Algerians dismayed at overlooked war history
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Fifty years ago, representatives of the French government and the main Algerian nationalist party signed the Evian Accords, ending the Algerian War. But FRANCE 24 finds little sign of commemoration on the streets of Algiers.
“March 19th? It’s the victory feast, right?” Despite his momentary hesitation, Nabil, a 22-year-old Algerian student, recognises the importance of this milestone in his country’s history.
Indeed, 50 years to the day, representatives of the French government and the main Algerian nationalist party - the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) - met in the French spa town of Evian to sign a series of peace accords that ended the Algerian War, one of the world’s most bloody anti-colonial struggles.
The Evian Accords paved the way for Algeria’s independence, coming nearly three months later -- on July 5, 1962 -- and ending 132 years of French colonisation.
“Given the importance of this key date, there have been some lectures and debates and tributes to the war veterans, including my grandfather and especially my uncle, who died a martyr to free Algeria,” says Nabil, as his friend, Adel, a fellow civil engineering student, nods respectfully.
But the two students note with dismay that there are no official large-scale ceremonies planned by either national or local authorities to mark the occasion.
Here, in the sun-drenched Algerian capital of Algiers, where gleaming new skyscrapers loom over old colonial buildings in this Mediterranean port city, there are no reminders that the country is marking an historic anniversary -- except for dozens of Algerian flags hoisted along the waterfront in recent days.
Childhood memories of a glorious day
Leaning on a newsstand a few steps from the majestic, imposing edifice of the General Post Office, Hussein, a middle-aged bystander sporting a bushy mustache and a three-piece suit, also says he is disappointed by the indifference surrounding the anniversary.
“I was 12 in 1962, and I vividly remember that day,” says Hussein. “Despite my young age, I realised, judging from the reactions of the adults, that it was going well and could well be the first step toward the end of the war and independence.”
Adjusting his vintage sunglasses, Hussein recalled that March 19 was a holiday in Algeria until 1988. Proof, according to him, that, “some people in this country are lobbying in favor of France to wipe out a piece of Algerian history.”
Salima also remembers the historic day of 1962, although she was only four-years-old at that time. “Algiers was celebrating, we went out into the streets, my mother and me, to express our joy at being free alongside our compatriots,” she recounts, her voice trembling with emotion. This German language teacher maintains that it’s necessary to celebrate March 19, 1962, so that “the younger generation does not forget all the evil that was done by colonialism, and they’re proud of their identity.”
Avoiding the wounds of the past
The Evian Accords brought an end to the brutal eight-year Algerian War of Independence that saw atrocities committed by both sides, with Algerian historians putting the death toll at 1.5 million Algerian victims even as French historians say around 400,000 people from both sides were killed.
Half-a-century later, the wounds of the past have still not healed -- at least in official circles. Algeria has long demanded an official apology from France over the Algerian War.
For his part, French President Nicolas Sarkozy has acknowledged that "there were abuses," during the war of 1954 to 1962. “Atrocities were committed by both sides. These abuses, these atrocities have been and must be condemned. But France cannot repent for having conducted this war," he added.
Despite the prickliness over the issue, Salima maintains that she does not wish to remain hostage to history. “Despite this painful memory, I no longer consider France an enemy,” said Salima, whose name means “peaceful” in Arabic.
The price of peace
In the offices of Al Watan, the leading Algerian French-language daily founded in 1990, the disappointment is palpable.
"The 50th anniversary of the Evian Accords deserves to be celebrated because they constitute a political victory for Algerians who, on that day, obtained important concessions from the French colonisers,” says Faisal Métaoui, a veteran Al Watan reporter.
Métaoui explains that the Algerian authorities have always preferred to commemorate July 5, 1962 -- Algerian Independence Day -- or November 1, 1954, marking the start of the war in Algeria. “The authorities do not consider March 19 a big day, but merely as a step in the process of liberation, because the debate over the Evian Accords is still unresolved and some Algerian officials from that era think the peace agreement was inadequate -- even a betrayal,” he explains.
While the Evian Accords did bring an end of the Algerian War, it opened up many painful, contentious issues.
With France ceding its important North African colony in 1962, the fate of nearly a million "pieds-noirs", or European settlers, was at stake, triggering a massive, panicked exodus -- the largest human migration in post-war Europe -- to a “home country” they never knew and in which they were not really welcome.
More painful for Algerians were the massacres of those Algerians who had served in the French security services -- or "harkis", as they are known -- following the withdrawal of French troops.
Columnist Hassan Moali believes that Algeria officially conceals the symbolism of the Evian Accords anniversary to avoid having to take stock of the darker chapters of the independence struggle, which was fought by the current ruling FLN party that has dominated post-colonial Algerian history.
What’s more, the 50th anniversary commemorations happen to fall in an election year in both countries. France goes to the polls on April 22 for the first round of the presidential election; while Algeria holds parliamentary elections in May.
During a visit to Algeria in December, French Interior Minister Claude Gueant echoed his Algerian counterpart in calling for moderation during this period of commemoration in order to avoid reigniting tensions.
Moali suspects the Algerian authorities are caving in to pressure from France. “As a result, we have this impression, this pathetic impression, that France is commemorating this alone -- particularly in the media. It’s like the world has turned upside-down,” he says.
Nabila Amir, a political reporter at Al Watan for 13 years, says she feels a tug her heart strings when she thinks about “the victims of colonialism and the war that will not be honored with dignity” on March 19.
“Normally, in a country that respects itself, we would have prepared for the anniversary several months in advance, if only to refresh memories,” says Amir.
“How then can we blame the majority of Algerian youth for not knowing their history when they are deprived of the opportunity to mark such an important occasion?” she asks sadly.