When Algeria Became the Liberation Capital of the “Third World”

The Algerian War

I went to New York to see Mohamed Sahnoun, who was studying at New York University. The camaraderie that had brewed between us in Ghana had stayed with me, and I wanted to test it further. As did he. “I’ve been waiting for you,” he said when we embraced at Grand Central Station.

While a student in Algiers, Mohamed had joined a social group active in one of the city’s most frightful slums, Hussein Dey. The initiative was launched by Germaine Tillion, the résistante, and progressive Catholic priests in the hope of establishing a working relationship with young Algerians. At the time, the initiative had been considered audacious: the European and Indigenous populations inhabited totally separate worlds, and the settler population considered intermingling indecent.

In early 1957, three years into the colonial war, the French government turned Algeria over to military command. Everyone associated with the social center was arrested. The Algerians were tortured — men and women — then imprisoned. Upon his release a year later, Mohamed found his way to Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Algerian national student association (UGEMA) was headquartered. He was granted one of the first US National Student Association scholarships for the United States.

I hadn’t been wrong. My memories of Accra, where we had shared moments of intense idealism and closeness, had become a longing. We spent our days and nights together, avoiding thoughts of the future.

Nine years had passed since I had left New York. I was more knowledgeable about the world. My politics were clearly to the left: anti-colonialist, antiracist, socialist. I had developed a taste for art and architecture. I knew something about fashion and clothes. I was more sophisticated, but I’m not sure I knew myself better. I still took chances and hoped for the best. I did know, however, that at some point I had to make a decision, buy a plane ticket and go back to my studio in Paris and my work in the international conference world. That was where my life now was.

One day, Mohamed took me to visit the Algerian Office, which handled relations with the United Nations and with the UN delegations for the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic. That work centered on the annual UN debate on the “Algerian question,” a euphemism for “Algerian war” used in deference to France who refused to acknowledge the truth of the conflict, maintaining that it was an internal affair on the level of a local protest movement. Mohamed introduced me to the representative, Abdelkader Chanderli, who showed me around the office and took us to lunch. As we left the restaurant, Chanderli asked if I would be willing to stay in New York and work on his team. The surprise was total, and my reply immediate: “Yes, I would!”

Algerians had been waging political battles against the colonizer since the 1920s, when Messali Hadj, the father of Algerian nationalism, founded the radical independence movement l’Étoile Nord-Africaine (the North African Star). Faced with bans, arrests, and death at the hands of France ’s repressive forces, Algerians defended and reinvented themselves through the years. They raised new leaders and built new organizations: the Algerian People’s Party (PPA), the Movement for the Triumph of Democratic Liberties (MTLD), the Special Organization (OS), the Movement for the Algerian Manifesto (UDMA), the Revolutionary Committee for Unity and Action (CRUA). When all else failed, they trained secretly and took up arms. With unsophisticated weapons — rusty, worn-down shotguns and rifles, bombs handmade from tin cans stuffed with powder — they struck.

On November 1, 1954, All Saints’ Day, twenty-two brave fighters launched a series of attacks against French colonial targets across Algeria. Under the name National Liberation Front (Front de Libération Nationale, or FLN), they called upon all Algerian nationalist organizations, all partisans of independence, to join them. They called on France to negotiate. This was the start of a nasty, deadly eight-year war, which pitted a technologically advanced, well-armed European nation (the fourth most powerful military establishment in the world) against a ragtag army of peasants and barely literate villagers.

Minister of the Interior François Mitterand reacted with force: “Algeria is France … The only negotiation is war.” And so the repression began. France dispatched thousands, then hundreds of thousands of troops, both conscripted and enlisted. Close to two million Frenchmen took part in the war as soldiers or police. Torture was systematic. Tens of thousands of men and women were arrested on any pretext and subjected to waterboarding (la baignoire), electric shocks on the genitals, broken bottles thrust into the anus, and summary executions. For France it turned into a “race war,” the ever-burgeoning population their obsession. Children and adolescents — Algeria’s future generations — were eliminated, wiped out, shot, starved, maimed.

Tallies of the number of people killed vary: of a population of nine million, it is estimated that between 300,000 and 500,000 died. According to French sources, over two million men, women, and children — one-quarter of the Indigenous population — were herded into concentration camps. Their villages, their crops, and their herds were burned and slain. To quote the historian Alistair Horne, the camps “varied from resembling the fortified villages of the Middle Ages to the concentration camps of a more recent past.”

On the eve of independence, the 500,000 books in the University of Algiers library went up in flames. The fires were lit by the dean of the university and the head librarian, who fled, along with 900,000 other settlers, across the Mediterranean to France: they torched the books “so as not to leave them for the FLN.” In Algiers, Oran, Constantine, the bodies of cleaning women, their traditional robes stained with their own blood, lay in the streets. Official buildings were bombed. The Radiology Department of the Mustapha Hospital in Algiers was demolished. Classrooms were destroyed, and whole schools burned. By the time of independence, 2.5 million children suffered from tuberculosis or rickets. According to the International Red Cross, 50 percent of the population was destitute, hungry, and sick.

What justification could there be for such bloodlust and inhumanity? As of 1955, the first year of the war, torture had become an instrument of France’s war, as readily used as the gun. Denial by French politicians and civil servants became standard. I remember having lunch at the home of the secretary-general of the French Senate in the late 1950s, and listening to him declare that “Frenchmen are incapable of such savagery.” The archives of the war were closed to the public for thirty years, a period extendable for up to sixty years for those documents involving “state security.”

It was only in June 1999 that the French National Assembly voted to define the “events” that took place in Algeria from 1954 to 1962 as “war.” In 2017, at long last, France provided the map of the eleven million mines planted along the borders and around the military camps of Algeria during the war.