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Germany returns remains from Namibia genocide

August 29, 2018

The German government has handed over the remains of indigenous men and women killed during the colonial era. Namibian activists have called on Berlin to apologize for massacring thousands and provide reparations.

Image showing German imperial troops slaughtering indigenous groups in present-day Namibia
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images

Germany’s dark history in Namibia

The German government on Wednesday handed over human remains of the Herero and Nama indigenous groups from present-day Namibia that had been stored in hospitals, museums and universities for decades. The remains, acquired for racially-tinged scientific experiments, are tied to Germany's brutal colonial legacy in the southwest African nation.

Between 1904 and 1908, German imperial soldiers massacred thousands from both indigenous groups in what has been called the "first genocide of the 20th century."

While the German government has recognized the slaughter of the Herero and Nama groups as a genocide, parliament has not followed suit.

'They must apologize'

While Germany has returned human remains on prior occasions to Namibia, the country has grappled with how to deal with remembrance of the killings, as well as artifacts acquired through colonial domination.  

Vekuii Rukoro, a Namibian lawyer, politician and Herero representative, had strong words for the German government at Wednesday's ceremony in Berlin.

"Genocide. That's what we call it back home. That what German opposition MPs are calling it, that's what the German public is calling it, that is what the world opinion is calling it. The only people — who after five years of painstaking negotiations — are unable to come to the same conclusion and agreement are the German and the Namibian government. Something is wrong with our two governments."

Other officials agreed. "We are all united in one thing: We are all demanding that Germany must accept that it committed genocide in one country," said Manase Zeraek, a traditional representative. "We are in agreement that they must apologize and that they must pay reparations."

No 'legal obligation' to pay

Berlin has also refused to pay reparations. "The German government considers that the use of the term 'genocide' does not entail any legal obligation to reparations but rather political and moral obligations to heal the wounds. We're sticking to that position," Ruprecht Polenz, the German negotiator in the Namibia talks, told DW two years ago.

Germany argues that hundreds of millions of euros in development aid since it gained in independence in 1990 was "for the benefit of all Namibians."

"We must ensure that after we've reached agreements on damages, recognition and an apology, there's a future in which the German and Namibian nations join hands and move forward," said Namibian Culture Minister Katrina Hanse-Himarwa in Berlin.

Read more: Is Germany responding to Namibia's genocide claims?

'Colonial heritage'

Michelle Müntefering, a junior minister for international cultural policies in the German Foreign Ministry, said Berlin still has "a lot of catching up in coming to terms with our colonial heritage."

"We want help to heal the wounds from the atrocities committed by German at the time," said Müntefering. Germany and Namibia are currently in talks to determine how to move forward.

Members of both ethnic groups have filed a class action lawsuit in the US, demanding Germany pay reparations for the massacre. But Berlin is trying to have the case thrown out of court, citing state immunity from prosecution.

"The present generations in Germany did not commit the crimes of genocide against my ancestors, the Herero and Nama, however the present and future generations of Germany ought to acknowledge the fact that the genocide was committed in the name of Germany," Hanse-Himarwa said. "The apology for this genocide would make hat history our collective history and our collective story."

Activists: Germany has to talk to Herero and Nama

cmb, ls/sms (dpa, AFP)

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