Algeria (Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity)
Since the end of France's occupation of Algeria in 1962, there has been little debate about the French colonization campaign in North Africa and its subsequent efforts at maintaining the colony. Very few people have dared to re-examine the atrocities committed by colonizing states in many parts of the world in the last two centuries. Among the worst atrocities were those committed by France in Algeria between 1830 and 1962.
France invaded Algiers in June 1830 under the excuse of fighting piracy and avenging an affront caused by Hussein Dey's reprimand of the French ambassador over the failure to pay a long-standing debt owed to the Algiers regency, which was recognized as a sovereign state by the United States and most of Europe. According to many historians, the main reason for the military assault on Algiers was the need of French ruler Charles X to build up his weak popularity and power at home. After Algiers fell to the invading forces, it took more than forty years of violent and highly destructive military campaigns to control the rest of the country.
The French occupied Algeria for 132 years and imposed a series of policies which aimed at controlling the territory and its people by all means possible, opening the country to European settlers, and extracting substantial economic and geostrategic benefits. These policies, which were systematically and violently implemented, had devastating human, social and economic consequences.
The "Pacification" of Algeria: Massacres and Dispossession
In the late 1830s French rule in Algeria was entrusted to the military, which was ordered to pacify the country by all means and to facilitate the immigration of European settlers (mainly from France, Italy, and Spain). Command was given to General Thomas Bugeaud, who was named Governor General of Algeria in 1840. His army of 108,000 troops tracked down Algerians, tortured, humiliated, and killed them, or expelled them from their lands and villages. He conducted a long military campaign against the Algerian resistance, which was led by Emir Abdel-Qader. Bugeaud finally defeated this early resistance, but not without allowing and encouraging his troops to commit horrible crimes against the Algerians.
The crimes associated with this "pacification" campaign reached their peak in 1845, when hundreds of people were burned alive or asphyxiated in caves where they sought refuge from the advancing French troops that were conducting large scale razzia (systematic raids on villages). The raiding French troops burned, destroyed or stole property, food, and animal stocks; they also raped women and killed villagers in great numbers. The violent acts committed at that time against the indigenous population, and which today would constitute internationally recognized crimes, were documented in several witness accounts and reports such as the one issued by a royal commission in 1883.
We tormented, at the slightest suspicion and without due process, people whose guilt still remains more than uncertain [. . .]. We massacred people who carried passes, cut the throats, on a simple suspicion, of entire populations which proved later to be innocent. . . . [Many innocent people were tried just because] they exposed themselves to our furor. Judges were available to condemn them and civilized people to have them executed. . . . In a word, our barbarism was worse than that of the barbarians we came to civilize, and we complain that we have not succeeded with them!
This policy of racism, wide-scale massacres, and scorched earth, enabled France to win the war of conquest by the end of 1847, and Algeria was annexed to France in 1848. In the years that followed, colonization increased the destruction of local social and economic structures and worsened the impoverishment of the indigenous population through property confiscation and forced mass migration from fertile lands. The worsening situation stimulated several attempts by the Algerians to end colonial rule. Some attempts were purely political, and aimed at achieving inclusion in the political process and changes in legislation. Others were mass actions, demanding independence.
In 1871 a mass rebellion led by El-Mokrani challenged the occupying forces in the Kabylie region, east of Algiers. This rural rebellion, the largest since the surrender of Emir Abdel-Qader, was crushed by the French and followed by the imposition of very heavy punishments on the entire indigenous population, including further land confiscations; new, onerous taxes, and a tighter control of the people. According to historian Charles Robert Ageron, in his book Modern Algeria: A History from 1830 to the Present (1991), this punishment "was intended to terrorize the natives into submission once and for alllso to procure lands and money for colonization" (p. 52).
In 1871 right after the ill-fated El-Mokrani rebellion, a group of notables published a text, Colonisation de l'Algérie par le système de colonisation du Maréchal Bugeaud, assessing the policy of Bugeaud. They declared that
the empire has done in Algeria what it would never dare do in France. It has committed against the Arabs a crime against humanity and against the army, that of offering the elite of its officers to the monstrous appetite of the leaders (p. 13).
Alexis de Tocqueville, a member of the French Parliament who had just written his famous book Democracy in America, supported not only colonization itself, but also the means used by Bugeaud's army to achieve it:
As for me, I often heard in France men, whom I respect but do not agree with, who found it bad that we burned crops, emptied stock silos, and took unarmed men, women, and children. For me, these are unfortunate necessities which any people that want to wage war against the Arabs is obliged to do (de Tocqueville, 1988, p. 77).
Although the 1871 rebellion did not succeed, it paved the way for the final assault on the colonial system, which occurred in 1954. Between these two dates, the Algerians made many peaceful demands for the end of colonial control, but to no avail.
The Massacres of May 1945
At the end of World War II in Europe, large-scale, peaceful demonstrations were organized, and on May 8 demonstrators throughout Algeria voiced their demands for independence. The most notable demonstrations took place in the northeastern cities of Setif, Guelma, Kherrata, Bejaia, Annaba, and Souk-Ahras. The demonstrators were met with hostile gun fire and physical attacks, both from settlers and from the French security forces. An Algerian carrying the then-prohibited Algerian flag was shot to death in Setif by a policeman, touching off riots. General Duval, commander of the military division of the province of Constantine, called in the air force and paratroopers, who responded to the demonstrators with such extreme violence that 45,000 Algerians were killed within a few days.
The Algerians began a well-coordinated push for independence, while France employed every means available to quell the uprising, including military repression, collective punishment, torture, and even concentration camps. The irony of the situation was not lost on some observers. Writing in Le Monde Diplomatique, Pascal Blanchard, Sandrine Lemaire, and Nicolas Bancel observe:
Of course, one cannot compare colonialism to Nazism, but the contradiction was reinforced between a France that celebrates the victory of democratic nations over a genocidal state and its maintaining, by military means, the submission of a population that was subjugated for over a century (pp. 101).
In 1957 the International Red Cross disclosed the widespread use of torture by the French army and police against thousands of Algerians. After that, information about the French treatment of Algerians became available to the wider public. The torture techniques used by the French included electricity applied to the most sensitive parts of the body, near drowning in water, sodomy with glass and wood objects, hanging by the feet and hands, and burning with cigarettes.
It was not until the early 2000s, forty years after Algeria achieved independence, that some of the aging French colonels and generals who served in Algeria finally admitted the horrors that they, their colleagues, or their subordinates had committed in Algeria. Among them were Generals Marcel Bigeard, Jacques Massu, and Paul Aussaresses. In his book, Services Spéciaux 1955957, Aussaresses admits to a specific act of torture: "It was useless that day. That guy died without saying anything . . . I have no regrets for his death. If I regretted something, it was the fact that he did not speak before dying." He also tells of how he ordered and watched many cold-blooded killings of prisoners, just because he did not have enough room to keep them. The International Human Rights Federation indicated that the general should be charged with crimes against humanity, but the French government chose not to prosecute him and others like him because of a 1968 law that absolves everyone for acts committed during the war. This protection disregards the dispositions of Article 303 of the French penal code, which sanctions any person who engages in torture.
According to most accounts, the political leaders of France were well aware of the crimes committed by the military they sent to quell the rebellion that began in November 1954. General Aussaresses admitted that Justice Minister Franìois Mitterand (who became France's president in 1981) knew about and approved the methods used by the Special Services of the army. In other words, the military were given carte blanche to do whatever they saw fit in combating the Algerian nationalists. In 1955, when evidence of torture in Algeria started becoming bothersome for France (which had just abandoned Vietnam), the government of Prime Minister Pierre Mendès France ordered an immediate study of the issue. However, that study was intended to dismiss the accusations rather than to confirm them. The ensuing Roger Willaume Report, which referred mostly to "violence" (sévices) rather than torture, did in fact find that the police used "violent methods that were 'old-established practice'" and that "in normal times they are only employed on persons against whom there is a considerable weight of evidence or guilt and for whom there are therefore no great feelings of pity" (Maran, 1989, p. 48). Even though this report was not dismissed by the government, its findings had no effect on the use of torture by the French police and army in Algeria. As Rita Maran points out: "In the colonial milieu, the application of the ideology of the civilizing mission had failed a crucial test, through the barbarous behavior of the police trained by France. The 'rights of man' were not merely neutralized in the colonial situation, they were actively violated" (Maran, 1989, p. 51).
Violence against Algerians was not limited to Algeria proper. Immigrant workers in France were also punished for their sympathy for their embattled compatriots in the homeland. Beginning in August 1958, and using what he had learned during his service in Algeria, Parisian chief of police Maurice Papon rounded up more than 5,000 Algerian immigrants because of suspicion of support for the nationalists. In 1959 he created an internment (concentration) camp at Vincennes, just outside of Paris, where hundreds of Algerians were jailed without trial and were subjected to terrible treatment. On October 17, 1961, Algerian nationalist militants held a peaceful march in Paris to demand the independence of Algeria. Unfortunately, that peaceful show of solidarity quickly turned into a bloodbath. The police charged the protesters with gunfire and night sticks, killing more than 200 immigrants, many of whom were thrown into the Seine river. Papon's culpability for crimes was not limited to his treatment of Algerians. He was tried in the year 2000 for having helped deport Jews to Nazi Germany during World War II.
Economic and Social Destruction
The horrific violence used by France against Algerians in the context of colonization did not limit itself to physical brutality and cruelty. It also came in the form of humiliation, economic dispossession, and social dislocation. After France decided to colonize Algeria and transform it into a French land, its military repression was complemented by a series of actions and policies that disrupted the lives and livelihoods of several generations of the indigenous population.
During the repressive "pacification" of Algeria's population, the colonization of the land also went forward, involving the destruction of the existing social structures and economic system. This was done by force and by passing laws, such as the sénatus-consulte and the Warnier law of 1873, which dispossessed rural families and communities of ancestral land that was not alienable under the existing Islamic and customary laws. General Bugeaud summed up France's interest in the land: "What is to take in [Algeria] is only one interest, the agricultural interest. . . . Oh, yes, I could not find another way to subdue the country other than take that interest" (Stora, 1991, p. 25). The expropriation of land was massive, and most Algerians found themselves deprived of their main mean of subsistence. Those who were lucky found insecure employment in the new large European-owned properties. Collective punishment was also used a regular means to take more land away from the local population. This happened after the El-Mokrani upheaval, in which 500,000 acres of land were confiscated. This punishment was accompanied by a total denial of due process and the 1881 imposition of harsh common law sanctions formulated in the Code de l'Indigénat (laws for the natives).
When France lost Alsace-Lorraine to Germany in 1871, thousands of residents of that region were resettled in Algeria and awarded land confiscated from the Algerians. By the end of the century, over half of Algeria's arable land was controlled by the Europeans. The few Algerians who had retained their land were so heavily taxed and victimized by so many natural and bureaucratic calamities that they could barely subsist. This condition led Alexis de Tocquevilleho wrote a blueprint for colonizationo observe in 1847 "we have rendered the Muslim society a lot more miserable, more disorganized, more ignorant, and more barbarian than what it was before it knew us" (p. 170).
Between 1830 and 1860 there were 3 million Algerians, 3.5 million by 1891 and 5 million in 1921. In 1886 there were 219,000 French settlers and 211,000 other Europeans (Spaniards, Italians, and Maltese). The total European population reached 984,000 in 1954, while the Algerians numbered 6 million. Yet the European minority controlled not only most of the country's wealth, but also the fate of those they had subjugated in their own land.
Using the "divide and rule" principle, the French created through the 1870 Crémieux Decrees, which extended French citizenship to Algerian Jews and European settlers while excluding Muslim Algerians from citizenship. The French also created a distinction between Arab and Berber Algerians, and promoted Berber over the Arabic language because the latter was a unifying medium for Algerian nationalism. The social schisms thus created among Algeria's peoples continued to have a negative legacy into the twenty-first century, more than 40 years after Algeria's independence.
Violence at Independence and Beyond
The war of independence waged by the Algerians for more than 7 years (1954962) left 1.5 million Algerians dead and substantially weakened the already meagre economic and social infrastructure. Eighteen months after coming to power in 1958, retired General Charles de Gaulle understood that the war in Algeria no longer served France's interests. In 1960, negotiations with the Algerian nationalists (National Liberation Front) began for a "clean" and orderly exit of France from Algeria. A referendum in Algeria and France gave an overwhelming support to de Gaulle's policy with regard to Algeria. The Evian Accords between France and the Algerian nationalists sealed the final terms for Algeria's independence in July 1962. However, the hardliners among the French settlers in Algeria did everything possible to resist such an outcome. They disobeyed orders from Paris, and even threatened to invade the motherland and take control for the sake of maintaining Algeria as a French possession. In a last desperate attempt, they created the Organization of the Secret Army (OAS) which would use terror to try to stall the independence momentum. Led by General Raoul Salan, this organization engaged in terrorist actions not only against Algerians, but also against French individuals and public offices deemed sympathetic to Algeria's independence. A few months before Algeria regained its sovereignty, French radical settlers and disenchanted members of the military engaged in a systematic campaign of murder and destruction. Hundreds of people were killed in the midst of burning towns and cities.
In June 1962 French settlers began their exodus, returning to France by the thousands each day, leaving behind them death and destruction. France was exiting Algeria the same way it had entered, with a widespread terror and scorched earth policy. On July 1, 1962, a referendum in Algeria showed that 91.23 percent of voters supported independence.
In 1954, France managed to entice thousands of Algerians to collaborate with its forces with the promise of assimilation and better treatment by the colonial administration. They became known as the harkis and served mostly as self-defense groups aiding the colonial forces against the nationalists. According to a report sent the United Nations in 1961, there were 263,000 pro-France Algerians, of whom 58,000 were harkis.
When the French began to withdraw from Algeria, they knew that the harkis were in imminent danger of being slaughtered by fellow Algerians for treason. Nonetheless, French officials did not seem too concerned with the fate of their erstwhile allies. Thousands of harkis were left behind to die within the first weeks of independence. According to a 2003 book, Un Mensonge Français (A French Lie) by Georges-Marc Benamou, the government of Charles de Gaulle explicitly refused to repatriates the bulk of the harki population. Legal representative of thousands of harkis that managed to reach France in 1962 began a lawsuit in November 2003 against the surviving members of De Gaulle's government, accusing them of crime against humanity and ethnic cleansing.
The colonial venture in Algeria thus closed with yet another massacre that France could have avoided. Many of those responsible for the crimes committed in Algeria escaped persecution because of French amnesty laws protecting them and because of the resistance of French officials to open the files of colonization for an objective analysis and evaluation of that painful past.
Violence in Independent Algeria
After 132 years of colonial subjugation and a bloody seven-year war for independence, Algeria went through a period of relative peace and economic development that lasted almost three decades. However, the country entered into another troubled era in the 1990s. As one of the nationalist leaders, Larbi Ben M'Hidi was quoted as saying to his compatriots in the 1950s: "the easiest part was to regain independence and the toughest one comes after that." The economic and political systems that were established in independent Algeria failed. This led in the early 1990s to a social rebellion headed by Islamist groups, which, after having been denied a legitimate electoral victory in 1991, opted for armed rebellion against the state. However, the war they waged for a decade extended also to the civilian population and foreigners. Between 1992 and 2002, over 150,000 people were killed, entire villages were abandoned, and the economic infrastructure was badly damaged. While most of the violence is attributed to the Islamists, the government also committed repression and reprisals and is responsible for the disappearance of thousands of people. Many also accuse the Algerian security service of using French-style torture and of the summary execution of suspected Islamist rebels or their supporters. Because there has not been a full and independent inquiry of the massacres and other violations committed during this internal war, the whole truth about the ongoing tragedy in Algeria remains unknown.
SEE ALSOFrance in Tropical Africa; Harkis
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