“Sad times. Sad Kabylie. Sad Kabylie because traitors are uncovered every day. They are executed and those who killed them are then executed in their turn.”
-Diary of Mouloud Mammeri
My mother-in-law loved to sing. She would sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor, close her eyes and away she would go. During the first months of our marriage, I noticed that some songs made her more emotional than others. She would sit there, swaying from side to side, tears leaking from beneath her tightly-closed eyelids and her voice quavering.
Intrigued, I would ask T what she was singing about. He would listen for a couple of seconds, then shrug and say, “She’s singing about Amirouche.” It was only later I learnt that Colonel Amirouche had, in fact, been a distant cousin of hers.
Amirouche Aït Hamouda was born in 1926 in Tassaft Ouguemoun, a tiny village in Kabylie, a few kilometres from my husband’s village. He was a posthumous child and his widowed mother had taken him, when still a baby, back to her home village, Ighil Bouamas, which was barely a hamlet — just a few houses huddled together on one of the peaks of the Djudjura mountains that rise like mighty jagged teeth from the earth, creviced by the sun, the wind and the snows of winter.
Life was hard for widows and orphans in Kabylie. Normally, a room is kept empty in a Kabyle house, in case one of the daughters of the family is widowed or divorced and needs to return home. But once there, they are dependent on the charity of others, as my mother-in-law had found to her cost after the death of T’s father.
In exchange for food and shelter, destitute women and their children are supposed to work for the family members who have taken them in. After their father’s early death, T and his brothers had worked on the family farm in Reghaïa without pay for his father’s younger brother, after all of my father-in-law’s assets had been seized by the uncle in question.
This custom is called acrik, and amounts to the kind of serfdom found in medieval Europe. Some people are indentured for the rest of their lives – working just for the food they eat and the roof over their heads. From his childhood onwards, Amirouche had worked without pay for his mother’s brother.
The way out of this servitude was usually education. It was so for T and his brothers, and Amirouche was also able to go to school for two or three years. He learned to read and write – enough to marry, move away, and set up a small business selling Kabyle jewellery in Relizane, near Oran.
He became interested in politics, joining Messali Hadj’s pro-independence movement, the MTLD, and later, its clandestine armed wing, the OS. Imprisoned in 1951 and then released, he would become even more passionately engaged in the fight for Algeria’s independence.
Krim Belkacem, one of the historic leaders of the independence struggle, on learning that Amirouche had assumed, without permission, the command of the FLN in the region of Michelet on the death of its former commander, had been in two minds whether to maintain this impertinent upstart in his post or get rid of him.
Krim had been impressed, however, on meeting the tall, spare, coureur des djébels, (hill runner) for the first time. Amirouche had a long, boney face ending in a determined chin, restless eyes as black as currants, and a typical Kabyle aquiline nose above the obligatory dark moustache.
The FLN leader found the young fighter single-minded and decisive, yet willing to follow orders, and, best of all — extremely well -organised. He decided to spare his life, saying six months later that Amirouche had turned out to be one of his best lieutenants.
This organisational ability was soon to be seen in the steady stream of reports flowing from Amirouche’s pen to the FLN High Command, all written in his cramped handwriting, on headed paper, in triplicate, and signed and stamped by him personally. He kept his accounts to the nearest centime.
I find these character traits — single-mindedness, extreme courage, a capacity for hard work, physical endurance and an almost masochistic austerity — to be very common amongst Kabyles. Perhaps all mountain dwellers are the same – their character a product of the harshness of their environment.
Although Amirouche was a ruthless disciplinarian, his soldiers were loyal to him, as they had found that, although he was hard on them, he was even harder on himself. He would lend a hand whenever there was hard work to be done, and sleep, rolled in his burnous, on the rocky soil, not on a camp bed like the other commanders.
Always restless, never wanting to sleep in the same place two nights running for security reasons, he would travel from village to village on foot, sometimes covering seventy kilometres a day, all the while quoting, from memory, lines of poetry by the Kabyle wandering bard, Si Muhand ou-Muhand, who had railed against French rule over eighty years before.
Called “The Berber Verlaine” by scholars, Si Muhand’s life had been blighted by the repression following the Mokrani uprising of 1871, his father being executed, his uncle exiled and all his family’s possessions forfeited. “I have sworn that, from Tizi-Ouzou to Akfadou, I will never submit to their domination…”
Amirouche rapidly climbed the echelons of the FLN, before being promoted to the rank of colonel in 1957 and put in charge of Wilaya III, or Greater Kabylie. The French began to call him The Wolf of Akfadou, Amirouche the Terrible, or again, The Lion of Kabylie.
Two incidents were to mark the last two years of Amirouche’s life — one that was to tarnish his reputation irremediably and the other leading to his own death.
In 1958, the French secret services were looking desperately for the chink in Amirouche’s armour. They found that his Achilles heel wasn’t money, women, or alcohol. It was his own obsessive nature, of a kind which, if unchecked, can lead to paranoia. Using a form of psychological warfare, they made him believe that any young man going underground to join him was a traitor, a mole sent by the French to infiltrate the soldiers under his command.
This led to him instigating a series of bloody purges, called la bleuïte, of young idealists, des bleus, (rookies), fleeing from the Battle of Algiers to join him up in the mountains. Often the “capital” crimes of which they were accused amounted to little more than asking questions, or showing “an incorrect revolutionary attitude.” A massacre of the innocents.
Most of the victims were educated – intellectuals, students, doctors and teachers. Algeria’s hopes for the future, cut down before their time. I am sure that my own husband could easily have been amongst the victims, if he had not had to take care of his mother and siblings. His uncles had tried to persuade him to join Amirouche to get rid of him once and for all.
As it was, those executed were buried where they fell, in shallow graves on cold hillsides, the moan of the bitter wind sweeping through the mountain gorges the only prayer for the dead they would hear. A friend told T that he had actually seen their pathetic belongings piled up in a storeroom, their battered suitcases tied with string, their torn rucksacks spilling out their pitiful contents – an old pair of shoes; a crumpled dirty shirt…
Even Amirouche himself admitted that at least twenty per cent of the victims were innocent. He is quoted as saying, “…. to get rid of gangrene, you have to cut until you find healthy flesh. It doesn’t matter if two-thirds of Algerians are killed, as long as the remaining one-third is free….”
By the end of 1958, Amirouche had his region in the grip of terror, the contagion spreading to neighbouring military zones. In March 1959, he decided to go to Tunis to call the GPRA (the FLN’s political wing) to account for their lack of participation in the war. He declared that it was time to demand of “these palace revolutionaries, these gentrified leaders in Tunis and Cairo” that those fighting on the ground inside Algeria be given a greater say in the direction the revolution was taking.
His plans had, however, been revealed to the French military by traitors. By the time his men got wind of the betrayal and sent a messenger scurrying after him, he was already dead. He had been ambushed in the barren wastes of the Hodna, with the French pitting two thousand, five hundred soldiers, helicopters, bazookas, fighter planes and armoured trucks against him and his forty followers, armed only with their guns.
When the smoke cleared, Amirouche’s body was found, embalmed and put on show, like the body of Che Guevara, with French officers and soldiers posing with his corpse for photographers. As if that weren’t the ultimate indignity, Boumediène, always jealous, had his remains exhumed, reburying them in the cellar of an army barracks, where they remained for seventeen years, until Amirouche’s son was finally able to lay him to rest, with full honours, in El-Alia cemetery in Algiers.
Hero or villain? The jury is still out. For my mother-in-law, there was no doubt. He was her hero.