Nearly Forgotten Forces of WWII
In Congo, Old Soldiers Tell of Difficult Days Under Colonial Command

By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 4, 2009

WALIKALE, Congo -- While books and films have lionized the last surviving World War II veterans in recent years, a small, hand-painted sign along a dirt road in this remote village is just about all that points to a nearly forgotten group of them.

"Camp of Old Soldiers, 1940-1945," the sign reads in French.

Passing the late afternoon under the pink blooms of a sprawling pear tree, one of those veterans, Louis Ngumbi, recalled his brutal induction in 1940 into the army of Congo's colonial ruler, Belgium.

"I was getting ready to go to the farm," he said, estimating his age at the time at 16. "And then I saw the local leader -- he was Belgian -- coming with the police. He pointed and said, 'Arrest that young boy!' I didn't know where I was going."

It was not until after he was beaten, hauled off to the local prison, stripped of his village clothes and outfitted in a crisp uniform of khaki shorts, shirt and white socks that Ngumbi finally realized, "Ah, I'm going into the army."

African battlefields figure prominently in the history of World War II. But the story of the hundreds of thousands of African soldiers who served in campaigns mostly for British and French colonial rulers is only beginning to be fully told. Much like African American soldiers who served in a mostly segregated U.S. Army during the war, African soldiers served under racist colonial structures that were at times challenged by the urgencies of war.

When the war ended, though, African soldiers often received little compensation for lost hands, legs, eyes and other war-related disabilities. Some never got pensions. As waves of nationalism gave way to Africa's independence movements in the 1950s, the soldiers often turned on their colonial officers. In other cases, revolutionaries branded the old colonial forces as traitors.

References to Congo's involvement in World War II are usually limited to Shinkolobwe, the mine that supplied uranium for the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Mentions of Congolese soldiers appear here and there: in academic articles; in a bombastic account published in a 1941 pamphlet by the Belgian Information Society of New York; in an apology in Time magazine after it omitted the role of Congolese "recruited" by the Belgians for the war.

"These days, nobody thinks about us much," said Ngumbi, who now lives at a dilapidated camp for veterans, a stretch of mud-walled buildings populated mostly these days by their descendants. "We don't even have uniforms or boots."

As he began his story, Jean Tami, a former major sergeant who still carries a tarnished medal and his Belgian identity card in the pocket of tattered trousers, walked over to the pear tree, stood stiffly and saluted Ngumbi, before sitting down in a bent metal chair. Ngumbi offered a more lackluster wave.

Their service began, they recalled, in 1940. At the time, Adolf Hitler's forces occupied Belgium and the government was exiled in London, where officials were attempting to curry favor with the allies. To that end, Belgium offered up to the British several detachments of Congolese soldiers from the Force Publique, as the colonial army was known.

Congo was still under Belgian rule, having suffered perhaps the most brutal exploitation of any African colony during the reign of King Leopold II, who essentially enslaved the population to build his personal fiefdom. Though reforms were introduced by 1908, the old culture of brutality lingered in many ways.

"When the Belgians were here, it was like living in a kind of prison," said Ngumbi, recalling how he saw things as a child. "You couldn't shake hands with a white. You couldn't sit with a white. We were thinking maybe white people were not human."

When the local Belgian authorities, acting with Congolese police, captured Ngumbi in 1940, they used one of Leopold's old tricks to subdue him. "They said if you escape, we will arrest your mother, your father, and we'll mistreat them until you show up," he said.

Tami's experience was similar. The local police, led by a Belgian, captured him as he was walking home from school, he said. They beat him and sent him to prison, where he was examined and put on a scale. Tami is unsure of his age at the time, but he weighed in at 99 pounds and was apparently deemed fit for soldiering.

"We didn't know exactly what we were doing at first, but we were fighting for our country," he said. "In front of a white, you couldn't say no."

The men were sent to different training camps and taught how to march and shoot a gun. Eventually, they joined thousands of other Congolese soldiers on the long trek by foot, rail and boat through the jungles of Congo, the searing desert of south Sudan and finally to the front lines in Ethiopia.

Though they were initially terrified by guns spewing dozens of bullets at once, the men got their footing and often had the enemy "running like cows," said Tami.

Tami and Ngumbi said they were always under the command of a Belgian officer. Still, they were treated relatively well once they were soldiers, they said, eating and getting paid regularly, even if the global dynamics of the war were never made clear.

"We were seeing only white people -- whether they were Belgians or Italians, we didn't know. We were only shooting on white people," Ngumbi said, referring to people he later learned were Germany's Italian allies. "During that period, Hitler wanted to colonize the world, and we were trying to stop him."

According to some accounts, the Congolese soldiers managed some impressive victories in the Ethiopian foothills, capturing several important towns, 15,000 Italian prisoners and nine Italian generals, despite being outnumbered.

Ngumbi and Tami's memories are somewhat hazy now, but they remember hot desert landscapes and sun-hardened houses and the names of towns -- Saio, Gambela, Assosa -- that suggest they were part of those successful Ethiopian campaigns. Ngumbi said the war then was nothing like the militia fighting that now plagues his region of eastern Congo. It had a certain order.

"If it was 12, we'd go and take our lunch. If it was 2 p.m. and it was time to fight, we'd go and fight," he said. "It was like an agreement war."

Despite the circumstances of their enlistment, both men said they felt a certain pride by the time they returned home. They were received by cheering crowds in the capital, Kinshasa, they said.

Just as many African American soldiers returned to the United States to fight for civil rights, the wartime experience had an effect on how the men perceived their colonial rulers -- less like scary gods and more like faulty human beings. At war, they saw officers eating and using the toilet, sweating and dying by bullets.

"Before, we didn't know," said Tami, who eventually joined the movement for Congo's independence along with Ngumbi. "We were thinking they were children of God. Then later, we thought they were people like us."

The men returned to eastern Congo after the war. Tami became a nurse; Ngumbi became a farmer. During the rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, who wrecked the economy but also instilled a sense of national and African pride, the men said they received a decent pension.

When Mobutu was overthrown in a coup, though, the pensions stopped. These days, the veterans get by on food and help from relatives.

War has swept a few times through Walikale, with a succession of rebel groups and recently the Congolese army -- now known as one of the worst-trained armies on the planet -- looting the veterans' camp. The soldiers stole the men's boots, their uniforms, their Congolese flag, and most of their medals.

"Maybe they want to sell them," Ngumbi said. "Today, there are no soldiers in Congo. Today, they are jokers."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company