Congolese President Félix Tshisekedi said he wants to “build something new and above all something that is constructive” between Congo and Belgium.
Addressing a joint press conference with Belgian Prime Minister Alexander De Croo in Kinshasa, Tshisekedi said as the seat of the European Union, Brussels was of great strategic importance to his country.
“The past is both glorious and sad, I would say. But the aim here is to build something new and, above all, something definitive that is constructive for both our countries,” he added.
Early on Wednesday, King Philippe decorated the last surviving Congolese World War II veteran, an AFP correspondent said, during a historic visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo.
The Belgian sovereign landed in DRC’s capital Kinshasa on Tuesday afternoon for a six-day visit billed as an opportunity for reconciliation between the vast central African country and its former colonial master.
He also decorated 100-year-old Corporal Albert Kunyuku, who enlisted in Belgium’s colonial Force Publique in 1940 and saw service in Burma – the former name of Myanmar.
Kunyuku, the last surviving Congolese veteran of World War II, shook hands with the king for a long time.
Belgium’s colonization of the Congo was one of the harshest imposed by the European powers that ruled most of Africa in the late 19th and 20th centuries.
King Leopold II, the brother of Philippe’s great-great grandfather, oversaw the conquest of what is now DRC, governing the territory as his personal property between 1885 and 1908 before it became a Belgian colony.
Historians say that millions of people were killed, mutilated, or died of disease as they were forced to collect rubber under his rule. The land was also pillaged for its mineral wealth, timber, and ivory.
In 2020, Philippe wrote a letter to Congolese President Felix Tshisekedi to express his “deepest regrets” for the “wounds of the past.”
Near the combat veterans’ memorial on Wednesday, some bystanders suggested that decorating Kunyuku was a cosmetic gesture.
“We should also compensate the families of these veterans who lost their lives in a war that did not concern them,” said Madeleine Yowa, a 43-year-old nurse.
Marie-Therese Bakuku, a street vendor, also urged financial reparations and called the ceremony hypocritical.
“There were thousands of them,” she said, referring to Congolese WWII veterans.
“Now there’s one left and they’re trying to save the day.”