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Algeria celebrates 50 years of independence from France

Algeria celebrated the 50th anniversary of its independence from France Thursday, but the two countries are still locked in a war of memories over a dark period in French colonial history.


AP - Three grainy photos showing French soldiers torturing an Algerian and hanging in an official exhibit in Paris are perhaps the closest public reckoning France has made of the darkest period of its colonial history.

As the Muslim North African nation celebrates 50 years of nationhood on Thursday, the two countries are locked in a war of memories that still weighs on lives on both sides of the Mediterranean, and on the two countries’ ties.

There have been no apologies for the brutal eight-year war that ended 132 years of French rule in Algeria or admissions of the longstanding allegations of torture. A half-century after Algeria broke free and wrenched from France the crown jewel of its empire, there is no reconciliation.

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But Algerians keep waiting, while the French remain traumatized by loss and guilt.

“Time is not sufficient” to make the wounds on both sides disappear, said Benjamin Stora, a leading French historian on the era. “We see that the more time passes, the more memory returns.

“This must be treated,” he said in an interview in Paris, because the problem won’t go away “by magic.”

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika kicked off a year of celebrations Thursday, laying a wreath at the soaring monument dedicated to the Algerians who lost their lives in the war _ known as “martyrs.” On a hill overlooking Algiers, the monument is a symbol of the legitimacy of the Algerian state, whose ideological foundations are embedded in the independence war.

A mega-concert Thursday evening takes place in Sidi Fredj, outside Algiers, where a French expeditionary force arrived 182 years ago, a footprint that led to the conquest of the vast, mostly desert land.

Younger Algerians are increasingly divided between pride in their country’s independence and a sense of betrayal by the succession of army-backed leaders who have failed to give Algeria a democracy and live up to the sacrifices of those who died.

“The nation is in the hands of a gerontocracy,” said Rachid Farsioui, head of the Algerian Rally for Youth association. “The young are excluded from decision-making, lost between unemployment, suicide or the Harraga,” a term for migrants who try to sneak across the Mediterranean in small boats in search of better opportunities in Europe.

Today’s Algeria enjoys large petroleum reserves that drive the economy, but the riches have not trickled down, and disillusionment with the leadership is rife. It is also deeply scarred by a decade-long Islamist insurgency and violence between militants and security forces that left as many as 200,000 people dead. Violence by al-Qaida’s North Africa branch, based in Algeria, still simmers.

Meanwhile, the wounds of the colonial past remain deep on both sides of the sea that divides Algeria and France.

Algeria claims that 1.5 million people died in the 1954-1962 war, which they call a revolution. That figure is contested by historians who believe 300,000-400,000 died - still more than the number of French killed in World War I. That compares to about 30,000 French soldiers killed in Algeria.

But the lopsided count of war dead may not be the most enduring part of the tragedy for either country. Each side lost part of itself and that rancor lives on today.

Algeria was Frenchified and its Muslim population subjugated and deprived of political rights even though the colony eventually became a “department” of France.

“Colonization brought the genocide of our identity, of our history, of our language, of our traditions,” Bouteflika said on Algerian television in 2006.

As Algeria was winning independence, 1 million Europeans suddenly left Algeria in a hurried exodus for mainland France. These so-called “pieds noirs,” or “black feet” - mainly modest artisans who wanted to keep Algeria French - are a political force today in France, along with their descendants. For Story, the historian, that is one reason keeping French politicians reticent about speaking out about the colonial role.

There is also unreconciled tension around the harkis, Algerians peasants who fought on the side of the French and died by the tens of thousands.

“There is no equivalent in history ...,” Stora said. “Algeria was a land that disappeared, a land that no longer existed that was called French Algeria.”

It “was the heart of the nation, not (part) of the colonial empire ... It was integrated into France before Savoie,” he said, referring to the Alpine region of eastern France.

It took several years for the French to come to terms with the war and for several years referred to the violence simply to “events.”

Hundreds of French troops were deployed, but the war, which began with an armed insurrection by Algerians, was unwinnable for France. Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who led the French Resistance against the Nazis in World War II, was forced to negotiate Algeria’s independence.

At a conference at the French Senate last week on Algerian independence, a woman tried to shout down a leading expert on the Harkis, Fatima Besnaci-Lancou, who briefly broke into tears.

At the approach of the cease-fire anniversary in March, Algeria’s powerful National Organization of Mujahideen, those who fought in the war, tried to re-energize a bill languishing in parliament that would condemn France’s colonial past.

That bill was an apparent response to a law passed by the French parliament in 2005 requiring textbooks to show the “positive role” France played in its former colonies. Then-President Jacques Chirac later rescinded it.

A statement in March by Algeria’s National Liberation Front, or FLN, the direct heir of the organization that fought the French - and Algeria’s ruling party for nearly three decades - put forth its “immutable position:” France must acknowledge “its crimes against Algerians.”

At an exhibition hall at the French Army Museum in Paris, under the roof of the gold-domed Invalides where Napoleon is buried, there is a quiet effort under way to own up to one rarely spoken truth.

Three photos of the French inflicting torture hang in a corner. One, taken in 1957, shows a naked man strung upside down, hands and feet attached to a wooden plank, and a Frenchman wielding a stick.

Part of an exhibition devoted to the French conquest, the war and the evacuation, the photos depicting French torture are a first. The photographer, Jean-Philippe Charbon, refused their publication while he was alive.

“We can’t recount this history without evoking torture,” said Lieut. Col. Christophe Bertrand, one of three curators of the exhibition. This “has followed the French Army to our day. The army has carried the burden,” he said.

A video showing ghastly scenes of torture of a French soldier by FLN fighters is also on display at the exhibit, showing through the end of July.

Highs and lows have marked diplomatic ties between France and Algeria, a major trading partner and strategic ally in the fight against terrorism. But a friendship treaty to make the two countries privileged partners, to be signed in 2005, is still on hold.

In Algeria, “This war is still a prisoner of the ideology of the state,” making it hard to move forward, or even allow historians to uncover facts, Stora said. What is needed, he said, is a political gesture from France.

Main photo: Mehdi Chebil/FRANCE24


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