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Namibian Ethnic Group Seeks Reparations for German Massacre

Namibia's ethnic Hereros are seeking reparations from Germany for what they say was the century's first genocide. Between 1904 and 1907, the German army wiped out most of Namibia's Herero population. It is believed the German campaign against the Hereros laid the groundwork, the methods, the belief in racial superiority, and even some of the personnel for the Holocaust during World World II.

Every day, hundreds of farm workers and day laborers walking from Okahandja's city center to their shacks in the nearby townships pass a gray-slate obelisk in a circle of painted-white stones. It's a monument to the brave Herero chiefs who, 100 years ago, launched an uprising to halt the tidal wave of German settlers in what was then German South-West Africa.

Germany' Kaiser Wilhelm II, eager to maintain his stake in this region of Africa, sent his star general, Lt. General Lothar von Trotha, to suppress the rebellion. In three years, the 10,000-strong German army virtually wiped out the Herero population. Many were slaughtered, but most were forced into the Kalahari desert and left to die of thirst and starvation.

Of the estimated 80,000 Namibian Hereros, only 15,000 survived. They were stripped of their land, their cattle and their chiefs. Some were corralled into forced-labor camps.

The simple monument on one of Okahandja's dusty side streets is a quiet reminder of those massacres, which have slipped into the folds of history, just one of many colonial atrocities in Africa during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

But Esther Mtjiua Munjangne will not forget. She is the chairwoman for the Ovaherero Genocide Committee, which is seeking billions of dollars in reparations from the German government for what she and other historians describe as the first genocide of the 20th century.

"On the 12th of January, 1904, that is when the chief of the OvaHerero, Samuel Maherero, declared war against the Germans," said Ms. Munjangne. "And in the same year, it's when the Germans, through their general, Luther von Trotha, issued the extermination order that all the Hereros should be exterminated. This order was an official document from the German government, and their aim was to exterminate the Herero people."

Lieutenant General von Trotha's extermination order was shockingly unambiguous: Within German borders, he wrote in 1904, "every Herero, with or without a rifle, with or without cattle, will be shot."

In late August, hundreds of Hereros gathered near the Okahandje monument as they have done every year since 1923. The Herero's paramount chief Kuaima Riruako called on Germans and the German churches to pressure the German government to pay reparations to Namibia's Hereros, who, though they've rebuilt their population to about 120,000, remain a minority, both demographically and politically.

The German government has issued an apology. At a ceremony last year marking the hundredth anniversary of the Herero massacres, Germany's ambassador to Namibia, Wolfgang Massing, expressed regret for the killings, calling it the "darkest chapter of our colonial history."

"The German reaction is always, their position has been very evasive," said Fred Konje, coordinator for the Ovaherero Genocide Committee. "They have not registered their displeasure with us of even the demonstration we had. But they have not come out clearly as to what they are going to do next. They have had an apology that they offered last year, but they have not formally enacted that apology and turned it into tangible evidence that they are serious about our demands."

Ambassador Massing, who declined several requests to speak with VOA for this report, has said that Berlin was ready to begin talks with Herero leaders to heal old wounds, but repeatedly has ruled out reparations. Germany has been one of Namibia's largest donors, giving more than $600 million worth of aid since its independence from South Africa in 1990.

Still, Herero chief Riruako said he and hundreds of other Hereros filed a lawsuit four years ago in a U.S. federal court, seeking at least $2 billion from German companies, including the Deutsche Bank, that benefited from slavery and exploitation of Hereros under German rule in what is now Namibia.

He says that if the German government pays billions of dollars to the survivors of the Holocaust and to Israel for the killing of six million Jews, it should be willing to pay reparations to the Hereros.

"I cannot rule out the whole nation of Germany," he noted. "Some of them are understanding people, but they are reluctant, being ashamed of being linked to the genocide or holocaust. They have asked me not to use the words genocide or holocaust and I said, 'Look, I cannot deviate from the truth.'"

Chief Riruako says it is important for Germany, which is seeking a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council, to acknowledge its past human rights abuses.

For the descendents of the Hereros who lost their land and cattle to the Germans, the genocide has had a ripple effect from the past to the present. A hundred years later, they have rebounded from the threat of extinction. Now, they must struggle out of poverty.