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Namibia genocideDescendants of 1904 Namibia genocide seek reparations from Germany

Published 8 June 2017

More than a century after a genocide took place in Namibia while it was under German colonial rule, descendants of the victims, for the first time, earlier this spring got their day in court in New York. Historians agree that this was one of the darkest chapters of African colonial history, as tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people were killed from 1904 to 1908 by German soldiers and settlers. Germany and Namibia have been negotiating over a joint declaration on the massacres, but Germany has refused to pay direct reparations, stressing that Germany has given Namibia development aid worth hundreds of millions of euros since Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990.

More than a century after a genocide took place in Namibia while it was under German colonial rule, descendants of the victims, for the first time, earlier this spring got their day in court in New York.

Historians agree that this was one of the darkest chapters of African colonial history, as tens of thousands of Herero and Nama people were killed from 1904 to 1908.

Namibia and Germany have been negotiating for the past two years over a joint declaration on the massacres.

DW reports that some German officials have acknowledged a genocide occurred, but the government has shied away from an official declaration on the issue.

Berlin, moreover, has refused to pay direct reparations, stressing that Germany has given Namibia development aid worth hundreds of millions of euros since Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990. This development aid, Germany says, was “for the benefit of all Namibians.”

A German foreign ministry spokesman described the aid as “generous,” saying it included “record” amounts per individual (Namibia’s population is small, numbering 2.5 million). The spokesman pointed out that these large sums were an expression of Germany’s “responsibility.”

German settlers who moved from Europe to the sparsely populated area seized land and cattle from local people, driving them off the land without consideration or compensation. On 12 January 1904, the Hereo rebelled, killing 123 German civilians.

Germany responded by launching a military operation which culminated, in August 1904, in the bloody battle of Waterberg. About 80,000 Herero fled with women and children toward Botswana. German troops pursued them across a vast area now called the Kalahari desert. Only 15,000 Herero survived.

In October 1904, the colonial military commander Gen Lothar von Trotha issued an order calling on the German soldiers in the territory to exterminate the Herero.

The smaller Nama tribe suffered the same fate, with German soldiers killing about 10,000 of them after they joined the Hereo rebellion.

The class-action lawsuit filed by the tribes descendent in New York seeks reparations and demands that their representatives be included in negotiations between Germany and the government of Namibia on the issue.

In papers filed in court, the tribes argue that from 1885 to 1903, about a quarter of Herero and Nama lands – thousands of square miles – was taken by German settlers without compensation, with the explicit consent of German colonial authorities.

The suit also claims that the German colonial authorities ignored the systematic rapes by settlers of Herero and Nama women and girls, and the use of forced labor.

Moreover, the German colonial authorities operated concentration camps, exterminations, and scientific experiments on “specimens” of what the Germans considered to be an inferior race.

Berlin has been tight-lipped about details of the deal being negotiated with Namibia.

The plaintiffs in the U.S. case include Vekuii Rukoro, who is the paramount chief of the Herero people, and David Frederick, chief and chairman of the Nama Traditional Authorities Association. They have been joined by not-for-profit Association of the Ovaherero/Ovambanderu Genocide in the USA, Inc.

The suit was filed under the Alien Tort Statute, which allows non-U.S. citizens to make claims before U.S. federal court for international law violations.

The two tribes also claim that the exclusion of their representatives from the Namibia-Germany negotiations violates a UN declaration on indigenous people.