HERERO© Stephan Gladieu
A genocide remembered
We know little about Franz Adolf Eduard Lüderitz.
In 1883, this merchant from Breman traversed southwest Africa seeking business opportunities, eventually meeting a certain Joseph Frederiks, who was in charge of the Namas tribe in the Bethany region. On a whim, the shady adventurer purchased from Frederiks a parcel of land at Angra Pequena, on the Atlantic coast. Once the contract was signed, Lüderitz switched the territory count, which had been agreed upon in English miles (1.6 kilometres), to geographic miles (7.4 kilometres). He was now the owner of a vast territory strewn with diamond deposits. In 1885, his holdings became part of the German protectorate, a colonial incursion that would sow the seeds of a now nearly forgotten tragedy: the massacre of the Hereros and Namas peoples by the German Imperial Army. It would be the first and the least-known genocide of the 20th century.
“They can be ruled only by force. And force, wielded with stark terrorism and even cruelty, has been and remains my policy. I exterminate rebellious tribes in torrents of blood and torrents of money.”
— General Lothar Von Trotha, 1904
In 1904, General Von Trotha was assigned by Kaiser Wilhelm the task of crushing the Hereros and Namas rebels who were obstructing the colonization process. He responded with vehemence, slaughtering not only soldiers but women and children. Between 1904 and 1911, the Herero tribe lost 65,000 of its 80,000 members, and the Nama population of 20,000 was cut in half. Some were killed in battle. Others were forced into the Kalahari desert to perish of hunger and thirst. Many were deported to labour camps, where they succumbed to disease and malnutrition behind barbed wire. Dismembered, butchered, sometimes by their own children, their bodies were often sent to Germany to be studied by anthropologists.
Germany has never paid reparations to the Namas or Hereros, who today are an impoverished minority within the young nation of Namibia. However, the story does not end there.
In 2017, photographer Stephan Gladieu roamed Namibia’s roads, villages, and cities, capturing images of today’s Namas and Hereros. Like hunters who wear the pelts of their prey, Herero men have adopted German military uniforms. The women wear colourful dresses reminiscent of Renaissance Europe. It is their way of expressing their identity and tenacity freezing time so it cannot erase past crimes.
There is Ester, an activist who travels the world to give voice to the Hereros. There are the anonymous singers who gather on the very spot where Von Trotha pronounced his extermination plans. There is a Veteran, who lived in Europe doing “all that a black person can do in the West” before returning to her village and posing under the tree where her family members were hanged. There is Kaekurupa, a young family man with AIDS who tends to a community garden to help his desperate village. There is Mister Mba, an opposition politician, on his vast estate in the middle of the brush. There is Angela, 98 years old, who has forgotten much, but not that she was conceived when a German farmer raped her mother, a domestic. There is Vekuii Rukoro, the great Herero chief holding court in his flashy Windhoek villa. For him, for all of them, the war has never ended.
Still, a century has passed. Lüderitz died at sea, beyond the city and bay that still bear his name. Decorated with the Order of Merit, Lothan Von Trotha died peacefully in 1920. Yet all the years have not healed the wounds. In the country's wind-whipped south, the desert sands still disgorge the bones of victims. In the villages, the tragic past is recounted orally under a tree, generation to generation, sometimes enriched with legend. The young people are the most vehement. Their ancestral lands, seized by force, still belong to settlers of German descent who stayed on after independence. Many openly express their frustration and ambition to see them expelled. How long can the elders restrain the youths’ ardor?
Gladieu’s images capture this generation, people who did not experience the occupation but are still burdened by the weight of the past. Bearing witness to a little-known crime against humanity, these portraits have universal relevance. Through their pain and resistance, these men and women at the edge of the world whisper to us that there can be no forgetting. One day or another, the future will force us to confront the crimes of our ancestors.
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