can apply to all so that the Belgian state recognizes the crimes committed and the suffering endured by Metis children.”
Difficult colonial legacy
In 2019, Belgium’s government apologized for the state’s role in taking the babies from their mothers.
Last year, in a first for a reigning Belgian monarch, King Philippe expressed “profound regret” for the wounds of the country’s colonial past.
The apology came in the wake of protests against racial inequality in the United States.
Philippe’s indirect predecessor King Leopold II is blamed for the deaths of millions of Africans during Belgium’s colonial rule.
Several statues of him in the country were vandalized, and some were even removed.
rc/fb (AFP, AP)