Our Common Humanity Demands It

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On October 12, 2015, I participated in a panel discussion on the OvaHerero/Mbanderu and Nama Genocides of 1904-1908 at the University of Hamburg, Germany. The panel discussion was titled “Not about us without us,” a title designed to highlight the unfortunate state of affairs where the German government and Namibian governments are said to be involved in negotiations on the issue of genocide without the direct involvement of the affected communities. Panelists included Jefta Nguherimo (labor activist, historian, and founding member of the ONGI); Professor Jurgen Zimmerer (University of Hamburg); and me, Dr. Kavemuii Murangi (founding member and director, ONGI). This post shares my presentation on the demands of the OvaHerero and Nama.

 “Our Common Humanity Demands It”

I am a father of three daughters; the youngest is 10 years old. I am also a descendant of victims of the genocide.

My great-great-grandfather died in 1904 during the genocide war. The Schutztruppe pushed his wife and daughters into the desert as were many OvaHerero. Many of them would perish from exhaustion, hunger or thirst as the wells were poisoned, or from being shot. Hungry, exhausted, and thirsty, rather than allow herself to be captured and killed by Germans, my great-great-grandmother essentially committed suicide. Their daughters were captured and put in concentration camps or death camps.

Concentration camps were characterized by systematic abuse and slave-like conditions, starvation, forced labor, rape, and death. The death rate ranged from 40 – 70% percent in these camps – hence the name ‘death camps.’    Most notorious were the Shark Island camp on Lüderitz, the Swakopmund camp, and the Windhoek camp, which was known as Katjombondi or Vile Place.

The genocide of the OvaHerero was calculated, systematic and extremely effective. The Kaiser’s government through its troops and General Luther Von Trotha, came as close as any one has come in the 20th century to liquidating an entire people.

Between 1904 and 1908, all OvaHerero and Nama people who lived in central and southern Namibia were either dead, in concentration camps, or in exile. An entire people—up to 85 percent of the OvaHerero and 50 percent of the Nama—were exterminated.

My great-great-grandfather’s daughters were raped by German soldiers or settlers, and gave birth to children of mixed heritage. My grandmother saw her German father but never knew or talked to him.

Yes, my grandparents and their parents experienced physical, psychological and emotional pain. As I grew older, I began to recognize this pain in my grandparents and my parents. To this day, a death in the family is essentially bereavement over the pain and death of the genocide. It is amazing how an event so long ago can still engender so much pain and angst.

As descendants of the genocides, we have inherited that loss and pain. The devastation and cruelty was so great that it is ingrained in our DNA, in our hearts and souls like a hereditary disease – in fact, it is a disease that is passed on from one generation to another.

I do not want to pass this disease onto my children, much less to their children. I want them to know about the genocide factually and intellectually, but not emotionally and psychologically as my generation and generations before us experienced these events. We need to cut this link, by taking measures that begin the healing process for the victims of genocide – for our sake, but most importantly for the sake of our children and their children, for the sake of OvaHerero, Nama, and German children, and their children.

The current generation of German leaders should not pass this historical and moral burden to future generations. They should have the courage to take measures that would begin the process of healing and free our peoples (Herero, Nama, and German) from the ghosts of the past. They should a) recognize the 1904-1908 atrocities as genocide, b) offer an apology, c) return all human remains stolen and stored in German institutions, d) make amends and restitution, and e) engage in direct meaningful dialogue with the descendants of the genocides.

a) The German government and the Bundestag must recognize the atrocities committed against the OvaHerero and Nama as genocides.

Germany has acknowledged the Holocaust and made reparations and has recognized the Armenian genocide, even though both predate the 1948 convention on genocide, yet has failed so far to recognize the Namibia genocides under the pretext that the term genocide did not exist.

Earlier this year a group of German citizens, parliamentarians, and members of NGOS launched the Genocide is Genocide petition that calls on the German government to stop the double standards and recognize the OvaHerero and Nama genocides.

Dr. Lammert, speaker of the German parliament, recently publicly stated that he personally views these atrocities as genocide and war crimes.

The Left Party and the Green Party have introduced motions recognizing the OvaHerero and Nama genocides, apologizing to the OvaHerero and Nama people, and offering restitution.

We urge the Bundestag to pass these common sense motions and end these political games by the German government.

b) We demand a sincere and heartfelt apology from the German government and the Bundestag and commend the Left and Green for tabling a motion that includes an apology to the victims and their descendants.

A public apology would be consistent with Germany’s ideals as a democratic and freedom loving state that cherish the rights and worth of all people regardless of color, country of birth, or station in life. It is the moral thing to do and will re-affirm Germany’s own humanity and our humanity in Germany’s eyes.

Former Germany’s development aid minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul offered an apology in 2004 for the 1904-1908 atrocities, and indicated that these events constituted genocide. Her unscripted comments showed that her apology was sincere and heartfelt and she has since demonstrated this in different ways including her participation in the Genocide is Genocide petition.

Through an apology, affirming our common humanity, Germany will usher in an era of healing and true reconciliation among our people. Only then can the descendants of the genocides begin to stem a hereditary disease that I talked about earlier.

We want an apology and we will accept a meaningful apology, but Germany will have to earn our forgiveness through her actions.

c) One of the most inhumane and, in my view, unnatural crimes of the OvaHerero and Nama genocides was the desecration of graves, the stealing of human remains, and the cutting off and stealing of heads and other body parts for pure pleasure as well for scientific experiments to prove the inferiority of Africans.

In colonial Namibia, especially during the 1904-1908 genocide, the stealing of skulls and human remains was a full blown and organized industry. Collectors, universities, museums, and scientists would place orders for the supply of these human parts.

In concentration camps, female prisoners boiled severed heads and cleaned them with shard glass – sometimes the victims were family and often acquaintances.

Some skulls have been uncovered in Germany and repatriated over the past several years. Hundreds of skulls and human remains are still in Germany – we need these repatriated so that we can pay respect and put our ancestors to rest.

During this trip, we are hoping to visit the Rudolph Virchow collections of human remains, which has skulls and human remains from Namibia in their possession.

d) Reparation is defined as “the act of making amends or giving satisfaction for a wrong or injury.”

We are asking the German government to recognize that your government, institutions, and citizens committed crimes against humanity during this particular period in history, and that those actions had and continue to have severe and irreparable consequences for the OvaHerero and Nama people. OvaHerero and Nama had land and cattle, and colonial Germany wanted land and cattle for it settlers and it was prepared to take both at all cost. OvaHerero and Nama lost their lives, they lost cattle, and they lost all their land thanks to a decree issued by the Kaiser himself confiscating all land and preventing OvaHerero from owning land.

Reparations are in many ways symbolic, as it is impossible to make whole again the lives lost and the property and resources lost. Nevertheless, they can be a way to ameliorate destitution, poverty, and marginalization that OvaHerero and Nama continue to suffer.

e) Finally, all these can only happen in an environment of mutual respect and through a process of meaningful and direct dialogue involving the aggrieved parties and Germany. In the past year, there has been a lot of talk about talks as we hear the German and the Namibian government are engaged in talks. However, the affected communities have not been consulted, much less involved, in these talks. How can you apologize to someone if you are not talking to them, how do you make amends with someone if you do not know or recognize their worth?

Germany’s refusal to engage the affected communities and our government enabling behavior will only strengthen our resolve. The exclusion of the affected communities from these so-called talks only demonstrates one thing that the German government is not ready to live up to its moral responsibility and meet our basic and common sense demands. It also means that we have to reach out to all our brothers and sisters all over the world, but especially here in Germany to do everything they can to make our governments see reason. Our humanity demands it!