In Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), a moving national event took place last week: the official burial of the remains of the Congolese national liberation hero, Patrice Lumumba, 61 years after his assassination in 1961. The coffin, which naturally took centre stage in the ceremony, contained no more than Lumumba’s gold capped tooth. That was all that remained of the man who had served as the DRC’s first prime minister after its independence from Belgium. After less than three months in office, he was ousted by a Belgian and CIA backed coup and killed by firing squad. His body was never found. The Belgian officer who oversaw the execution admitted to dismembering the corpse, dissolving it in acid and grinding up and scattering the bones. He also kept the gold tooth all these years.
Last month, King Philippe of Belgium visited the DRC to express his “regrets” (as opposed to apology) for the crimes his country committed as a colonial power. The Congo was a Belgian colony from 1908 to 1960. Prior to that, king Leopold II seized the territory in 1885 and claimed it as his personal possession. The Belgian occupiers became notorious for their appalling atrocities. The above mentioned mutilation of Lumumba’s corpse and the officer’s pocketing of his gold tooth as well as two fingers as souvenirs epitomised that cruelty. After the Congolese prime minister’s murder, Belgian agents began to hunt down his family members. It was the Egyptian intelligence services that ultimately saved them. This was at the time when Egypt actively supported African and other Third World liberation movements. The commander of the Egyptian peacekeeping forces in the Congo, major general Saadeddin Al-Shazli and Egyptian ambassador Murad Ghaleb, who would subsequently become foreign minister, were integral to the operation. They produced fake Ethiopian passports for the translator at the embassy and for Lumumba’s family, who were then smuggled to Cairo where they were hosted for many years. The Congolese hero’s daughter, Juliana Lumumba, took the occasion of her father’s burial to express her gratitude to Egypt and president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Now wouldn’t this story make an exciting and illuminating film and a welcome change from some of the mindless action films produced these days?
*A version of this article appears in print in the 7 July, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.