Noah, a 14-year-old teenager is determined to bring Belgium‘s controversial statue of King Leopold II crashing down. Noah set up an online petition to have Brussels’ memorials to Leopold tore down. He called it “Reparons l’histoire” meaning “Let’s repair history” and it has 80,000 signatures already.
Noah’s resolve to pursue this goal came in the wake of protests against racial injustice following the death of George Floyd and others – statues linked to slavery and racism are being removed in some parts of the US and Europe.
Since 1926, the bronze statue of Leopold II astride a horse which is set high on a concrete plinth has stood opposite the Royal Palace in Brussels. “I feel belittled, because it is people of my origin and community who were killed,” 14-year-old Noah told CNN.
“For me when you put a statue of Hitler in Berlin, for me, that is like putting up a statue of Leopold in Brussels,” Noah, who preferred to use just his first name due to the current political climate, said.
Reportedly, Noah’s parents are from what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country which was owned by Leopold II in the late 19th century. At the time, hundreds of thousands of Africans died in slavery.
Noah believes only a few Belgians understand the history of what was called the Congo Free State. “I hope young people of my age and younger start to take responsibility and talk and make their voices heard,” he stressed.
Belgium‘s parliament has already approved a national inquiry into its past and gives an impetus to Noah’s campaign. It will be the first time that Belgium has made an effort to confront its colonial deeds.
According to Els Van Hoof, a Belgian MP who leads the chamber of representative’s foreign affairs committee, the inquiry may tackle the question of what to do with statues of Leopold II, though the exact scope of work has yet to be determined.
Responding to Noah’s petition, a spokesperson for Brussels Mayor Philippe Close told CNN he doesn’t have the authority to remove statues of Leopold II, which are national monuments, but he supports a national conversation on their fate.
“That wasn’t that long ago. There were people who were born then who are alive now. It was inhumane,” Noah said in reaction to Belgium’s “human zoo“.
“People have told me: ‘Go home, it’s not your country, you are black, you are not like us.’ I am Belgian. I was born here,” he said. “They want to make me feel like it isn’t my country and it isn’t my place here.”
Earlier this month, the Leopold II statue opposite the Royal Palace was covered in anti-racist graffiti and local authorities cleaned it. But afterwards another slogan appeared which read: “Stop Cleaning, Start Reflecting.”
As the King of the Belgians, Leopold II ruled from 1865 to 1909 and has been described as worse than Adolf Hitler for his genocide against the people of the Congo Free State (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) who he considered as his personal property including their lands and minerals.
An undetermined number of Congolese, ranging in the millions, were killed in the hands of Leopold’s private colonial militia of 90,000 men called Force Publique, which he used to run the region that is the size of Western Europe and 76 times larger than Belgium.
The area was handed over to him by 14 European nations and the United States at the Berlin Conference of 1884-1885 where Africa was shared among European colonists. Leopold II’s claim to the Congo as his personal property was recognized after expressing his initial goal of using his so-called private charitable organization, the International African Association, to offer humanitarian assistance and civilization to the natives.
It was rather a horror for the people who were tortured, raped and killed by the Force Publique in order for them to diligently collect natural rubber for export. Hands of those who couldn’t meet their rubber quotas were severed including those of children, reports a German newspaper in 1896 which stated that 1,308 hands were gathered in one day.