African Descendants of German Genocide Make Plea to Be Heard

Ovaherero and Nama people in official dress gathered Thursday in Manhattan to hear oral arguments in a court case over a genocide Germany committed against their people in the early 1900s. (Photo by AMANDA OTTAWAY/Courthouse News Service)

MANHATTAN (CN) – Over a dozen indigenous Africans in official dress gathered in a 17th floor Manhattan courtroom Thursday for the latest in a court battle over the bones of their ancestors, massacred by colonial Germans in the first genocide of the 20th century.

Chief Eduard Afrikaner of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association expressed a complex series of emotions after oral arguments at the Second Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

“It is sad, actually, it is sad,” he said. He lives in Namibia but was on hand for appellate arguments Thursday. But Chief Afrikaner felt good about the arguments made by lawyer Kenneth McCallion, he added.

Descendants of those killed and the Ovaherero and Nama people sued the Federal Republic of Germany in 2017 over Germany’s violent taking of their ancestors’ bones during a systematic slaughter that killed over 100,000 between 1904-1908.

The parties have made clear they are not litigating the genocide, but Germany has since distanced itself from the remains, which McCallion said were found in the basement of the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. Germany claims they were sold to the museum by the widow of a scientist; the plaintiffs say they were in the property of the German Museum. The New York museum paid $41,500, according to McCallion.

“We are quite hopeful and optimistic that the court will find in our favor that the U.S. court has jurisdiction to hear the case, and Germany will be held accountable for the crimes they have committed against our people,” said the lead plaintiff, Herero Paramount Chief Vekuii Rukoro, in the courthouse lobby afterward.

Part of what Germany contests is that the plaintiffs added facts to their court filings late in the game.

“Nobody knew that in the basement of that museum … were the bones of their ancestors,” McCallion retorted Thursday, comparing the situation to Holocaust records turning up in an attic.

The plaintiffs also say Germany used some of the proceeds from its African land grab and bone sales to buy property in New York City, giving the Ovaherero and Nama jurisdiction here. Germany maintains it went bankrupt after both world wars, so there is no chance funds from the early 20th century would have commingled in the treasury for a real estate purchase later.

The plaintiffs want the case remanded to the district court so it could hear causes of action, said attorney Michael Lockman, and a process of reparations could begin. It’s not uncommon for victims and survivors of genocides, war crimes and dictatorships to file suit in U.S. courts.

“I think they’re going to give this a careful consideration,” said McCallion outside the courtroom after the arguments. On the panel were U.S. Circuit Judges Rosemary Pooler, a Clinton appointee; Michael Park, a Trump appointee; and joining by phone Judge Ralph Winter, a Reagan appointee.

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