Seen From Algiers: The Other Side of a Colonial War

In Algiers, what is commemorated on the 8th of May is not the Allied victory over Nazi Germany but the massacres of Algerian separatists by the French in Setif, Guelma and Kherrata and their areas. More than 70 years later and despite a few politicians’ speeches, the “country of human rights” has never yet been able to recognize the criminal nature of colonization and revise its national narrative.

May 8, 2017. In the space of two hours, some ten resistance fighters mujahidin are assembled in their office in downtown Algiers. On the walls are photos of the heroes and heroines of the Algerian revolution and on the office door, a poster commemorating May 8, 1945. Ahmed L.1, 66, gives a detailed account of “what the French did in Algeria”: “the occupation, the war, the wounds, the rapes”. Hamid Zenati, mujahid and archivist, gives us an appointment at the Abane Ramdane cultural center for the 72nd anniversary of the massacres of May 8, 1945.

At the entrance to the center, a display of articles from the period, mostly in French, with headlines like “Genocide!” “The true face of colonialism” “Colonial France’s crime of State”, “Colonial barbarity” . . . “Let us begin by singing the national anthem,” historian Amer Kekhila says to the high-school students assembled to hear him speak. After which he starts his lecture by questioning the usual terminology : “Why the use of the word “events”2 in referring to these massacres?” he asks, comparing them to other similar genocides which have been acknowledged. In his view they were definitely “massacres”. “They were not confined to the towns of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata, but to those whole regions and for several days.” And he adds “between 1830 and 1962, France killed ten million Algerians”.3

Massacre, Genocide or Crime Against Humanity?

During the First and Second World Wars, France drafted thousands of Algerians into its army. In return, the State promised them full citizenship: the “Crémieux decree” of 1870 had granted citizenship only to Jews and European settlers. The others were still just the “natives” or the “Moslems”. Algerians aspiring to independence like Ferhat Abbas “understood that despite their contribution to France’s victories, they would never be French”. On May 8, demonstrations were organized and the separatists wanted to demand their rights in a peaceable march. But, as our hosts remind us, a policeman killed Bouzid Saal, 16, who was carrying an Algerian flag. And as historian Warda Wanassa Tengour from Constantine University points out: “it wasn’t a big flag like we have today, it was tiny, but that was enough to cost him his life”. On that day in May, while continental France was celebrating its victory over Germany, its soldiers were killing thousands of Algerians in Algeria: 45,000 according to Algerian sources (plus thousands more arrested) (. . .) at least 1,000 according to the French.4

“What Hitler did to the Jews, France did to the Algerians!” Thus Ahmed L. accuses, with reference to the concentration camps and lime kilns. After all, the mass killing of the Jews provided the basis for the legal definition of “genocide”.


However, the crimes perpetrated by France in Algeria during colonization are never described by the UN or any of its bodies as crimes against humanity or genocide. The UN is not a neutral institution and it is not in the interests of France, which once helped to define these notions, to point to its own crimes, all the more so as any real acknowledgment would have far-reaching implications, even for its current policies—for example, French support for Israeli colonization. This is a point stressed by the historian and former president of the Association du 8 mai 1945 Mohamed El Korso, in an article for El Watan:

“A colonel in the colonial forces said ‘I cut off their heads’ [another]: ‘Kill all men over 15’. (. . .) The [French] colonels came to kill off a whole people, they couldn’t replace those they called the ‘autochtones’ [= aboriginals] without perpetrating genocide. ”

And he adds “The colonial army experimented with extermination by gas a good century before Nazi Germany” and goes on to list the genocidal practices, including “smoke outs and immurements (. . .) (1844), limekilns (1945) and the mass grave at Chrea (. . .) with its 651 corpses.”

The “Algerian question”

And yet in France, not long ago, parliament voted a draft law proclaiming the “positive role of French presence (. . .) in North Africa)” . . . which was soon repealed, it is true. But how can there coexist two accounts of the same events totally at odds with each other? Why does the “Algerian question” pop up regularly in political debates, including the presidential election campaign?

For Daho Djerbal, a historian of Algiers II University, the answer is clear: “How to conceptualize the colonial and national question has been tormenting France ever since the 1920s. The attitude to be had towards the colonization of Algeria remains problematic for the entire spectrum of French politics with no exception. There is something stuck in the collective unconscious of public opinion and the parties. There is a determination never to face up to the issue of colonial occupation and subjugation and if someone does bring it up, he or she becomes suddenly inaudible, irrelevant. Ever since the Enlightenment, France claims to hold a ‘copyright’ on Reason. But in the way this is expressed, there is a flaw, and sometimes the flaw becomes a chasm at the heart of which we find the colonial question.

“At school, we’re taught the history of the colonization and decolonization of Algeria and all the former colonies,” says Sofiane Baroudi, 27, while schoolchildren are filing into the National Museum of the Mudjahid in Algiers, at the foot of the Martyrs Memorial monument. For this left-wing activist and writer,“the massacres of 8 May show that colonialism would not allow Algerians to celebrate with the rest of the world the victory over fascism by voicing their own legitimate demands. They demonstrated once again the racist and genocidal nature of colonialism and confirmed the principle that freedom is not something you ask for but something you must win through resistance.” Hamid Zenati agrees with the historian Mohammed Harbi that “the war in Algeria began on that day”, adding that he also participated in the October 1961 demonstration in Paris, another massacre that needs to be researched as well.

Sofiane Baroudi : “France is waging an ideological war in an attempt to modify or simply erase memories. It has forged an image of itself as the country of human rights, of revolution, of the people’s right to resist, and of democracy, but the history of its crimes in its colonies tells a completely different story.”

“Since 1830, violence has been the rule. For all those generals, from the ‘conquest’ to the ‘war in Algeria’, repression had to be brutal, deep and lasting” says Daho Djerbal. Algerians’ resistance met with the systematic repression of a whole people, involving the principle of collective responsibility. . .” What happened on 8 May 1945, he insists, “was aimed at the whole population. Algerians had to be taught that if they raised their heads, they would be smashed.”

Memories of a Colonized People

How is it that never in 132 years did the people give up resisting? Every Algerian man or woman will answer this question the same way: ‘on account of the hogra’ (contempt). “The French forced their way into Algeria, nobody asked them to come,” Dabo Djerbal points out.6 “They had the most powerful army in Europe and sent 30,000 men against a population of some two or three million. The effect on that generation was traumatic, and the shock was handed down through the years.” “Woe to the vanquished, Mohamed K., a mujahid, exclaims, the French will never get this country back, for them this loss is a narcissistic wound.”

That whole history, which actually happened not so long ago, is present everywhere in Algeria. It is the subject of conversation in a corner café on Larbi Ben M’hidi Street—named after a resistance leader murdered by order of Paul Aussaresses—and located in a neighborhood that used to be ‘reserved for Europeans’ and off-limits for ‘natives’. We talked about that with historian Hocine Hamouma in the streets of the Casbah, and with the children playing there. And too with Saïda D., 76, who proudly shows us her mudjahida certificate, on display in her living room. Her body and her mind bears the scars of colonial rule. The hadja tells us her whole story: resistance, the guerilleros, her wounds, the scar left on her right leg by a bullet from a sub-machine gun, being tortured and raped by French soldiers. . . And she concludes: “By the grace of God, we had the courage to fight on.”

Every man and woman has a bit of that history to tell. And is obviously keen to tell it, with the name of a man or woman who fought often followed by the phrase “May God have mercy on him/her” (Allah yarhamu-a) when the speaker wishes to feel close to them.

Everything which is at stake in these memories and accounts of Algerian history also concerns the other countries colonized by the Imperialist powers around the world. Dabo Djerbal holds the view that the ex-colonized peoples and their descendents—in Algeria, people interviewed often compared the treatment of the colonized with the way the French State treats their children in France—must eschew validation by their colonizers and build their own narratives. Who is the subject? Who has the right to speak? Who is “objective”? ‘Who is “legitimate”? Such are the questions he attempted to answer in an article for the journal Naqd. “Only one subject elaborates, implements and defines the past, the present and the future, what can be said and cannot be said, what should be kept and what should be destroyed: the subjugator, wrote the historian. The subjugated (. . .) when they demand the status of subject of their own history, become insufferable, inaudible.” Or in the words of Frantz Fanon: “The settler (. . .) is the absolute beginning: it is we who have made this land. (. . .) If we leave it, all will be lost (. . .) The settler is making history and he knows it. (. . .) It is this colonizing settler who made the colonized and continues to do so.”7

A History That No Longer Holds Up

The French ambassador to Algiers Hubert Colin de Verdière acknowledged for the first time in 2005 the reality of what he termed a “massacre” and “an inexcusable tragedy”. In 2012, in Algeria, French President François Hollande spoke of the “massacres of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata” which “remain anchored in the memory and conscience of Algerians.”

This debate, which underlies all the debates about Islam, racism, police brutality, etc. is still repressed in France. And it is not just an intellectual or ideological issue. The successive governments and officers of the general staff, the French police and army which forged and built the Fifth Republic, were formatted by and during the colonial period and the war in Algeria. “The repressed returns, passed down through the State apparatus. These traumatic memories become in the end a culture of repression of whatever force resists or rebels,” Daho Djerbal concludes.

In the working-class neighborhoods of its overseas territories, France uses techniques of repression which it exports as well and which were inaugurated in Algeria, claiming for example that the State massacre known as “the battle of Algiers” is a repressive model capable of crushing any rebellion. In 1960 mass demonstrations led to the victory of the subjugated over the colonial power.8 If the latter’s narrative no longer holds up, it is because not only is the history of France being called into question but everything the country claims to stand for.

1We don’t publish the names to protect their anonymity.

2Editor’s note. Official euphemism used for many years to refer to the Algerian revolution.

3Thus far, research in Algeria and in France has produced varying figures.

4Idem. These figures are still being debated, in France and in Algeria.

5In 1946, the UN General Assembly produced the first definition of “genocide” : “ . . . a denial of the right of existence of entire human groups, as homicide is the denial of the right to live of individual human beings”. According to the UN Convention of December 9, 1948, a genocide is ...any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such : (a) Killing members of the group ; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group ; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part ; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group ; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group. Several mass massacres have been termed genocide in the studies produced by various international UN-connected bodies or national jurisdictions referring to UN documents ; the Armenians in 1915 ; the Jews during WW2 ; the Rwandan Tutsis in 1994 ; and the Muslims of Srebrenica (Bosnia-Herzegovina) in 1995. Also defined in 1945, the notion of crime against humanity refers to a ‘deliberate and ignominious violation of the basic rights of an individual or group of individuals prompted by political, philosophic, racial, or religious motives’.

Several mass massacres have been termed genocide in the studies produced by various international UN-connected bodies or national jurisdictions referring to UN documents; the Armenians in 1915; the Jews during WW2; the Rwandan Tutsis in 1994; and the Muslims of Srebrenica (Bosnia-Herzegovina) in 1995.

Also defined in 1945, the notion of crime against humanity refers to a “deliberate and ignominious violation of the basic rights of an individual or group of individuals prompted by political, philosophic, racial, or religious motives”.

6Cf. the ultimatum—translated as ‘convention’—delivered to the Dey of Algiers by the duc de Bourmont’s emissary.

7Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth,Grove, New York, 1961.

8See the project (by Mathieu Rigouste and Warda Mohamed) “Un seul héros le peuple”.