Congo's effort to reclaim its history, particularly in arts, is slowly paying off as Belgium's government pledges to return 2,000 artifacts that were looted during its colonial era.

According to Reuters, the once-celebrated Belgium's Africa Museum that sets as a reminder during its colonial rule will begin a multi-year process of returning stolen art to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Belgium's government said that it is ready to meet Congo's calls for restitution. Belgian junior minister Thomas Dermine said they would return everything acquired illegally, either through theft, violence, or pillaging. These stolen artifacts must be given back.

 Belgium to Return 2,000 'Stolen' Artifacts From Congo During the Colonial Era
(Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Royal Museum for Central Africa - Tervuren - Belgium 2013

Returning Stolen Artifacts from Africa

Belgium's Royal Museum of Central Africa in Tervuren in Brussels holds around 120,000 artifacts wherein the majority of which are from the Democratic Republic of Congo in Central Africa.

The country was under the colonial rule of Belgium's King Leopold II in the 19th century, running it as his fiefdom and enslaving millions of people to extract rubber from vines to make tires. During his 20-year reign, it is estimated that 10 million people, or roughly half the country's population, were killed.

According to an article in Africa Briefing, the decision to return the stolen artifacts from Africa came after Belgium's science minister Thomas Dermine announced that any items proven to be plundered do not belong to Belgium and should therefore be returned.

"Cultural heritage is one of the riches exploited by the colonial powers, and taking thousands of objects from colonies deprives the citizens of the former colony of access to their own history, culture, creativity, and spirituality of their ancestors," Dermine said as quoted by the news outlet.

He added that there have been changing attitudes in Belgium brought by generational shift, and people nowadays have different relationships with those from Africa. Young people have taken to the streets to call out on the government to take responsibility for their colonial legacy. Statues of King Leopold II were taken down across the country, and large numbers of infrastructure named after the king were renamed.

Despite the claims, it is still uncertain how many of the artifacts in Belgium's Africa museum were acquired illegally. Dermine claims that 60% of the items in the museum were acquired legally, though the criteria for that assessment have not been made public.

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What Do Congo's Artifacts Signify?

According to National Geographic, archaeologists use artifacts to learn how people lived unspecific times and places. They are remnants of the past that tell how people lived in the past, how their government started, and how they interacted.

Sometimes, they even provide the only clues to ancient civilizations or communities as prehistoric people often do not leave any writings or records of how they lived back then. But artifacts help experts in uncovering past people's lives and trace the ancestry of modern humans.

Congo is now in the process of regaining its cultural heritage that has been lost since the colonial era. Through the museums that showcase their culture, art, and history, they hope to educate their youth about their lost history.

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