Tags / belgium
Decades after Belgian rule in Congo ended, and a century after the atrocities in Congo Free State - where up to 10-15 million Africans were killed - people in Belgium are beginning to confront the troubled history. The unaddressed atrocities are fuelling frustration among the Congolese, who are to this day surrounded by statues, buildings and streets dedicated to one of history’s most brutal rulers. Through art, culture and advocacy, the diaspora and Belgian people are paving the way for an uneasy reconciliation of the past.
In a home dedicated to the Catholic church community, Stanislas Koyi - a 23 year old Congolese expat - leads a youth group prayer. In this mixed group, which features Congolese as well as white Belgians, they often talk about the colonial legacy. “I never want to split the Belgians’ opinion,” - said Stanislas, “to not make them choose between the Belgians or the Congolese.” Vanessa Monzibila, seen on the left, is Congolese herself. “Our parents still have this fear about Belgium, but we - the young ones - see ourselves like them, we see ourselves as Belgians” she said - “But the Belgians don’t necessarily see us as part of them.”
Maryjo Kazadi, a second generation Congolese, attends the group prayer with Stanislas and Vanessa. “I feel Belgian, I was born here,” she said. However, feeling the optimism shared by many other young, second or third generation Congolese in Belgium, she is keen to go back to her roots, bringing with her knowledge from Belgium - “There is just so much to do there,” she added.
Bram Borloo - a tour guide, activist and a painter - leads a group of Flemish woman on a Matonge tour. “In Belgium, children in primary school learn that Leopold II was the ‘King Constructor’” he said, “which continues to construct this false image.” The tour starts among the towering spoils of the colonial era in the Royal Quarter, finishing in central Matonge. “There is no hard link with what we see here, and the [negative] colonial past,” he added, “the past is still traumatic.”
The statue of King Leopold II overshadows a walking tour, organised for adult and teenage audiences seeking to learn about the Congolese past, and learn more about the diaspora in the country. “There was an exhibition at the Africa Museum 5-6 years ago, and it was basically just apologetic about Belgium in Congo,” said Annekien Van Vaerenbergh, a guide working with Vizit for more than two decades.
School tour in Matonge visits one of the shops, which by now are mostly run by Asian immigrants - replacing the traditionally African owners. “Every teacher realises very well what we did there in Congo,” said Annemiet Geldof who teaches religion in a school in Willebroek. Yet, she is aware how little of that history is thought in class.
Street market in Matonge had low turnout few months in a row, according to the locals. Jeroen Marckelbach, coordinator of Kuumba, said it was due to increasing running costs inflicted by the local government of Ixelles. “They’re trying to push out the Congolese community, as the mayor of Ixelles said recently - ‘I will clean up Matonge,’” explained Jeroen.
Womba Konga, known by his artist name Pitcho, organised the festival Congolisation in Brussels to raise awareness for African artists, and also, reconcile the Congolese diaspora’s search for identity. “In Belgium, no one saw black people,” he said - “We can leave Leopold avenues, but can’t have a Lumumba place,” he said, “who was killed by the Belgians.”
Relics from colonial era are still everywhere, including the monumental Justice Palace. However, little is done to acknowledge the atrocities committed in Congo, which overshadowed the colonial wealth brought back to the country.
Matonge, the Congolese neighbourhood in Brussels, has a lively African market, which allegedly draws African visitors from all over central Europe. The clagger of hairdressing saloons, beating music and unique smells fill the air in daytime.
Nightime in the market, however, attracts a different smell of drug dealing altogether. This is one of the reasons the community is under pressure from Ixelles governors, who want to link the European Quarter with the up-scale Avenue Louise, by untangling the community in Matonge.
Inside Kuumba, the Flemish-African cultural center in Matonge, traditional dances, music and languages are thought to African and European audiences. In this particular dance class, a mixed variety of students indulged in rhythmic moves and uplifting atmosphere, drawing cheers from the observing posse of Congolese men and women.
The unofficial Lumumba library at the heart of Matonge is run by a charismatic and passionate activist, Philip Buyck. Together with other campaigners and the Congolese diaspora, he continues in the push towards having an official Place Lumumba recognised a few blocks away.
Ylhan Delvaux sits inside his old family home, which is now subdivided and rented out; he still lives on the top floor. “The smell is the same as it was in my childhood, I always feel like my mother is looking at me.” Ylhan’s Congolese-Belgian mother, burned herself in Luxenbourg in a violent protest against racism.
Bozar in Brussels has an office dedicated to African art, called the ‘Africa Desk’. From here, numerous initiatives have been organised to promote and raise awareness for African and, as Tony Van der Eecken called it - Afropean - artists. ”There's frustration among the Congolese that they’re not accepted or seen as part of anything here. Using Bozar to honour Congolese artists is symbolic because it’s a place for recognition - it's near to the royal palace, cultural center of the king, it has a value in the mind of the people,” said Tony.
Tony Van der Eecken is heavily involved in promoting African artists, as well as bringing to the Congolese history to the forefront. Tony remembers when there was the first exhibition on Congo, by Congolese artists: “It was confronting, showing colonial times through Congolese eyes - and it was not that positive about the Belgians. It was a shock exhibition, it was good,” he said.
Colonel Mademba fought in North Africa and Italy with British and French forces as an infantryman against German forces.
"On May 5th 1945, I fired my last shell from my Sherman tank at Hitler's Berghof complex," he said.
Lahcen Majid fought as an infantrymen in Italy as part of a Moroccan outfit attached to Free French forces, against the German army.
"On May 11th 1944, right before the last major push for Monte Cassino, I saw the entire countryside light up with an artillery barrage," he said. "By 2:00 a.m. hundreds of Allied soldiers were already arriving at our hospital to be treated."
Joel D. Pasado was a rebel fighter in the Philippines against Japanese forces.
"We surrounded the hospital," he said. "The defenders fought hard, as they had to fight room to room throwing grenades and using bayonets. On one occasion I stormed a room filled with Japanese soldiers. One tried to stab me, but was shot by one of my soldiers and was killed. He saved my life."
The Second World War was fought by an entire generation of men from more than 60 nations. Americans, Canadians, Russian, British, Chinese, South Africans and many others fought the Japanese, Spaniards, Italians, Germans, Slovaks and more, all were embroiled in a war which killed over 50 millions soldiers and civilians alike, making this conflict the bloodiest in Human history. The 1921/22-generation is today often known as a sacrificed generation, which fought for a various array of beliefs all intertwined in self-sacrifice and honor. In Germany alone 5.2 million soldiers were killed or missing in battle in a six-year period, Japan lost over 2 million men in combat, while the United States suffered 409 thousand men killed in action. However Russia holds the morbid record, with more than 10 million killed between 1941 and 1945. These astounding numbers show the brutality in which this war was fought in the air, on land and in the seas.
As a journalist, always in search for a certain historical truth within today’s framework, the stories of each of these men interviewed and photographed is a treasure of human perseverance. The project contains no pretense to judge or criticize the actions or decisions taken by these men, but it is rather a recollection of a period drastically different from ours. Their testimony is relevant in a historical sense, which should not be lost in time, as the next generations to come can and should learn from this generation.
The project itself differs from other veteran type shoots, in the sense that it tries to combine so many different nationalities. This combination was hard to achieve. It took no less than 5 years and travels to over 12 countries to meet, photograph, and interview these men. As a photojournalist, it was not only the photo shoot that was interesting, but also the search to meet these veterans, especially the ex Waffen SS and the foreign elements who fought within its ranks; and the more obscure nationalities who fought alongside major powers, like Croatians or Senegalese.
The photography project deals with as many nationalities as possible, for the simple reason that many nations were involved in the fighting. So far I have photographed Germans, Russians, Armenians, Karabastis, French, Belgium, Poles, Americans, Nepalese, Croatian, Czechs, Latvians, Japanese Americans, Pilipino, Hungarians and more…, which includes 221 men from 59 different nationalities. Each man is interviewed on his experience through out the war. The goal of this project is to reunite as many veterans as possible from most of the nations involved in the Second World War.
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Thomas is 22 years old and lives in Hornu, Belgium. "I'm born as a man but I feel like a woman. I'm a woman with a penis. I wear everyday woman clothes and I never feel better than when I'm performing."
Kevin is 24 years old and lives in Mons, Belgium. "Alycia is a part of me. And I like it."
Mathieu is 23 years old and lives in Mons, Belgium. "Sometimes I need to wear woman clothes and to transform myself. I do it sometimes at night, even when i'm alone at home. It's a part of me."
Gökhan is 27 years old and lives in Mons, Belgium. "I'm not a professional transformist. I only does few shows, only when I want and when i feel ready."
Henri is 40 years old and lives in Liège, Belgium. "I started to "transform" myself in woman about 20 years ago. Varvara and I are very different. She is more crazy than Henri. Henri is wiser than her. But both are indivisible."
Migration to the post-war Belgium originated with the establishment of an agreement between the Italian and Belgian governments on 23 June 1946 in Rome, and the signing of a treaty that led them to "exchange" Italian workforce with Belgian coal.
To understand why this agreement we should look at Italy and Belgium as they were at the end of World War II. In Italy, enormous material damage, with two million unemployed and some areas of the country was in total misery. In the mines of Wallonia in Belgium, the lack of manpower curbed the activities of coal mining and therefore energy production: to increase production they used the prisoners of war, German soldiers, Hungarians and even Russians, then, the agreement of 1946, 50,000 arrive Italians workers, with their work these men will allow the Italian government to buy the Belgian coal. Thanks to Italian emigrants, the production of the mines went up to 6-7 million tons per year. This also allowed the steel and metallurgical industries to increase their production.
The Italian-Belgian agreement provided the transfer of 50,000 workers under age 35 in good health, for a 12 month contract as miner, in exchange for 200 kg of coal per day guaranteed to Italy.
The emigrants embarked every Tuesday night at the station in Milan and underwent a medical examination on the same train, where they had to sign the work contracts. They arrived on Thursday afternoon in Basel, divided according to the mine in which they were intended to work and were then transported to the "cellar", the same barracks where they had been held prisoners of war. Sometimes began to work the next day.
The Marcinelle tragedy, with the deaths of hundreds of Italians in a coal mine in 1956, marks, even symbolically, the end of Italian emigration in Belgium. A part of the immigrant population in Belgium will stabilize, but since the disaster there will be no more emigration of Italians to the mining areas.
This documentary tells the stories of some of these men, still in their twenties, they left our country and their province in search of a future and a better life.
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Sergey Abgorian is an Armenian veteran who fought in the Red Army against the Germans on the Russian front during WWII.
"Chechen fighters placed two captured Russian soldiers into a small ravine as a trick and to ambush my rescue party," he said. "As we arrived to save them, the Chechens were waiting for us and started shooting. A bullet went right through my hair, and I felt it."
Per Mortensen fought during WWII in Denmark against the German occupier as part of a partisan outfit.
"In June 1943 my cousin was captured by the Danish police, so a few hours later I decided to join BOPA," he said. "My cousin was put to jail for a while, but because he acted like a crazy person he was sent later to a hospital. In October, I arranged for his escape."
Agim Karajozi is a Albanian WWII veteran who fought in his country as part of a partisan outfit against the Italian and German army.
"By the fall 1942, I joined Balli Kombetar brigade," he said. "Some of my family members made me realize what the Communists were really up to in my country, so I decided to fight against them."
Otar Gogiashvili is a WWII veteran from the Republic of Georgia who fought with the Red Army on the Russian front against the German invader.
"For over 12 hours the Germans bombed us with Stukas planes, while we were directing artillery fire at German positions," he said. "After my CO left, a Stuka bomb landed on my position, killing everyone except myself."
Atsushi Hamato fought in the Japanese Imperial army during WWII against American forces. Hamato fought in the battle of the Philippines as a company commander.
"We fought for honor and our country against the American invaders," he said.
Hans von Vultejus fought with the German army in Western Europe against the invading Anglo Saxon armies.
"I was given a Waffen SS uniform," he said. "However, I refused to get my blood type tattooed as was common practice in the SS. While waiting in line, I moved discretely to the already tattooed line so I was never tattooed."
Israel Barkuk is a Ukrainian WWII veteran who fought in the Red Army against the German army.
"My division was located on a plateau in central Ukraine, which was under German attack," he said. "They were just right below us and around us. A sniper killed my commander, so I was promoted the commanding commissar of a full battalion of 300 men."
Thomas Louis Gilzean, a Scottish WWII veterans who fought both in Asia as part of a commando outfit and in Europe against the Germans.
"In Benghazi we lived inside a very nice hotel with my unit," he said. "We fought there until March 1941, when the Germans invaded with Rommel. We soon had to retreat but before we booby-trapped the hotel, and took the fireplace with us. It looked expensive."
Ante Vukovich is a Croatian WWII veteran who fought against German forces occupying his country during the Second World War. Ante fought with Communist partisan units as an infantryman.
"During my first firefight I couldn't control my Czech machine gun and almost shot one of my fellow soldiers," he said.
Bernard du Bois is a Belgium WWII veteran who fought with the Allies against German troops occupying his country.
"After being wounded by a Stuka attack, I was picked up by Germans who brought me to a German field hospital in Montreuille-sur-mer, where a German army doctor operated on me atop 12 hundred liter barrel of Champagne," he said. "He saved my life."
Salomon Freidlyand is a Byelorussian WWII veteran who fought within the Red Army on the Russian front against the German invader.
"I was sent back to the 297th division to start training partisans and to gather information on the German positions," he said. "I had my own horse, and would often go behind German lines and meet these locals and partisans."
Thomas Hermann is a WWII veteran who fought in the German army on the Russian front as an infantryman.
"I took part of a counter-attack in late November 1943," he said. "The entire regiment was send forward. The fighting was hard with many close-quarter battles. Two Russian divisions were wiped out in the process. During the fighting, I remember that I could see the white of my enemies eyes."
Herbert Drossler was a loader in a German Tiger tank during the battle of Normandy against American forces.
"Near Vires during a British offensive only 60 meters away, I noticed a dying French civilian between the lines," he said. "He was shouting, 'mother, mother help me' and was wounded in the stomach by shrapnel. I then saw his mother run towards him, so I decided to help her to stop the blood coming out of her son's wound."
Bjorn Ostring is an ex Waffen SS Norwegian volunteer who fought as a platoon leader on the Russian front.
"We arrived to the front near the town of Urizk," he said. "As soon as we arrived at the front, we were thrown into the battle to contain Russian troops attacking the area."