Belgium has apologized for the kidnapping and deportation of thousands of mixed-race children under its colonial rule. Survivors say that reparations should be the next step.

 The girls were as young as 2, some still breastfeeding, and no older than 4 when they were taken from their mothers.

Like thousands of other mixed-race children born under colonial rule in Belgian Congo, the five girls, the children of African mothers and European fathers, were taken from their homes by the authorities and sent to religious schools hundreds of miles away, growing up in poverty and suffering from malnutrition and physical abuse, the New York Times reports.

The victims of a segregationist policy of the Belgian authorities who ruled a vast territory in Africa that now includes Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda, they kept their childhoods a secret for decades, even from their own families. Now women in their 70s, they listened to their stories being told in public by their lawyers on a recent morning in a small courtroom in Brussels packed with dozens of spectators.

“Their names, their origins and identities were stripped from them,” said one of the women’s lawyers, Michèle Hirsch. “What they shared with me is not in the history books.”

The women — Monique Bintu Bingi, Marie-José Loshi, Simone Ngalula, Léa Tavares Mujinga and Noelle Verbeken — are seeking reparations and suing the Belgian state for crimes against humanity for the segregationist policy that stripped them from their mothers — one that endured from the end of the 19th century to Congo’s independence in 1960 and even after. A verdict is expected later this month.

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