In search of those who disappeared during the Algerian War of Independence
Some years ago I began working on biographical interviews with left-wing activists. This work is not yet finished but has led to unexpected detours into other subjects. Because when these men and women tell you about their lives as activists, they also reveal their overall life stories, and listening to these made me realize that I would have to write about 1962 one day.
During an interview at the Librairie Ijtihad, one of my interviewees was telling me how he became an activist, and begun by recounting “his experience of independence”. His family had migrated to Algiers during the war, like many other families, but had taken refuge in their home village in Kabylia during the period of OAS (Secret Army Organization) violence. He remembered how he and the other young people from the village had taken on tasks during the transitional period and the summer of 1962. These included visiting neighbouring regions to take inventories of the numbers of dead, survivors, houses destroyed, etc. They also took part in reburial ceremonies for the bodies of mujahidin brought back to the village. The relatives of these deceased fighters had gone to find their bodies, and, if they found them, brought them back. The young people who attended the ceremonies sang nationalist hymns called anashid. They lined up in scout uniforms and played a quasi-official role in ceremonies that were being invented, thus representing the absent (or not yet present) authority of the Algerian state.
This quest for bodies has surprised me. I work in a research centre, the Institut d’Histoire du Temps Présent, where such subjects are discussed on a daily basis, and I had read The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare -in French, Le Général de l’armée morte1- many years ago, and yet I had never seriously thought about the bodies of those killed during the war of independence. (Also, while listening to my interviewee, I realized with surprise that, through one of these denials that the mind can produce, I had never asked myself where my-uncle-the-martyr was buried. The power of denial is formidable indeed.) That day, I went to the Librairie de la Grande Poste where I found a copy of Les Chercheurs d’Os (The Bone Searchers) by Tahar Djaout. In this novel written in 1984, a young man is sent by his family in 1962 to search for the body of his mujahid brother who had been killed in action.
It is a vast subject. With so many deaths (it matters little that we do not know the exact number), the highly fragmented information that circulated during the war, and the fact that soldiers were buried by their companions in arms in the conditions of revolutionary war, tens or hundreds of thousands of families could have been affected. The burial methods and rituals employed by the resistance or maquis fighters varied considerably from one location to another, but all took place in the presence of comrades in action and the absence of relatives. In La Grotte éclatée (The Exploded Cave), Yamina Méchakra portrays a nurse with the resistance forces confronted with the death of a very young man:
When he was no longer alive, I placed my hand on his chest and recited “Le Cœur d’Hialmar” as I used to in the past with my friends from the orphanage in a corner of the courtyard we used as a theatre.
Later Kouider and I were to drag him to the pit used as an open grave. A crow accompanied us.
No one will ever know that this young man who departed in the dawn of his youth had died without ever having a tomb; this land which he had defended refused him its hand.
Neither his mother nor his wife knows that he is dead and neither do they imagine that his corpse sharpened the appetite of wild animals.
They will wait a long time for news and will tremble for many nights for him.
They will pray on Fridays.
They will go and see the village sorceress for him.
She will tell them that he has been promoted and is well.
They will return happy and give slightly more to the beggars’ charity collection on the day of the souk. They will promise a celebration that will last for seven nights and seven days when he returns.
They will continue to see him in their dreams and will try to interpret those dreams every morning. They will talk about him all night long.
His wife had already promised to give his name to the child who was to be born.
On the edge of the open grave, I started to recite the verses I knew, then stopped, instead trying to recall an old memory of a mimed burial in which my soul was recommended to the poet.2
This monologue sums everything up – the heightened pain of dying far from one’s close family and the lasting pain felt by relatives in the absence of a mourning ritual to create a connection between the living and the dead. Faced with this separation between resistance fighters and their families, companions in arms invented rituals and were alone in remembering the places of burial.
Searches for bodies and reburials probably began during the war but were limited by the violence and forced displacements of populations. However, the ceasefire, combined with the relative freedom of movement it entailed, accelerated the phenomenon and thousands of families became involved. These stories mainly circulated in private but began to appear in the nascent press in 1962. The reappearance of Alger Républicain in July and the publication of Al Chaâb, the National Liberation Front’s daily newspaper, from September 18th led to the development of missing persons columns. Initially, these columns referred to people who had gone missing recently, often during the transitional period, the last months of the war, or even during the summer. A brief missing person notice would give the following details to try and help identify the person: date of birth, date of desertion from the French army or date the person joined the resistance, and date of the last news of that person. When reading such notices, it is hard not to start imagining the stories of their subjects. How had the arrival of all these men who had deserted the French army at the last minute to join the resistance forces, and had never been heard of since, been received by the resistance fighters who had joined long before them?
Gradually, missing persons searches were launched for people who had gone missing earlier. The description of their stories evokes episodes in the war without directly naming them, such as the Battle of Algiers here:
Zergoug Dahmane, born in 1937 in Algiers, has not been heard of since April 4th, 1957, when he was arrested by the paratroopers. Anyone with any information as to his whereabouts is requested to write to his mother – Mme Zergoug Dahlia – 54, boulevard de Verdun – HBM – Bt. 13 – Algiers.3
The subjects of these notices were mainly men who had joined the resistance forces, though more rarely the notices were about women. Sometimes the notices also referred to missing civilians. Between the weather page and Mohammed Zinet’s crosswords, the photographs accompanying the notices reveal the faces of a generation devastated by the war. The texts convey the efforts made by the families to construct a history of their missing relatives in an attempt to find them through the telling of their stories, if not actually in person. As more issues of the newspapers came out, the format of the notices became more standardized and certain stock phrases appeared such as the “request to companions in arms” to provide information:
M. Beraouane Mahieddine, born on 21 April 1925, has not been heard of since 1955. The date on which he joined the resistance.
Apparently he was M. Krim Belkacem’s secretary and then became the commander of the region of Bou Saâda – Sidi-Ali Bounab – L’Ouarsenis – Palestro and in the vicinity of Tizi-Ouzou.
Companions in arms who have information are requested to contact his father: M. Berazouane Rabah – 9, impasse du Tigue (Casbah) – Algiers.4
Even without direct news, the families had already gathered snippets of information which were phrased in the conditional, so as to urge companions in arms to recount everything they knew. We find these parents searching for missing children: Youcef Ould-Lahoucine, himself wounded with the resistance fighters, received medical aid in Tunisia before joining the health service set up by Dr Mohamed Seghir Nekkache. At the start of 1962, he was visited there by one of these mothers, who had come a long way searching for news of her missing son. He took the time to tell her about the shahada [martyrdom] of her son, which he had witnessed, and, as no standard documents were yet provided, ensured that she was given a provisional certificate attesting that she was the mother of a shahid and that she received a small amount of money.5 Thus she received practical support and psychological comfort.
The condition of independence fighters is different from that of soldiers in European armies during “their” twentieth-century world wars, for example. In this case there was virtually never a military administration able to make contact with soldiers’ families. The Erich Maria Remarque comrads who returned from the front at the end of the First World War were not generally responsible for telling the parents of their comrades that their child had been killed.6 Here, many men and women, some very young, had decided to “join the resistance”, sometimes against the wishes of their families. There were no forms to fill in giving the emergency contact person, as we say today. Although some were stationed in their home regions, which made it easier to contact their families, many fought a long way from home, increasing the risk of their dying in oblivion, with their family knowing only that “their” relative had disappeared without trace. Very rarely did the al-nidham or organization (the NLF) inform the parents.
In 1962, families could still hope that their missing relative was still alive. More rarely, the death had already been established beyond doubt. In these cases, the sole comfort for the families was to find the body or a tomb which they could visit to pay their final respects. Thus, we find the following message about a man who is stated as having died in 1957:
[H]is companions in arms who knew him or who saw him fall are requested to provide information and if possible to say where he is buried.7
My work on the itinerary of Ali Boumendjel, who was killed during the “Battle of Algiers”, revealed the way in which the story of his life and martyrdom was gradually pieced together through meetings between his family and people who had known him well or from a distance. Over 40 years after the events, the family’s story about him is a sedimentation of these snippets of information, which have become certainties over time. It was sometimes possible to identify which comrade had added which detail, even false, to the story, and at which point in time.
What these notices in the press reveal is the multiplicity of missing persons searches and stories, some of which were sketched out during the war but then developed rapidly once information and people circulated more freely after the ceasefire.
Al Chaâb’s readers’ letters page at the end of September provides an interesting point of view on this circulation of information. This reader, one E. Mansour who writes from Greater Kabylia, is annoyed and describes the atmosphere of waiting and uncertainty:
So many mothers and fathers wait in vain for the return of a son in the resistance. A child waits for their father, a wife waits for her husband; both watch out for those who had the good fortune and happiness to return home after so many years of armed resistance, so as to try and find out about those who are missing and the fate of their loved ones.
So many insinuations, vague replies and lies have been told to them! … This has gone so far as to maintain an unhealthy atmosphere of hope and uncertainty, a true moral torture, among the martyrs’ families! …8
He then condemns those who cause this moral torture, describing the dialogues between parents and comrades returning from the war:
It is a guilty conscience that leads one to say: “So-and-so is dead but his parents must not know” … It is also a case of guilty conscience to answer a father asking for news of his son by saying: “Your son was seen in Tunisia or in Morocco or even in Europe”, when he actually rests in peace in a land he loved so much …
If, with this kind of reply, the truth remains hard and difficult to express, that is because it hides many things, and particularly the hideous spectre of the 1958 purges, that so-called “conspiracy”.
The Boumendjel case taught me that examples of reticence or deformation of the truth were linked to the circumstances in which people exchanged information rather than to political circumstances. How could people “speak the truth” about the experience of war when they were returning from the resistance forces and were lucky to have survived? Here, Erich Maria Remarque is useful in reminding us of the glass wall which separates comrades in arms from civilians, and the guilt (or astonishment) at having survived. Some may have wished to reduce the pain of parents by telling them a story which in one way or another comforted them, by emphasizing the deceased man’s heroism, glossing over the ugliness of the conflicts between Algerians, or totally denying death and inventing the certitude of survival.
Beyond Yamina Méchakra’s “village sorceress”, who offers a life which does not exist, were there religious and magical practices linked to the search for the missing, as in other wars? Charlatans who promised the earth in return for payment? Who were the equivalents of the Europeans who held séances to try and communicate with the dead after the terrible catastrophe of the First World War? The inability to achieve closure in mourning for a missing person endures right up to the present day for some, as is shown by emails I have received, as a historian, from strangers still looking for a relative and hoping for help.
A colleague and friend I was discussing the subject with in 2015 told me a personal memory. In 1990–1991, when he was around 11 or 12, he visited the village of his family between Guenzet and Ighil Ali and took part in one of these improbable searches. The emigrant brother of a man who had died in the war of independence had travelled from France for this very reason. The village elders first indicated the foot of a tree that the workers had been instructed to dig. They had then dug at the foot of many other trees, but all in vain. Next, it was suggested that he should talk to Ammi Hammou, another village elder, who was present when the man was killed in 1956. Ammi Hammou described the facts and situated the place concerned very accurately. The brother did the digging himself. Young people from the village watched as he dug and dug with a pick. Then the pick hit something and came out with a piece of bone, a piece of femur.
The man began to cry and to shout. He shouted out in tears: “Iroumyen [the French] shot you and I have killed you a second time, I am sorry my brother”.
It was terrible for us to see this old man of over 70 crying and shouting like that and we cried with him. We then dug and found the man’s body in his clothes and shoes – I also remember his flask. I was 11 or 12 and it was the first time I had seen a dead body. And we helped him to search and then we gathered the bones, I remember, we picked up all the teeth. We put everything in a white bag. When we took it away we sang the national anthem. And then he was reburied in the martyrs’ graveyard area in the village with the mayor present and everything.9
Some of the uncertain conditional tenses used in newspaper notices from 1962 will no doubt disappear from family stories, as snippets of stories they glean, rightly or wrongly, become certainty. But others will remain. Families whose relatives’ bodies have not been gathered and laid to rest in cemeteries or martyrs’ graveyards will continue to look for a body and for certainty. Some remain to this day Bone Searchers.
This is a translation from French by Richard Dickinson, INIST-CNRS translator, revised by Helen Tomlinson.
- Kadaré, Ismaïl. Le Général de l’armée morte. Le Livre de Poche, 1988
- Méchakra, Yamina. La Grotte éclatée. Algiers: SNED, 1979.
- Al Chaâb, n° 15, 15 October 1962.
- Al Chaâb, n° 8, 27 September 1962.
- Ould-Lahoucine, Youcef. Parcours d’un militant de la Wilaya I. Khenchela dans le mouvement national. Algiers: Chihab éditions, 2015, p. 92–93.
- Remarque, Erich Maria. Après. Paris: Gallimard, 1931.
- Al Chaâb, n° 13, 3 October 1962.
- Al Chaâb, 30 September–1 October 1962, n° 11.
- Personal story, 29 September 2015. Written from notes.