One person’s terrorist is another person’s freedom-fighter.
One day, when I was about ten years old, some black-and-white photos in the newspaper caught my eye. They showed a bombed café where tables and chairs lay upside down amidst the rubble, legs in the air like dead animals. I could see the stains of dark blood and the shards of glass still on its floor.
The screaming headlines were about the latest “terrorist” bombings in Algiers. Although Algeria was not directly connected to Britain, being a French colony, I can still recall the mounting horror that gripped me on reading all the grisly details of the attacks, with people left dying and maimed in the aftermath.
In my safe little British world, where nothing much happened, such events seemed very far away, yet they still had the power to wrap their icy tendrils around my heart and creep into my brain. Little did I know that my future husband, then a teenage boy trying to cope with an ailing father, an illiterate mother and a string of younger siblings, was living right in the middle of that nightmare.
The Algiers I had imagined at the time, a labyrinth of twisting alleyways, crumbling walls and dark doorways, was far from the luminous, sun-drenched reality — a beautiful, somewhat shabby city sloping down to the sea, where the colours seemed brighter than in England, the sky a more vivid blue. But those grainy monochrome newspaper photos remained etched on my mind. It was not only me. To this day, Algiers remains marked by the merciless fighting between the FLN and their urban guerrilla campaign, and the French military who responded with a campaign of bloody repression and torture.
One of the most notorious bombings had been at the Milk Bar café in the rue d’Isly, the busiest shopping street of colonial Algiers. Named after the conqueror of Algeria and its first Governor-General, Thomas Robert Bugeaud, duc d’Isly, it began its journey behind the neo-Mauresque Central Post Office, cutting through the heart of the city and pausing on its way to form the perfect oval of the place d’Isly, with its statue of Bugeaud in the middle.
Trams trundled along the street, clanging and screeching on their way to Bab el Oued or the rue Michelet, and it was lined with clothes and shoe shops, high-class jewellery shops, cinemas and banks. Large department stores had also made their appearance at the beginning of the twentieth century — Le Bon Marché and, later on, Les Galeries de France with their plate-glass display windows.
The shadows of the plane trees dotted along the wide pavements danced upon the white facades of the Haussmann-style buildings, their leaves flickering like candlelight. As the evenings drew on, the brilliant sunlight would gradually give way to the more subtle glow thrown by street lamps and shop windows. It illuminated the faces of the crowds out for a stroll, enjoying the cool of the evening and the sight of the perfect disc of the setting sun cut in half by the edge of the world.
But underneath this seemingly idyllic picture was a vast, simmering cauldron of hate and resentment. The French settlers had put in place an apartheid system that had stolen land from the Algerians, segregated them and left them with no political rights. Even though France had occupied Algeria for over a hundred and twenty years at that point, Algerians had clung stubbornly to their own culture and history, and were willing to fight to the death to win their independence. And many of them did just that.
In the early summer months of 1956, the FLN leader, Larbi Ben M’Hidi, decided to extend the reach of his organisation to the capital and target the urban population of Algiers. There were two main reasons for this. It was firstly in reprisal for the guillotining of several convicted FLN fighters as common criminals. Secondly, it would bring Algeria’s independence struggle to the attention of metropolitan France and the international community. Thus began the vicious cycle of bloody urban guerrilla warfare known as the Battle of Algiers.
Ben M’hidi ordered the Algiers FLN cell leader, Yacef Saâdi, to start a campaign of retaliatory attacks on the French. Saâdi set up an organisation based within the Casbah, the old Ottoman quarter of the city, which, with its narrow alleys, ancient crumbling houses and impoverished inhabitants, was the Algiers that I had imagined as a child. He recruited a former petty criminal, nicknamed Ali La Pointe, to organise and carry out these attacks. From the 21st to the 24th of June 1956, forty-nine Frenchmen were killed — all members of the security services.
On the 10th of August, angry members of the paramilitary Main Rouge, a group of extremist supporters of a French Algeria, planted a bomb in the rue de Thèbes in the Casbah, killing seventy people, including women and children, and destroying three neighbouring houses in the ensuing explosion.
Ben M’hidi believed that this attack changed the rules of the game, and instructed Saâdi and his FLN fighters to prepare for a no-quarter offensive against the French, targeting both the military and civilian populations. It should not be forgotten that the escalating revolutionary violence came only after the committing of terrible crimes by the French army and their pied noir allies: mass killings, gang rapes, the lynching of innocent Algerians, torture— sometimes taking place in front of family members in the victims’ own homes.
As details of the use of torture and summary executions filtered out in the years following the end of the Algerian War, France’s reputation and that of many French army commanders were to be irremediably tarnished by the brutal methods used.
Many idealistic young girls from the Algerian bougeoisie were drawn to their country’s struggle for independence. They were, for the most part, educated, fired with youthful fervour and ready to do anything to help the cause. They were given the title of fidayate, (female urban guerrilla fighters) to distinguish them from the moudjahidate fighting in the maquis. Woman were useful during the Battle of Algiers, as they could easily hide letters, firearms and bombs underneath their haïks, or traditional veils.
Some of them could easily pass for French, however, and so could infiltrate public places and plant bombs there. Many were still teenagers, the youngest being Baya Hocine, only sixteen years old when she set off a bomb in the football stadium. She is described as “wearing a checkered skirt and a beige jacket. Her glasses cannot disguise her extreme youth.”
Yacef chose a trio of female fidayate, Zohra Drif, Djamila Bouhired and Samia Lakhdari, to plant bombs in Algiers at locations frequented by the pieds noirs — the Milk Bar, in particular, being a favourite stamping-ground of the jeunesse dorée. The three bombers headed to their destinations, going through separate military checkpoints, all of them wearing European clothes and even flirting with the French soldiers on duty.
Zohra, a law student from a relatively privileged background, had second thoughts on seeing women and children returning from the beach to the café on the rue Michelet that had been chosen as her target, but then she remembered that women and children had been killed in the Casbah bombing, and so ordered a soft drink and left after paying the cashier. In the Milk Bar, Samia declined an invitation to dance, slipped her bag under a chair and left. The bombs went off, killing three people and wounding fifty. The photos of the aftermath had been the ones I had seen in the newspaper.
The female bombers managed to hide away in the Casbah for nearly a year afterwards, protected by the local population. They took refuge from raids by French paratroopers in hideouts hacked out of walls, often fleeing across rooftops to the next safe house, before many of them were caught, tortured and given lengthy prison sentences.
One of the most famous, Hassiba Ben Bouali, was killed, along with Ali La Pointe, in the bombing of their FLN hideout in the upper Casbah. Before she died, she had written this poignant message: Si je meurs, vous ne devez pas me pleurer, je serais morte heureuse, je vous le certifie. (If I should die, don’t cry for me. I will have died happy, I can assure you.)