In Belgian town, monuments expose a troubled colonial legacy

Full Screen
1 / 15

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved

In this photo taken on Monday, June 22, 2020, Eric Baranyanka, right, and his foster mother Emma Monsaert look at a photo of Eric as a young boy in Lembeek, Belgium. Baranyanka fled political persecution in the Belgian protectorate of Burundi in the 1960's, landing half a world away at a military airport in Brussels, before being fostered by Emma Monsaert and her husband Paul. (AP Photo/Virginia Mayo)

HALLE – For a long time, few people in the small Belgian town of Halle paid much attention to the monuments. They were just fixtures in a local park, tributes to great men of the past.

But these are very different times, and yesterday’s heroes can be today’s racist villains.

And so it was that three weeks ago, a bust of Leopold II, the Belgian king who has been held responsible for the deaths of millions of Congolese, was spattered in red paint, labeled “Murderer,” and later knocked off its pedestal.

Nearby, a pale sandstone statue formally known as the “Monument to the Colonial Pioneers” has stood for 93 years. It depicts a naked Congolese boy offering a bowl of fruit in gratitude to Lt. Gen. Baron Alphonse Jacques de Dixmude, a Belgian soldier accused of atrocities in Africa.

These monuments, and others across Europe, are coming under scrutiny as never before, no longer a collective blind spot on the moral conscience of the public. Protests sweeping the world that followed the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed last month by Minneapolis police, are focusing attention on Europe’s colonial past and racism of the present.

Eric Baranyanka, a 60-year-old musician who came to Halle as a refugee from Belgium's African colony of Burundi when was 3, said he has always found the statue of Jacques “humiliating.”

“I had this pride being who I was. It was in complete contradiction with that statue,” he said.

But Halle Mayor Marc Snoeck appears to be more representative of his citizenry. He said he “never really noticed” the monuments until an anti-colonial group raised awareness of them a dozen years ago in the town of 40,000 people about 15 kilometers (10 miles) south of Brussels.