Albert Kunyuku Ngoma was a young Congolese corporal in the colonial Belgian army when he was forced to battle in WWII as far away as Myanmar.
Now 97, Ngoma is one of only two surviving former members of the colonial “Public Force” military living in the DR Congo capital Kinshasa, who are honoured in a new documentary entitled “The Shadow of the Forgotten!”.
Recalling the battles of six decades ago, Ngoma described fighting side by side with Belgium troops against the Japanese in Myanmar, which was then called Burma.
“In the trenches in Burma, we saw Belgian officers fall to enemy bullets,” Ngoma said. “It was a real shock for us.”
The Public Force was formed as a military unit when Belgium’s King Leopold II controlled the colony. Thousands of Congolese were drafted as part of the colonial armed forces, and fought during WWII in east Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
Dressed in their worn-out former uniforms, Ngoma and his former brother-in-arms Daniel Miuki, 94, were praised as “living monuments” of Congolese history at a recent showing of the documentary by academic Jose Adolphe Voto.
In the film, the pair were shown proudly wearing their campaign medals on their chests as they recalled details of their postings from Leopoldville, as Kinshasa was once known, to the Middle East and to Burma, a former British colony invaded by the Japanese during the war.
Caps on their heads and canes in hand, two men leafed together through a yellowed photo album from Miuki’s home showing pictures dating from 1940-1945.
American troops were not great shots, they recalled, but they praised the combat skills of the Japanese, Chinese and Korean troops on the ground.
‘Tossed aside like towels’
Both remember the racial segregation they had to face even as they fought shoulder to shoulder with the Belgians.
“We were like slaves, because it was Belgium that brought us into this war. We could not say anything,” Ngoma said.
“When the bombs began to fall, white and black would die the same way,” said Miuki, a former infantry nurse.
As Belgium’s premier visited the DR Congo this week, Miuki criticised what he called the “ungrateful” attitude of the former colonial ruler towards its Congolese ex-soldiers, saying they were tossed aside “like dirty towels”.
“France still takes care of Second World War veterans from its former colonies, and their heirs,” Ngoma said.
Congolese soldiers never received any compensation from the countries for whom they fought in 1940-45, according to a complaint filed in 2018 in the DR Congo by seven children of ex-combatants from the Public Force.
They accuse the former colonial power as well as France, Britain and the United States of neglecting their parents and claimed more than $7m, according to the Belgian Ministry of Defence.
The case was in court late last year, but no judgment has been made.
“I wanted to pay tribute to those who gave their all, not only for the Congo but in the World War,” said Voto, the documentary director.
“I wanted them to be rewarded morally. When I spoke with them, I was disappointed to learn that they have never been recognised by Belgium.”