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The crime of genocide cannot be wished away

By April 5, 2012June 6th, 2023No Comments

8th April 2012

While we commemorate the hundred days that saw the near-demise of Rwandans at the hands of a repugnant, avaricious cabal of compatriots, let’s remember to give a thought to those in other countries who suffered a similar fate. Down the centuries and on all continents on this earth, man has sought to exterminate fellow man for the simple reason that there is a small, albeit insignificant, difference between them.

For example, last week the German Bundestag (parliament) rejected two motions tabled by three of their opposition parties. Yet in 2004 German Minister Heidemarie Wieczorek-Zeul apologised for the wrongs “committed 100 years ago by the German imperial army”. The motions were for Germany to admit to having committed genocide, formally apologise and engage in talks with its victim and consider restorative justice as part of a reconciliation process.

What exactly happened and why did the mister apologise?

Without going much into history, in 1903 the Herero and other tribes in neighbouring areas (in Namibia today) learnt of a plan by German colonialists to divide their territory by constructing a railway line through it and moving them to concentration reserves. Already, these colonialists had carved up much of the territory for their exclusive occupation, subjecting the local men to hard labour and women to repeated acts of rape and other abuses.

In 1904, in a carefully planned attack, the Herero surrounded the German settlement of Okahandja and cut links to Windhoek, the colonial capital.

Their leader, Chief Samuel Maharero, had issued a manifesto that forbade the killing of Englishmen, Boers, uninvolved tribes, women, children and German missionaries. The Herero killed about 150 Germans.

Governor Leutwein, who had sent most of the colonial troops back in the belief that the local tribes had been disarmed and therefore pacified, was forced to request for reinforcements and an experienced commander from the German government in Berlin. Lieutenant-General Lothar von Trotha was appointed Supreme Commander of South-West Africa on 3rd May 1904 and arrived with a force of 14,00 troops 8 days later.

His mission was to crush the native resistance through military force, as he states in writing: “My intimate knowledge of many central African tribes (Bantu and others) has everywhere convinced me that the Negro does not respect treaties but only brute force. I know enough of African tribes and they give way only to violence. To exercise this violence with crass terrorism and even with gruesomeness was and is my policy. I destroy the rebellious tribes with streams of blood….. Only from this seed will something new emerge, which will remain.”

On 11-12 August 1904, Trotha’s troops killed about 5,000 Herero combatants at the Battle of Waterberg but they were unable to surround and eliminate retreating survivors. The pursuing German forces made sure the Herero did not break from the main body of the fleeing group and pushed them into the desert. As the exhausted Herero fell to the ground, German soldiers killed them, not sparing women or even children.

Only a few Herero managed to escape through the Omaheke Desert and reach the British territory of Bechuanaland (Botswana today), where they were granted asylum. But to prevent them from returning, Trotha ordered the desert to be sealed off and all the water wells to be poisoned. Chief Maherero and less than 1000 of his men managed to cross the Kalahari into Bechuanaland and was accepted as a vassal of the Batswana chief, Sekgoma.

Trotha issued a warning to the Herero: “Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without a gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children…….. Such are my words to the Herero people.” Because German soldiers regularly raped Herero women, Trotha had given orders to the soldiers to kill them and their children so that they would not infect the soldiers with “their diseases.” In all, more than 100,000

Hereros were exterminated, which, except for a near-negligible number, was probably their entirety.

Used to counting in millions when we talk of genocide, some here in Rwanda may be tempted to consider that number too small to constitute genocide. That, however, will not be taking into account the fact that genocide is the intent, more than the act. The intention to exterminate a people, even if it is not consummated, should be considered to be genocide. Therefore, Trotha and his troops, on behalf of Germany, committed genocide of the Herero, Nama, Damara and San people. Germany cannot escape this fact, ugly as it is.

The only way to earn back your honour – to get cathartic relief; to feel at home with yourself and; to have a say among the respected nations of the world – is to acknowledge this historical responsibility. The descendants of this Germany that rolled its name in the dirt in a genocidal campaign in Africa must face this ugliness or for ever lose their honour. Their very dignity as a people depends on it.

Otherwise history will always be there to haunt them for as long as they’ll be in existence as the German nation. As somebody said, history is ruthless and unforgiving. And undying.

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