Monique Bitu Bingi, 71, has never forgotten how it happened.
It was 1953 when the white colonials came for her in Babadi, a village in the Kasai region of what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), then a Belgian colony. She was four, the child of a Black Congolese woman and a white Belgian colonial agent. Because she was mixed-race, she would be forced to leave her family and live at a Catholic mission. If she stayed, there would be repercussions: the men – farmers, hunters and protectors of the village – would be forcibly recruited into military duty and taken away. When the time came to leave, her mother was not there to say goodbye. She had left, unable to watch her daughter go.
Monique remembers traveling with her uncle, aunt and grandmother who carried her. She could tell something was wrong from her grandmother’s sadness. They walked west for about two days, crossed a river and slept in cabins used for drying cotton. When they reached Dimbelenge they hitched a ride northwest on a truck carrying the body of a woman who had died in childbirth. It was headed for Katende, in today’s Kasai Central province, where the St Vincent de Paul sisters’ mission was. Monique fell asleep. It must have been a Wednesday because weddings happened on Wednesdays and when she awoke outside the mission she saw a young Congolese couple, the bride dressed in white, and strangers everywhere. But her own family was gone. She remembers walking through the crowd, crying, until an older girl from the mission brought her inside to the others.
Among the countless abuses committed by the Belgian state during its colonial occupation of the Congo from 1908 to 1960, taking over from the exploitative and violent rule of King Leopold II which killed millions of Congolese, and its control from 1922 to 1962 under a League of Nations mandate in Ruanda-Urundi (today Rwanda and Burundi), is the little-known systematic abduction of biracial children from their maternal families.
This abduction policy has brought lifelong pain and consequences for the Métis – as they are known in French – who have tried to piece together stolen identities and histories. “It’s a catastrophe,” says Evariste Nikolakis, 74, who is Métis.
“When this kind of love is taken away from children, they’re going to carry that scar for the rest of their life,” Monique says. “It’s something that cannot be healed like other scars.”
In March 2018, an 11-point resolution (PDF) was unanimously adopted by Belgium’s federal parliament that recognised this segregation policy and took a big step towards measures enabling Métis to access their personal files, resolve issues faced by many who do not have a birth certificate and facilitate family reunions. In April 2019, then-Prime Minister Charles Michel apologised to mixed-race people for their targeted segregation, abduction and suffering. The Catholic Church in Belgium has also apologised. But there has been little progress since. Nothing has changed, say Métis.
Some Métis have fought for years for recognition and redress.
Monique along with four women born between 1945 and 1950, who lived together in the mission, say their racially motivated kidnappings constitute a crime against humanity. In June 2020, just before the 60th anniversary of the DRC’s independence, the women – all grandmothers – launched a historic lawsuit against the Belgian state seeking reparations and a reparation law for other survivors.
In a country that has yet to confront its brutal colonial history, biracial children stolen from their African mothers more than half-a-century ago want Belgium to answer for its past, a campaign of systemic racism and abduction and to address the deep wounds it inflicted. For them, it is a fight not just about the past, but also one to build an equal future.
Abandoned by the nuns
Monique speaks in French over a WhatsApp video call from Hasselt, a town in Flanders, Belgium’s Flemish-speaking northern region. She is with her youngest daughter and namesake, whose parrot sings loudly in the background while we speak. The older Monique wears thin-framed rectangular glasses, a black hoodie and her fingernails are painted a dark blue. She wears a solemn expression, but on occasion, she cracks a gentle, beautiful smile.
At the Catholic mission, the girls heard daily that they were the “children of sin”. They were told the devil created the Métis, and were baptised separately from the other Congolese children when no one was around to see.
The older children took care of the younger girls. They fed and looked after the babies, and attended school. They gathered the leaves of sweet potatoes to eat. In the room where Monique slept, at the head of her bed was a wall and on the other side, a morgue. She heard the mourners every night. She lived with Léa Tavares Mujinga, Noëlle Verbeeken, Simone Ngalula and Marie-José Loshi – the other women behind the lawsuit.
Were they always friends? “No – almost sisters,” she says. “One encourages the other.”
In 1960 the DRC became independent. Fearing violence from political turmoil in the wake of independence, the nuns prepared the children to leave for Belgium. But a priest prevented the girls’ departure. The nuns left, then returned, until one night when United Nations trucks took them away for good, abandoning the children.
It was 1961. Monique was 11. There were some 60 children including about 10 Métis, orphans and babies left on their own. Some of the babies died. When violence broke out in Kasai between different ethnic groups after independence, Bakwa Luntu militiamen arrived at the mission saying they would protect the children. Instead, they raped them.
“Every night for several nights they’d put the girls on the ground with their legs open and they would take long candles and put them inside their vagina,” says the younger Monique (who goes by her father’s surname Fernandes), 36, of what her mother and the others endured.
About a week later, a local administrator found families to house the girls. The violence around them continued. Bakwa Luntu fighters would brandish hands cut from their enemies. Food was scarce; they ate worms and grasshoppers.
“We are traumatised,” says the older Monique. She still has nightmares about that time and when she hears trucks at night, she thinks the fighters have returned.
It’s a whole adolescence taken away, she says. She had no option but to go on. “I had to be strong.”
“They were destroyed mentally and physically,” says her daughter.
About a year later, in 1962, a Dutch and a Congolese priest took the girls, scarred and skinny, back to the mission. Monique stayed there until she was 17 when she married a Congolese-Portuguese businessman, with whom she had seven children. She saw her mother every two years but they could never regain what had been lost. It is just “because we were born with a different skin colour” that mothers did not have the right to keep their children, Monique says.
In 1981, at 32, she immigrated to Belgium with her family for her children’s education. Now, with grown-up children and grandchildren, she feels it is time to speak the truth about colonialism through her experience, to address the lies in school books that paint it as something altruistic, Monique Fernandes says. Her mother and her “aunties”, as she calls them, believe their story should not be hidden.
“It’s important that the Belgian government recognises what has happened, and that they repair what they have done. A crime has been committed and they need to fix it,” the older Monique says.
Mixed-race children threatened a colonial regime that considered white Europeans to be racially superior.
“They were feared because their mere existence was shaking the very foundations of this racial theory that was at the core of the colonial project,” says Delphine Lauwers, an archivist and historian at the State Archives of Belgium who is researching, as part of the 2018 resolution, the targeted segregation of biracial children born during Belgium’s colonial regime.
Métis were seen as an aberration but also as a possible danger – as a future force for revolution if they stayed with their African families.
“It was always a question: will they be loyal or not?” says Jacqui Goegebeur – who is Métis – president of the grassroots movement Association Métis de Belgique/Metis van België (AMB), and a pioneer in the struggle for recognition of the history and consequences of the state’s discrimination against mixed-race children.
In 1952, a state decree concerning the guardianship of “orphaned” or “abandoned” children – in reality, those living with their African mothers or not recognised by their European fathers – led to the systematic abduction, segregation and isolation of mixed-race children who were locked away in religious institutions. Religious and state authorities were complicit.
Children born to women as a result of rape, situations where African housekeepers were treated as concubines, but also children from interracial local marriages unrecognised by Belgium, were abducted from their mothers by force or through coercion.
Segregation was couched as being in the interest of the child and their education. Correspondence from the time shows mothers were portrayed as unable to care for their children. Many mothers were told their children would return after their studies. The children instead became legal and administrative wards of the Belgian state.
Women who dared to fight back were painted as lunatics, according to Lauwers. Severine Uwerijinfura was 15 when she tried to leave a man 50 years older, whom she was sold to, with their daughter. He hunted her down with the police who threw her in jail. When she was released 30 days later, her child had been spirited away to Belgium. “We, the mothers, were scorned and psychologically killed,” she told Belgian newspaper De Standaard in 2010.
“Whatever the individual story, it has always remained in an institutionalised sexist and racist system,” says Chiara Candaele, a historian who works with Lauwers.
In such a system, white fathers – Belgian, but also Greek, Portuguese, French and Italian men – would recognise some offspring and not others. From the 1920s, fathers started bringing their children to Belgium on a private basis. In the lead-up to the countries’ independence, sometimes on daily flights, the state brought hundreds of children to Belgium, while many more were left behind. At least 283 children from the Kivu region in the DRC, and neighboring Rwanda and Burundi were brought to Belgium.
Many came from an institution in Rwanda called Save, presently the most documented and researched. There are more than 1,000 files in Belgium from that period for children sent to foster families and orphanages.