Germany is in negotiations with Namibia about the phrasing of the first official apology for General von Trotha’s extermination orders that led to the murder of around 100,000 Ovaherero and Nama people between 1904 and 1908 in the German colony of then South West Africa.
These negotiations have been criticized for excluding the victims, the Ovaherero and the Nama, who filed a class action suit in New York in January 2017 against Germany, seeking reparations and demanding that their representatives be included in the current negotiations.
The Ovaherero’s rising anger is given a voice in “Skulls of My People,” a new documentary that follows the campaign to pressure Germany into acknowledging and apologizing for the what’s been called the first genocide of the 20th century; discuss reparations; and return the skulls of Namibian people that were taken to Germany for racial scientific profiling.
This anger is not just over the systematic massacre of roughly 80% of the Ovaherero more than a century ago, although this is tangible as the documentary subjects recount numerous atrocities, including the way German soldiers drove the Herero into the desert and then poisoned the waterholes; threw children in the air and bayoneted them; raped women; massacred church gatherings; forced a woman to take the “meat” off her husband’s severed head so that they could take the skull back to Germany; cut off men’s penises and sent them back to Germany to be studied; and forced the survivors who didn’t flee to Botswana or South Africa into concentration camps.
But that anger has been exacerbated by the German government’s responses to the current campaign for restorative justice.
For example, the German parliament rejected a 2015 motion to commemorate and apologize for the genocide. In “Skulls of My People,” a spokesperson for the Herero and Nama Genocide Committee calls this “an official stamp of endorsing the extermination orders,” “humiliating,” and a “slap in the face of the Namibian people.”
Similarly, when Ovaherero and Nama representatives met with the German ambassador to Namibia, he stuck to the government position that they can only negotiate with other governments, not groups.
In “Skulls of My People,” Advocate Vekuii Rukoro, Ovaherero paramount chief, points out that “in the case of the Jewish Holocaust, the same German government has been talking to the Jewish people, ordinary Jewish communities who are equally non-state entities.” He says that the ambassador claimed that was “a special case,” but was unable to explain why, “which obviously leaves us to conclude that the only thing that makes them special is because they are Europeans, they are white people, and we are Africans, we are black people.”
The Herero in the film also voice their frustration at being left out of the negotiations.
“Our government can be there at the conference table as well; we don’t deny them their place,” says Rukoro. “But we are the people to negotiate on behalf of our people, because we know what pain we suffered, what pain we continue to suffer, materially, economically, psychologically and otherwise. Nobody else.”
Utjiua Muijangue, chairperson of the Herero Genocide Foundation, distrusts both negotiators. “In our eyes, the German government is the perpetrator. But they are also now the players and the referee as well. You don’t decide yourself whether you are guilty or not; you also don’t decide that if I am guilty, what punishment should I get.”
Similarly, she distrusts the Namibian government. “Namibia is the biggest recipient of the German development aid; why is that the case?” she asks in the documentary. “It is to shut their mouth and not support the issue of genocide.”
Her distrust is also based on SWAPO’s perceived ethnic bias towards the Ovambo. “They want the whole world to know that the liberation struggle started in 1966. They don’t want other people to get credit; credit should just go to them. And now if you recognize 1904; we recognize the Herero people and they don’t want that.”
Germany has avoided any promises of reparations, but the land issue comes up repeatedly in the documentary. “When the Germans came, they had one thing on their mind, and that was to make sure that no one is living in this country, so they can have it to themselves,” says Muijangue.
And the Germans largely still do have it to themselves, according to the Herero interviewed in “Skulls of My People.” “The land issue is a big problem,” says Uahimisa Kaapehi, an Ovaherero chief. “I will tell you that 80% of commercial farms are in the hands of the German people.”
“They have been inheriting, they have been bequeathing the wealth of generations, and we have been inheriting abject poverty, starting from 1904,” adds Festus Muundjua from the Ovaherero Genocide Foundation.
As Muijangue says in the documentary, “It’s a time-bomb.”
“We say we have waited long enough,” echoes Rukoro. “111 years is a long period and our patience is running out.”
And that was two years ago…
“Skulls of My People” had its world premiere at IDFA, who called it “a story of an ordinary grassroots group taking on the mighty and powerful against all odds.”
Directed by South African filmmaker Vincent Moloi, the film premiered on Wednesday, 24 May 2017 on Witness, Al Jazeera English’s inspiring documentary strand that brings world issues into focus through compelling human stories.
The documentary is now available to watch in full online, but you’ll have to go to Al Jazeera’s website to watch. Click here to do so.