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Namibia's Century-old Genocide Continues to Fester

Herero women attend a gathering in Okokarara, Namibia, Aug. 14, 2004 where Germany's Development Aid Minister, Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul, unseen, offered Germany's first apology for a colonial-era crackdown that killed 65,000 ethnic Hereros between 1904 and 1908.

A new lawsuit in a U.S. court is reawakening a century-old mass slaughter of Namibia's Herero and Nama peoples by German colonial forces, an event that has been described as the 20th century's first genocide.

When Vekuii Rukoro was a boy in what is now Namibia, his family would gather around a fire and tell stories.

Stories of horror and humiliation, of unarmed women and children killed by German soldiers, of terrified families driven into the searing desert to die of thirst, and of concentration camps whose gruesome indignities would be repeated on new victims in Germany and Poland decades later.

Herero chief takes lead

"Untold suffering, misery and brutalities,” Rukoro said. “When we sat around the bonfire at night, this is where oral history would be passed along from generation to generation. And that is where we came to know what happened to our ancestors.”

Rukoro is 62 and the elected paramount chief of the Herero people, who number about 400,000. Between 1904 and 1908, tens of thousands of indigenous Herero and Nama people were killed by German troops after they revolted against colonial rule.

More than a century later, Rukoro is leading a charge to sue the German government in U.S. District Court in New York, seeking an apology and group reparations.

No resolution despite talks

Germany has not issued a formal apology for this dark episode, but the issue has been discussed between the two governments for at least a decade, with no resolution.

Rukoro says if Germany does not allow Nama and Herero representatives to participate in talks, there will be consequences. He threatened a public-relations and diplomatic “offensive,” and says his group will lobby to have Germany labeled a war criminal and a pariah state.

“We are not going to sit here, 100 years, for another 120 years … and allow another imperialist situation to continue to depress us as Africans of our rights,” Rukoro said. “No. No. No.”

Germans are divided

Germany's position on the apology and negotiations remains unclear. The German foreign ministry did not immediately respond to VOA's request for comment. But two years ago the foreign minister said, “We think that the time has come to intensify and formalize this exchange between the governments of our two countries.”

That has not happened, says German human rights activist Christian Kopp, who says Germany should apologize and offer reparations, but he feels many Germans do not agree.

"I think Germany would be divided. There are some, and I would not say it is the majority, maybe 50 percent, maybe even less, who would feel better after this,” Kopp said. “And there are others ... and there are many, many people who say, ‘Well, why is it always the Germans who have to ask for forgiveness?’ So there will be many many Germans who will not be happy about this.”

A deep responsibility

Rukoro's lawyer, New York-based Ken McCallion, says the damages cannot be understated.

“They went from being a very successful and relatively prosperous indigenous people to really grinding poverty, and that stain has really continued to today,” McCallion said. “In addition to that, there were cultural losses. In eradicating the people, the German authorities were really seeking to eradicate their history and culture.”

Rukoro stressed he is not seeking individual payouts for all living descendants, he wants reparations that benefit the entire community. And, he says, he feels a deep responsibility to keep agitating.