In Namibia, Open Wounds Of Germany’s “Other” Genocide

Thirty years before Hitler's crimes, Germany's southwest African colony was the scene of mass killings of ethnic Hereros, whose descendants are still waiting for answers.

Herero war prisoners circa 1898
Herero war prisoners circa 1898
Tobias Zick

WINDHOEK — Outside, the spirits of the past are set to rise from the desert's dust. Men, women and children are glaring at the enemy, while soldiers in khaki bark out orders. The commander of the troops, proudly wearing a black-red-golden ribbon, walks towards the pond and opens a bottle to pour the liquid content in. This oasis of water could have saved the fugitives in the desert, but is now poisoned. Soon, the first bodies will begin dropping, lying motionless on the floor.

Each year the Herero people recall their history with this amateur theatrical reenactment. None of the cruel details are spared. These descendants, here in the modern state of Namibia, should know who to thank for their forebear's misery: Germany.

In the early years of the 20th entury, German colonial troops of the emperor Wilhelm II conquered vast territory in southwest Africa, exploiting the lands and abusing the inhabitants. Nevertheless, Germany is part of Namibia's DNA today, with one out of every 100 locals of German extraction. In a nation of some two million inhabitants, the ethnic Germans are still a wealthy and influential minority.

But back in Germany, since this summer, the Bundestag (parliament) has been facing the accusations of past genocide, which predates Hitler's crimes. According to most German and African historians, what happened to the Herero ethnic group could be considered as the first tribal genocide of modern times — 35 years before the Jews and the Nazi regime.

During the time before World War I, race theories blossomed in Europe, and Africans were largely considered inferior by the self-proclaimed master race. That leaders in Berlin at the time settled on eradicating the Hereros is an undisputed fact of history. But even if the German government has recognized the violence as genocide, it has refused to indemnify the Hereros as victims of their crimes. But perhaps even more problematic is that many German-Namibians still deny that a genocide took place.

Chained Herero in 1904 —Source: Ullstein Bilderdienst

A 59-year-old ethnic German farmer and land owner who gives his name as Diekmann is a Namibian citizen, and he loves his country. He lives in a farmhouse with a tropical garden and swimming pool, where he has raised his four children. Diekmann says he doesn't need to see the historical play each year. "I know that. I don't have to watch it again," he says. "But I am interested in a peaceful neighborhood, after all. We have 20 kilometers of common border. And there are more Hereros than Germans."

Slaves and revolt

Namibia is a peaceful country, but if Berlin continues to ignore its debt, people here would start to lose patience. The history, after all, is not in dispute. Starting in 1884, the area had officially been under "the protection of the German Reich." The Germans bought up the Hereros' land, bit by bit, with more or less honest contracts, and soon owned all the land that contained the precious few ponds and lakes. The Hereros sank into poverty, the men often became the Germans' slaves, and sometimes the women were taken too.

The night of January 12, 1904, the Hereros struck back, tearing down the telephone masts, destroying the rails of the newly built railway, setting fire to the colonial administration's offices and storming the headquarters of German-owned companies.

In response, Emperor Wilhelm II sent in Lieutenant Lothar von Trotha, known to be particularly cruel. By August 4, Trotha reported back that he would "attack the enemy from all sides, destroy him finally, once and for all." What happened next, on August 11, is now known as the "Battle of Waterberg" among Germans, and the "Battle of Hamakari" among Hereros.

German officers in southwest Africa in 1904 —Source: German Federal Archives

Hamakari is also the name of Diekmann's guest farm —and indeed, part of the battle took place there. The German-Namibian steers his jeep through thorn bushes and termite hills down to the small lake, in front of which thousands of Hereros had gathered after Trotha's attack.

That evening the "real genocidal phase," as the historian Jürgen Zimmerer calls it, began. Yes, the first genocide of the 20th century was committed by Germans. An officer testified: "The death rattle and the screaming died away in the grand silence of eternity." The General Staff reported that the drying up of all drinkable water, "should finish what the German troops had started: the extinction of the Hereros."

After mass deaths in the desert-like savanna, the "rest of the Hereros," as they were officially called, had been deported to concentration camps, forced to do hard labor, sold to German businessmen as slaves. Many died in the camps.

They started it

But genocide? Nonsense, according to most of German-Namibians. According to Diekmann, whether the Hereros should get back their land more than a century later is not the right question. "The Hereros started the war. If you start a war and it doesn't end the way you want it to, you can't really complain." But thinking like Diekmann's has been refuted by the German government itself in July, when Berlin officially acknowledged the crime as genocide. But that only added fuel to the fire in the debate about reparations.

Zedekia Ngavirue, a retired diplomat, aims at repairing the tricky relationship between Germans and Namibians. Having once served as Namibia's ambassador in Brussels, he is now busy trying to negotiate such topics as the official apology from Germany, as well as reparations for the genocide. The Hereros themselves are divided. Many think he's a puppet, a docile official of the government.

Diekmann, the ethnic German farmer whose ancestors arrived in Africa at the beginning of the last century, is worried. He remembers in the spring of 2000 when Zimbabwe's president Robert Mugabe started to expropriate the land of white farmers. Houses burst into flames, farmers ran for their life, some were killed.

Diekmann has a plan B: Uruguay. It hasn't come to that yet, but he and his wife are planning to go visit the South American country soon. "We're just having a look," Diekmann says. "There's nothing wrong with having a look."

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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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