Call for port extension to be halted as genocide remains are found on Namibia’s Shark Island

The campsite at Shark Island, where thousands of Herero and Nama people were killed. Photograph: Guy Oliver/Alamy

The Namibian authorities are being urged to halt plans to extend a port on the Shark Island peninsula after the discovery of unmarked graves and artefacts relating to the Herero and Nama genocide.

Forensic Architecture, a non-profit research agency, says it has located sites of executions, forced labour, imprisonment and sexual violence that occurred when the island was used by the German empire as a concentration camp between 1905 and 1907.

More than 65 000 Herero and 10 000 Nama people were killed by German troops between 1904 and 1908, in what is widely acknowledged as the first genocide of the 20th century.

The attack was in retaliation to a revolt against colonial rule led by paramount chief Samuel Maharero. Many were killed in the camp on the peninsula.

Researchers say there was a “credible” risk that human remains could be found in the waters around the peninsula’s port, which the authorities want to expand to support green hydrogen production along the country’s south coast.

Historical accounts suggested people who died in the camp were “thrown to the sharks”, says Forensic Architecture.

Researchers have called for a moratorium on all development projects in the area and for wider investigations into potential underwater graves.

“Any prospective construction needs to be stopped until these sites are fully protected and thorough studies of the remains on the camp have been done,” says Forensic Architecture researcher Agata Nguyen Chuong.

“[The] constructions will further desecrate and compromise Shark Island as a site of archaeological, historical and cultural heritage.”

Forensic Architecture worked with traditional leaders to identify the locations of the genocide through historical accounts cross-referenced against archival photos, documents and satellite imagery. Ground radar was used to detect anomalies in the soil to identify mass graves.

The discoveries, published in April, have sparked renewed calls from traditional leaders for the peninsula to be designated a historic site.

The government recognised the area as a national heritage site in 2019, but communities say it has made little difference to how the area is viewed.

The peninsula is now a tourist site, with camping facilities and beachside resorts, as well as a busy port.

“Shark Island is a sacred place,” says Paul Samuel Herero, Samuel Maharero’s great-great-grandson.

“For us, it should be a monument. We want our people to be able to come and understand the pain and suffering of our forefathers, who died a very painful death. Yet 34 years after independence, my forefathers are still yearning, pleading and begging for recognition with the new Namibia.”

Sima Luipert, a genocide activist and representative of the Nama Traditional Leaders Association (NTLA), says: “The way the landscape has been changed over the years is starting to remove any traces of what happened there.

“The Namibian government is downplaying the severity and lasting impacts of the genocide, which is what we want to prevent.”

Prominent memorials commemorating German colonial soldiers have been erected along the peninsula, while graves of communities killed in the genocide remain largely unmarked.

Earlier this month, communities re-erected a collapsed temporary tombstone honouring the victims of the genocide.

Johannes Ortmann from the NTLA says: “Up to now … there has been no significant commemoration put up [at Shark Island] for people to be aware of what happened there.”

Construction at the port is set to begin early next year.

The Namibian Ports Authority (Namport) says it had commissioned archaeological studies and was consulting with affected groups and the Namibia Heritage Council. Environmental impact assessments were also being conducted.

Namibia Wildlife Resorts, which manages tourism on the peninsula, told The Guardian it had erected a noticeboard requesting tourists “offer the island the necessary dignity and respect as a sacred site”.

While it remained open to consultations with communities on the management of the peninsula, it said tourism brought important economic benefits for the country and there were no “immediate plans” to reduce it.

Forensic Architecture’s findings are part of a body of digital restitutive evidence it is gathering in support of the Herero and Nama people’s calls for direct reparations for the genocide.

Germany formally acknowledged the genocide in 2021, when the government pledged approximately £1 billion to Namibia in development aid projects over the next 30 years, targeting descendant communities.

However, the communities rejected Germany’s offer and have challenged the Namibian government in court for agreeing to the deal without their approval.

They say they were sidelined in talks and that their demands for direct reparations and the return for their land – taken during colonial rule – were sidestepped.

“[Development aid] does not address the issue of genocide committed by Germany against the Nama and Herero people,” says Luipert.

“If Germany is really serious about reconciliation, it still needs to deal with the reality of reparations.” – The Guardian

Stay informed with The Namibian – your source for credible journalism. Get in-depth reporting and opinions for only N$85 a month. Invest in journalism, invest in democracy –
Subscribe Now!

Latest News