Namibia turns to world for answers on missing soldiers

Relatives of 'disappeared' fighters hope the International Criminal Court will investigate.

Stephanie Hanes
Missing: Christine Goagoses believes her son was killed by fellow combatants.
Rich Clabaugh

For years, Christine Goagoses has replayed the events in her head, trying to reach some understanding, or at least peace.

Dec. 24, 1988: Ms. Goagoses's son Joseph Hendricks slips into Angola to join the South West African People's Organization (SWAPO), fighting for independence.

Then: nothing. Mr. Hendricks never came home from Angola. But according to SWAPO, now the ruling party of Namibia, he never died and was never imprisoned.

He is one of Namibia's "disappeared" – soldiers and members of minority ethnic groups who have gone missing during and after the country's struggle for independence. Relatives have sought answers in local courts, rallies, and now the world's latest international justice institute: the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This latest move has caused tremors in Namibia's political circles and raised new hope for Goagoses and other relatives of disappeared soldiers. It has also illuminated the impact of the international court and of other justice efforts, such as truth commissions, which are increasingly popular in post-conflict countries.

These days, many Africans such as Goagoses expect their leaders to address the wrongdoings of the past; if not, they look to the international community. "Forgiveness is the answer of everything in this world," says Goagoses. "But how can there be any reconciliation without acknowledgement? ... Maybe the court can help."

The issue of Namibia's disappeared has long simmered under the country's relative stability. Once a protectorate run by South Africa, Namibia in the 1980s was in a full-fledged struggle for independence. SWAPO guerrillas battled South African defense forces in Namibia and in neighboring Angola.

As with their comrades in South Africa's African National Congress, SWAPO fighters were vulnerable to spies. In black townships and in bush camps of southern Angola, someone suspected of working for the enemy could be killed without trial. It was, some fighters insisted, a wartime necessity; others say it served as a cover for personal vendettas.

This, Goagoses says, is what happened to her son. She says an ex-combatant visited her after Namibia's independence in 1990 and told her that Hendricks had threatened to expose a few SWAPO leaders' mistreatment of lower-ranking soldiers. Soon after, he was removed from their barracks and never returned.

Hendricks's is not a unique story. In the 1970s and '80s, human rights groups report, thousands of SWAPO fighters vanished. After 1990, when the country elected SWAPO leader Sam Nujoma as president and instituted a democratic constitution, family members of these soldiers pushed the government to investigate what happened in Angola. In 1991, Namibia invited the International Committee of the Red Cross to investigate the situation – a process critics said was inadequate and undermined by the government.

The debate continued throughout the 1990s, as did a call for Namibia to hold a truth and reconciliation process. SWAPO leaders rejected the idea, saying they had already implemented reconciliation policies and that a commission would hurt stability. Henning Melber, a SWAPO member who now heads the Dag Hammarskjold Foundation and has written extensively about Namibia, says part of this resistance came from SWAPO leaders' awareness that they could be implicated in human rights violations.

Then, in 2002, the world's first permanent international court opened its doors. The ICC's mission is to provide justice when national judiciaries are unable or unwilling to do so. Local human rights groups saw another chance. In 2006, Namibia's National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) asked the ICC to investigate whether Mr. Nujoma and three other officials were connected to soldiers' disappearances.

"We didn't go to the court to ask them to prosecute," says Phil ya Nangolo, NSHR's director. "We want them to investigate it. These issues have remained unresolved for too long."

There wasn't much reaction to the move until months later, at which point SWAPO members began calling Mr. ya Nangolo's group treasonous. He and his colleagues received death threats.

Few experts expect the case to go far. The ICC is meant to try cases of genocide, war crimes, and other offenses against humanity that occurred or continued after 2002. Prosecutors have received hundreds of requests to investigate. So far they have confirmed only a handful of cases against warlords in conflict areas.

In Namibia, where political debate is regularly quieted by the government, the ICC application has been all over radio talk shows and newspapers for months. It also seems to have rekindled the debate over having some sort of truth commission. One recent newspaper poll showed that almost 80 percent of Namibians surveyed thought a truth and reconciliation process would help the country.

"It sounds as if it is very unlikely that the ICC would accept that submission.... But it has had a huge impact on the public discourse in Namibia," says Mr. Melber. "It is alerting the electorate that there is unfinished business."

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