Luederitz, Namibia, Jul 21 – On a thin strip of land at the bay of Luederitz in southern Namibia are dozens of gravestones bearing the names of each German soldier killed during a largely forgotten colonial war.
Nearby is a single marble plaque anonymously marking all their fallen adversaries.
Between 1904 and 1908, tens of thousands of men, women and children belonging to the Herero and Nama tribes that stood up to German rule were killed in battle, or died of starvation, cold or mistreatment in their isolated corner of southern Africa.
“Shark Island” was the name given to a concentration camp in Luederitz which was used as a tool in Germany’s systematic repression that is today considered by some historians as the first genocide of the 20th century.
For many years, the bloody episode was little-known, both in Africa and in Europe. Shark Island was transformed into a campsite popular with foreign tourists.
“There is real pain,” said Ida Hoffmann, 69, a Nama-origin MP and activist.
“If the German government… respected the pain and the feelings that we went through and paid reparations, that thing that became now just a camp, where people go and have their honeymoon, would not be there,” she said. “Shame on them.”
Hoffmann is as equally damning of the German authorities as she is of the Namibian government, which have been negotiating the recognition of the killings and possible compensation.
– Uprising, then bloody repression –
The facts of the bloodshed are uncontested: in 1904, Namibia was engulfed by conflict when the Herero people, and later the Namas, rose up against German colonial rule, which had been in place since 1884.
The Germans responded with ferocious repression that included massacres, forced deportations and forced labour, with the orders for the clampdown signed on Berlin’s behalf by General Lothar von Trotha.
Some of those targeted fled to neighbouring Botswana but, according to historians, 80,000 Hereros — out of 100,000 — were killed, along with 10,000 Namas.
Germany long refused to take the blame for the episode, only accepting responsibility on the 100th anniversary of the massacres in 2004.
But it ruled out the possibility of reparations.
– Compensation dispute –
Germany’s foreign ministry insisted that “very generous” foreign aid money given to Namibia represented an acknowledgement of responsibility for the slaughter.
The German position is woefully inadequate for Herero former MP and culture minister Kazenambo Kazenambo, who is calling for the return of all of the land confiscated during the colonial era.
“The genocide has resulted in displacement where people find themselves in underdeveloped areas,” he said.
“We have our people living in overcrowded land when others are owners of acres and acres of land that are not fully utilised — and the owners are in either Berlin or Frankfurt.”
Okakarara, 300 kilometres (185 miles) north of the Namibian capital Windhoek, was the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the colonial-era conflict as well as a bastion of the Herero community.
Sarafia Komomungondo reflects on the past, sat outside her shack, feet trailing in the sand that surrounds her home.
“Before the war, we were better off… we had our sources of living, the animals especially,” said the former traditional dancer with piercing blue eyes and traditional headwear, now in her 80s.
“Today we don’t have anything… people are going to bed without eating anything, so those reparations will do us very good.”
– Government support? –
Perhaps as much as recognition and help from Germany, many members of the Herero community want their own government to respond to their plight.
“Herero people are not part of the tribe that is leading the government so we don’t think the government will support us,” said Komomungondo’s neighbour, 69-year-old Veronika Mujazu.
Since independence in 1990, Namibia has been ruled by the SWAPO liberation movement, which is controlled by the majority Ovambo ethnicity.
Hereros make up just 10 percent of Namibia’s 2.5 million people.
“In Africa to be strong politically you need the numbers,” said Ester Muinjangue, director of the OvaHerero Genocide Foundation.
“In Namibia we are the third or fourth (largest) group. We are excluded, so we can’t influence the discussion and its outcome.”
– ‘Not about money’ –
Traditional Herero and Nama leaders have for months been demanding a seat at the negotiations between Windhoek and Berlin — along the lines of the reparation talks between Germany, Israel and representatives of the Jewish community following the end of World War II.
But both Germany and Namibia have refused to allow the Hereros and Namas to participate.
The two tribes have formally accused Germany of genocide at a court in New York under a statute allowing non-US citizens to make claims before a US federal court for violations of international law.
A judge agreed in March to hear their case and another hearing is set for Friday.
Namibian authorities have dismissed their efforts, insisting that they will end in an inconclusive stalemate.
“The people who initiated the case come from a side that’s not our camp, in terms of politics,” said Namibian government negotiator Zed Ngavirue.
“The basic thing is to understand that any meaningful agreement will be reached at state level. It must be an agreement between states.”
Ngavirue said that progress was being made in the talks but declined to give details.
But Herero former minister Kazenambo remains sceptical and is prepared to continue his fight.
“For us it’s not about money, it’s about morality and justice,” he said. “We won’t ever give up on that.”