Belgium’s King Philippe on Wednesday 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.
On Wednesday morning, Philippe visited a memorial for combat veterans in Kinshasa and laid a wreath.
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 colonisation 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.”