Germany returns stolen Namibian skulls amid protests

Friday September 30 2011

By AFP

At a solemn ceremony marred by protests, Germany handed back Friday 20 skulls spirited away from Namibia a century ago after what many historians call the first genocide of the 20th century.

A 55-member delegation from Namibia took part in the formal handover featuring tribal leaders, government officials and descendants of Herero and Nama victims massacred by German imperial troops.

But chaotic scenes accompanied the speeches, particularly an address by German Deputy Foreign Minister Cornelia Pieper, with a handful of demonstrators shouting words they demanded to hear from her: "reparations", "apology" and "genocide".

"Today's handover of the skulls reminds us of a dark chapter in shared German-Namibian history. It is an occasion to again acknowledge the atrocities committed," she said.

After expressing "deep regret" for the deaths in remarks translated into the Nama and Herero languages, Pieper left the ceremony quickly.

Germany has repeatedly refused reparations, saying that its 600 million euros ($818 million) in development aid since Namibia's independence in 1990 was "for the benefit of all Namibians".

The skulls are among an estimated 300 taken to Germany after a slaughter of indigenous Namibians during an anti-colonial uprising in what was then called South West Africa, which Berlin ruled from 1884 to 1915.

Incensed by German settlers stealing their land, cattle and women, the Herero people launched a revolt in January 1904 with warriors butchering 123 German civilians over several days. The Nama tribe joined the uprising in 1905.

The colonial rulers responded ruthlessly and General Lothar von Trotha signed a notorious extermination order against the Hereros.

Rounded up in prison camps, captured Namas and Hereros died from malnutrition and severe weather.

Dozens were beheaded after their death and their skulls sent to German researchers in Berlin for "scientific" experiments.

Up to 80,000 Hereros lived in Namibia when the uprising began. Afterwards, only 15,000 were left.

The skulls gathered dust in the German archives until three years ago when a reporter uncovered them at the Medical History Museum of the Charite hospital in Berlin, and at Freiburg University in the southwest.

So far, 47 skulls have been found at the Charite and about a dozen more in Freiburg.

The publicity around their discovery prompted Herero and Nama leaders to ask the Namibian government to seek their return.

Members of the delegation began the ceremony outside the Charite university lecture hall with prayers and songs to their ancestors.

The service itself was held inside on a podium on which two of the skulls were displayed before Namibian flags, with one of the skulls marked on two sides with inscriptions in the blue-grey ink of the university archive system.

Bouquets of white lilies and roses were placed on either side.

Herero and Nama generals stood watch, wearing crisp uniforms laden with medals and carrying their tribal banners.

Charite chairman Karl Marx Einhaeupl said the purported "research" on the skulls performed by German scientists had been rooted in the perverse racial theories that later planted the seeds for the Nazis' genocidal ideology.

Namibian Culture Minister Kazenambo Kazenambo railed against the poisonous legacy of German colonial rule, which he said still drained his country of vital strength.

Pointing to the skulls, Kazenambo called them "our silent heroes and heroines, whom we are looking forward to taking home".

"May their souls rest in tender peace as we repatriate them for a dignified reception," he said.

Researchers determined the region from which the skulls came as well as the sex and age of the victims but say there is no hope of learning their identity or cause of death.

The Namibian representatives will return home Tuesday with a memorial service planned in the capital Windhoek the following day to welcome the 11 Nama and nine Herero skulls, which will go on display in a local museum.

The remains, derived from four women, 15 men and a boy, are expected to be followed by others in due course.