His Skull Was Taken From Congo as a War Trophy. Will Belgium Finally Return It?

Once a powerful local Congolese leader, Lusinga Iwa Ng’ombe fought back against Belgian colonial invaders in the late 19th century.

He was such a thorn in their side that Émile Storms, who commanded Belgian troops in the region, predicted his head would “eventually end up in Brussels with a little label — it would not be out of place in a museum.”

That is exactly what happened. Troops of Mr. Storms killed and decapitated Mr. Lusinga in 1884, and his skull ended up in a box in the Brussels-based Institute for Natural Sciences, along with over 500 human remains taken from former Belgian colonies.

His descendants are struggling to have his remains returned, their efforts unfolding against the backdrop of a larger debate about Europe’s responsibility for the colonial atrocities, reparations and restitution of plundered heritage.

Several European countries, including Belgium, have set up guidelines to return artifacts, but the process has been painfully slow.

The restitution of human remains, which were taken often illegally and cruelly by European invaders from the colonized territories, ending up in private hands or museums, has been even more fraught. In Belgium, it has been stalled by a deep-seated reluctance to grapple with the country’s colonial legacy.

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