Skulls and other remains of massacred tribespeople used in colonial-era experiments to push claims of European racial superiority were handed over by Germany to Namibia at a church ceremony in Berlin on Wednesday.
In what historians call the first genocide of the 20th century, soldiers of German Kaiser Wilhelm slaughtered some 65,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama tribespeople in a 1904-1908 campaign in retaliation for a revolt against land seizures by German colonists.
Herero chief Vekuii Rukoro said the handover ceremony on Wednesday should have taken place not in a Berlin church, but a German government building.
He also accused Germany of taking too long to formally apologise for what is often called the first genocide of the 20th century.
“By trying not to acknowledge the past, the German government will continue to make serious mistakes as regards present and future policies,” Rukoro told the church audience, which included government officials from both countries.
“We are after all the direct descendants of these remains and we should not be ignored.”
A Namibian delegation formally received the remains, including 19 skulls, a scalp and bones, during the church ceremony.
Michelle Muentefering, a minister of state for international cultural policies in the German foreign ministry, asked “for forgiveness from the bottom of my heart” as she handed over the remains to Namibia’s culture minister.
Several Herero women in traditional, cow-horn shaped headdress wiped away tears during the at times emotional proceedings.
“May the remains of our ancestors finally go home to Namibia in peace. May they return to the dust from which they came. May justice be done and faith in humanity be restored,” said Johannes Isaack, Nama chief.
Outside the venue, some two dozen protesters held up signs that read: “Repatriation without an official apology?” and “Reparations Now!”.
The German government announced in 2016 that it planned to issue an official apology for the atrocities committed by German imperial troops.
But it remains locked in talks with the Namibian government on a joint declaration on the massacres.
It has also refused to pay direct reparations, arguing instead that German development aid worth hundreds of millions of euros since Namibia’s independence from South Africa in 1990 was “for the benefit of all Namibians”.
Angered by Berlin’s stance, representatives of the Herero and Nama tribes have filed a class-action lawsuit in a US court demanding reparations.
They also want a seat at the table in the discussions between the German and Namibian governments.
“They are still negotiating on an appropriate text … for an apology. That’s a big joke,” Rukoro said during the service, wearing a red, military-style dress uniform.
He accused both countries of trying to sideline him and others in the handover proceedings, saying he had been told in advance “not to embarrass the two governments”.
Rukoro also blasted the decision to hold the ceremony at the French Church in Berlin.
“We don’t believe that it is bigger and more dignified than all the government buildings of the federal government in Berlin,” he said.
Rukoro and Isaack are both plaintiffs in the US lawsuit.
The New York judge in the case has yet to rule on whether to hear the suit, which Germany wants thrown out on the grounds of state immunity from prosecution.
Incensed by German settlers stealing their land, women and cattle, the Herero revolted in 1904 and killed more than 100 German civilians over several days. The Nama people joined the uprising in 1905.
Determined to crush the rebellion, General Lothar von Trotha signed an “extermination order” that would lead to the deaths of about 60,000 Herero and 10,000 Nama people.
Many were murdered by German imperial troops while others, driven into the desert or rounded up in prison camps, died from thirst, hunger and exposure.
Dozens were beheaded after their deaths, their skulls sent to researchers in Germany for discredited “scientific” experiments that purported to prove the racial superiority of white Europeans.
In some instances, captured Herero women were made to boil the decapitated heads and scrape them clean with shards of glass.
Research carried out by German professor Eugen Fischer on the skulls and bones resulted in theories later used by the Nazis to justify the murder of Jews.
Germany has previously repatriated human remains to Namibia in 2011 and 2014.
The remains, many of which were stored on dusty shelves in universities and clinics, were “often stolen … brought to Germany without respect for human dignity”, according to the German foreign ministry.