BRUSSELS — The girls were as young as 2, some still breastfeeding, and no older than 4 when they were taken from their mothers.
Like thousands of other mixed-race children born under colonial rule in Belgian Congo, the five girls, the children of African mothers and European fathers, were taken from their homes by the authorities and sent to religious schools hundreds of miles away, growing up in poverty and suffering from malnutrition and physical abuse.
The victims of a segregationist policy of the Belgian authorities who ruled a vast territory in Africa that now includes Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, they kept their childhoods a secret for decades, even from their own families. Now women in their 70s, they listened to their stories being told in public by their lawyers on a recent morning in a small courtroom in Brussels packed with dozens of spectators.
“Their names, their origins and identities were stripped from them,” said one of the women’s lawyers, Michèle Hirsch. “What they shared with me is not in the history books.”
Patrice Lumumba, a Congolese leader it helped overthrow in a coup that led to his death, and revamped a museum that celebrated colonialism. Last year, the authorities removed some statues of King Leopold II, whose rule over Congo led to the deaths of millions through forced labor and famine. King Philippe of Belgium has also expressed his “deepest regrets for the wounds of the past,” but stopped short of apologizing.
Stolen Generations,” who as “half-caste” children were taken away from their families and put into church-run compounds from the 1900s to the 1970s.
In Canada, a national commission concluded that a government’s residential school program that separated at least 150,000 Indigenous children from their families from 1883 to 1996, amounted to “cultural genocide.” The discoveries earlier this year of hundreds of unmarked graves of children who died in the schools has prompted a new reckoning over the government’s historical policies.
The number of children taken away from their families in Belgium’s former Central African territories is in the thousands, but historians are hesitant to provide a firm estimate. What is clear is that mixed-race children were seen as a threat, according to Delphine Lauwers, the lead archivist of Résolution Métis, a state-run research project created after the Belgian Parliament apologized in 2018.
“Interbreeding was upsetting a binary colonial system whose basis was the superiority of the white race over the Black race,” Ms. Lauwers said. “So the Belgian state decided to confine the mixed-race children in an in-between, a liminal space, where they were excluded from both categories.”