Breaking silence

The Franco-Algerian war has been a taboo subject in France for much of the past 40 years

The Franco-Algerian war has been a taboo subject in France for much of the past 40 years. Now the truth about the rape, torture and other atrocities is coming out, writes Lara Marlowe.

France will not observe the 40th anniversary of the end of the Franco-Algerian war. A draft law proposed in the National Assembly in January would have recognised March 19th - the day of the final ceasefire - as a "day of memory". But Jacques Floch, the minister for war veterans, was accused of treason when he spoke in favour of the motion. The left-wing ministers who had proposed the commemoration abandoned it as too divisive.

The 1954-1962 conflict was a colonial war and two civil wars - between French and French, Algerians and Algerians - all wrapped into one. For the seven and a half years that it lasted, Paris preferred the euphemism of "maintaining order". The National Assembly did not recognise it as a "state of war" until October 1999.

For four decades, the conflict has been mythologised, distorted and obfuscated. The National Liberation Front (FLN) took over the country with the massacre of tens of thousands of harkis - Algerian Muslims who fought with the French - as well as the elimination of all internal opposition. The FLN proclaimed Algeria "the country of a million and a half martyrs", but historians believe the real number of Algerian lives lost was about 250,000. Of the 1.3 million French soldiers who fought in Algeria, 25,000 were killed. A whole generation of Frenchman, including President Jacques Chirac, fought in Algeria. Few ever talk about it.


In the past two years, the taboos have broken. First there was the startling testimony in Le Monde, in June 2000, by Louisette Ighilahriz, an FLN fighter who was tortured by French paratroopers in Algiers after she was shot and captured in 1957. "They couldn't rape me; I was too disgusting!" Ighilahriz recounted. "But they stuck all sorts of objects in my vagina."

Then Mohammed Garne, conceived when his mother Kheira was gang-raped by French soldiers at the age of 14 in 1959, won his lawsuit against the French state. Authorities last year admitted that Garne suffered birth defects from the beatings the soldiers inflicted on Kheira in the hope she would abort. After more than a decade of court battles, Garne was awarded a pension of €144 a month.

At the same time, Gen Paul Aussaresses, who ran a death squad under the orders of Gen Jacques Massu during the Battle of Algiers, went on trial for justifying war crimes in his book, Special Services, Algeria 1955-1957, published in May 2001. Gen Aussaresses, now 84, admitted to personally torturing and executing hundreds of Algerian prisoners. In January, he was convicted and fined €7,500.

Meanwhile, the film-maker, Patrick Rotman, was completing his four-hour documentary, The Intimate Enemy; Violence in the Algerian War, which was broadcast to wide acclaim this month by France 3. Rotman searched archives for unseen film and interviewed dozens of veterans who admit to having seen or practised torture, rape and summary executions. Men in their 60s - including Jean Faure, the vice president of the French Senate - wept openly as they recounted secrets they'd kept their whole adult lives.

Although Rotman's film is a shocking indictment of both Algerian and French atrocities, it is also what he calls "a collective questioning" of human nature. How was it that ordinary young Frenchmen, most of whom had done their Catechism and learned the classics, became war criminals in Algeria? Rotman's witnesses venture explanations - racism, peer pressure, the abuse of alcohol, anger and the desire for revenge. Most disturbing is a former soldier's mention of "a form of pleasure - doing whatever you want to a body, fulfilling your most perverse and deep desires".

Unlike other colonies, Algeria was considered an integral part of France. The Crémieux decree of 1870 made all Jewish Algerians citizens of France, but the Muslim majority were doomed to remain impoverished outcasts in their own country, cannon-fodder for two world wars. In 1947, a feeble attempt to create a two-house assembly in which 900,000 "Frenchmen of European Origin" would have elected 60 representatives and eight million "French Muslims" 60 others, failed because the pieds-noirs (European settlers) opposed it. In the coming conflict, they would die in approximately the same proportion - 10 Muslims to every European.

The insurrection started on November 1st, 1954. The guerrillas massacred their own people, as well as Europeans, to force the population to support them. From the beginning, the line between civilians and combatants was blurred.

The former Captain Pierre Alban Thomas says in Rotman's film that Colonel Bigeard's communiques "said he'd shot dead 24 fellagas (fighters). We knew it wasn't 24 fighters, but 24 fellahs - that is to say 24 peasants, shepherds who gave the rebels information" . French soldiers justified their own behaviour by the atrocities of the FLN, including the ambush, mutilation and killing of 19 French troops in the Palestro Gorge.

Second Lt Gérard Couteau's unit was called to an Arab farm in the summer of 1955. "We found the whole family massacred, and I have an image that stayed with me my whole life: there was a three-month-old baby. They had smashed his head against the wall. His brains stayed stuck on the wall. Afterwards, I told myself: you can't have pity on such people."

The documentary includes horrific black-and-white photos of slashed throats - the famous "Kabyle smile" - and mutilated bodies. Images of the massacre by the FLN of 300 Arab villagers loyal to a rival group at Melouza in 1957 are nearly identical to the slaughter of the past decade, in the war between Islamist rebels and Algeria's present military regime.

The French "pacification" of the rebellion was savage. Perhaps the most shocking scenes of Rotman's documentary are French soldiers in Ain Abid, pulling down a tent and shooting the Arab who emerges point blank, gunning down Algerians who try to flee. That the French committed these summary executions in front of a movie camera shows how little compunction they had. In retaliation for the FLN murdering dozens of Europeans in Philippeville, Gen Aussaresses, then a captain, ordered hundreds of Algerians to be machine-gunned in the city's stadium. He admits responsibility for 200 deaths; others claim 1,200 were killed that day.

Two government reports officially recognised the widespread use of torture in the 1950s. Gen Massu drafted a secret order in March, 1957, in which he wrote that "the sine qua non of our action in Algeria is that these methods be recognised, in our souls and consciences, as necessary and morally valid". The argument, invariably, was that torture obtained information that thwarted attacks, thus saving lives. A general and two high-ranking civilian officials resigned in protest, but torture continued. Gen de Gaulle promised he would end the practice when he returned to power in 1958; it was merely done more discreetly.

The French military tortured mainly with electricity - electrodes attached to the ears, armpits, sexual organs and toes. Prisoners were hung on poles, from the ceiling, or bound to metal chairs or tables that conducted current. Sometimes children were tortured to make their parents talk, or vice versa. Dirty liquid was forced down prisoners' throats through a funnel until their stomach swelled like balloons. One of Rotman's witnesses tells of rows of prisoners left to bake in the sun. "The light burns their retinas so they keep their eyes shut. From their swollen, deformed lips with bleeding blisters hang whitish tongues, which have long lost all trace of moisture. Flies buzz around them, go into their eyes, flock around their mouths, enter their nostrils or agglutinate on oozing wounds, where the metal rings hold their ankles."

Talking did not bring salvation. The murder of torture victims was called the corvée de bois. "It's a guy you've interrogated who you want to liquidate," Jacques Zéo, a volunteer in Algeria, told Rotman. "So you tell him he can leave and you shoot and kill him. It's cleaner than killing him under torture. Anyway, there's no hope for him. Someone who's been interrogated, even if he doesn't talk, if you let him go without killing him, the FLN will kill him."

Rachid Abdelli, an Algerian who joined the harkis at the age of 16, is one of several veterans who recount the rape of Algerian girls by French troops and their Algerian allies. One day in a village, Abdelli climbed on a roof and saw a half-dozen soldiers, French and harkis combined, gang-raping a young girl. The girl opened her eyes and saw Abdelli. "She saw that I had a child's face - I was 17 - and she screamed, 'Please, you, do something!' I turned and left. What could I do? Tell them to stop? Shoot at them? They were my buddies. Tell my officer? He shut his eyes. Everyone shut their eyes."

After the March 19th, 1962, ceasefire, Abdelli was caught by the FLN and tortured in turn. He should have realised, he says bitterly of the French military, "that people who kill an unarmed, wounded man would abandon us . . . I became a harki because I couldn't bear seeing the FLN slash people's throats.

"I found myself in the French army where they finished off the wounded, where they tortured, where they raped women. It was the same thing."