Algeria buries repatriated skulls of resistance fighters as it marks independence from France

Algeria on Sunday buried the remains of 24 resistance fighters returned from Paris after more than a century and a half as it marked the 58th anniversary of its independence from France.

An Algerian salutes the coffins of 24 resistance fighters killed during the French colonisation of Algeria on July 4, 2020 in Algiers. The fighters’ remains had been repatriated from France the day before.
An Algerian salutes the coffins of 24 resistance fighters killed during the French colonisation of Algeria on July 4, 2020 in Algiers. The fighters’ remains had been repatriated from France the day before. © Ryad Kramdi, AFP

The skulls of the fighters, shot and decapitated in the early years of the French occupation, were laid to rest during an emotional ceremony at El Alia cemetery.

The coffins draped with the national flag were lowered into freshly dug graves in the martyr's square of Algeria's largest burial ground, alongside national heroes such as top revolt leader Emir Abdelkader.

An elite unit of the Republican Guard presented arms while a funeral march played in the background, an AFP correspondent reported.

"This for me is a big day -- a real independence day," said Yamina, the 84-year-old great grand-daughter of one of the fighters, Mokhtar ben Kouider El Titraoui.

"These remains are of the first Algerians who sacrificed their lives for this country. Without them we would not be here today," she added.

President Abdelmadjid Tebboune, who took part in the ceremony alongside military and civilian figures, has called on France to apologise for its colonial past.

"We have already had half-apologies. The next step is needed... we await it," he told news channel France 24 in an interview Saturday.

An apology was necessary to "face the problem of memory that jeopardises many things in the relations between the two countries", which had often been frosty, Tebboune said.

It would "make it possible to cool tensions and create a calmer atmosphere for economic and cultural relations", especially for the more than six million Algerians who live in France, he added.

On Sunday, Tebboune handed over the flags that draped the coffins to young cadets from military academies, akin to the "passing of a baton" to keep the memories of the slain fighters alive among younger generations, an official said.

The skulls, once viewed as war trophies by French colonial officers, were flown into Algiers international airport on Friday and then moved to the Palace of Culture where they were placed on display.

‘Reconciling memories’

Despite stifling heat, a long queue formed outside the palace and some men and women, waiting to pay their respects, wept, according to footage broadcast by several television stations.

"I came as a fighter, as an invalid from the war of liberation, as a citizen who loves his country," said Ali Zemlat.

The 85-year-old fought in the brutal 1954-1962 war that ended France's 132 years of colonial rule in Algeria.

The skulls had been stored since the 19th century in the vaults of the Musee de l'Homme in Paris, which specialises in anthropology.

Among the remains were those of revolt leader Sheikh Bouzian, who was captured in 1849 by the French, shot and decapitated, and those of his comrades who had met the same fate.

Algeria had officially asked for their return in 2018, as well as requesting the handover of colonial archives.

The restitution of the skulls has been seen as a sign of a thaw in relations between Algeria and the former colonial power, marked since independence by recurrent tensions.

The French presidency, in a statement to AFP, said the return of the remains was a gesture of "friendship" and part of efforts to "reconcile the memories of the French and Algerian people".

The repatriation comes amid a global reexamination of the legacy of colonialism, sparked by the May killing of unarmed African American George Floyd by a white police officer in the US.

His murder sparked protests across the world, and UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to make amends for "centuries of violence and discrimination".

Emmanuel Macron, the first French president to be born after the 1954-62 independence war in which 1.5 million Algerians died, made his first official visit to Algiers in December 2017.

At the time, he told news website Tout sur l'Algerie that he was "ready" to see his country hand back the skulls.

During his presidential election campaign, Macron had created a storm by calling France's colonisation of Algeria a "crime against humanity”.


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