Daily Archives: 16 June 2005

When the Stars and Stripes Scooped L’Humanité in Algeria

On May 8, 1945, the day the [World War II] armistice was signed, Muslim Algerians paraded in most of the cities of Algeria, with banners bearing the slogan “Down with fascism and colonialism.” In Sétif, the police fired on Algerian demonstrators, who countered by attacking police officers and Europeans. It was the beginning of a spontaneous uprising, supported by the PPA [Algerian People’s Party] militants of Constantinois. In the rural areas, peasants revolted in La Fayette, Chevreuil, Kherrata, and Oued Marsa. Among the Europeans, 103 were listed as killed and 110 wounded. On May 10, the authorities organized a true “war of reprisals”–to borrow the Algerian historian Mahfoud Kaddache’s expression–which turned into a massacre. Shootings and summary executions among the civilian population continued for several days under the direction of General Duval. Villages were bombed by the air force, and the navy fired on the coast. The French general Tubert spoke of 15,000 killed among the Muslim population. Algerian nationalists put forward the figure of 45,000 dead.

SOURCE: Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History, by Benjamin Stora (Cornell U. Press, 2001), pp. 21-22

The French Communist newspaper L’Humanité, obsessed with purging Vichyites in North Africa, and yet to develop its anti-colonialist stance, readily accepted the possibility that the [Sétif] affair was the work of Hitlerian elements: “Energetic action was taken in North Africa against Fifth Column criminals.” American and British correspondents also accepted the official account. “Rumours of food riots are confirmed in Paris by the Cabinet,” said the New York Times. “At Sétif what was described by the Governor General as ‘Hitlerian elements’ attacked the population while it was celebrating VE day. Troops were used.” Reynolds News even provided details: “Several people were killed when armed bands of Arabs, led by a violently anti-French party known as Manifesto marched down from the mountains on the Town of Setif and fired on the crowd.” Only the Christian Science Monitor’s correspondent Egon Karkeline questioned the official version. “Despite the veil of censorship with which the French government has surrounded the recent riots in Algiers,” he wrote, “it is manifest that these disturbances had a serious character.”

Then, more than a month after the French attack, the United States Army newspaper Stars and Stripes blew the whole story wide open. The Rome edition of the paper, quoting sources in Casablanca, gave a reasonably accurate account of what had occurred, hedging only with “the true picture of events and their cause was obscure.” The Stars and Stripes version was picked up and reprinted in the New York Times, the Manchester Guardian, the London Daily Telegraph, and many other newspapers. This sent Ch.-Andre Julien of the Socialist official daily, Le Populaire, after the story, and on June 28 he wrote the first account in France to give anything like the true picture of what had happened: “Senegalese and Legionnaires were allowed to massacre at will around Sétif. Their path could be followed by trails of fire. In the Jijelti region, where there had been no disorders, other Senegalese murdered and burned at leisure. Planes scattered bombs on Arab tent camps. The military gave the number of victims as between six and eight thousand.” This report brought revised figures from the Ministry of the Interior. The “more than 100” casualties now became 1,200, and it was officially admitted that 50,000 Arabs had taken part in the events of May 8.

All this time there had been an eye-witness account of the first trouble in Sétif. Pierre Dubard of Le Figaro had watched the demonstration and had seen the police violence, but he was unable to get his story past the censor until July 7, two months after the event. When it finally appeared, it confirmed not only Le Populaire’s story, but also most of what had appeared in Stars and Stripes. French official sources were completely discredited, the danger of accepting government statements at face value was amply illustrated, and the manner in which each newspaper’s political line had influenced its version of the Sétif attack had been clearly shown.

SOURCE: The First Casualty: The War Correspondent as Hero and Myth-maker from the Crimea to Kosovo, by Phillip Knightley, with an introduction by John Pilger (Johns Hopkins U. Press, 2000; first published in 1975), pp. 393-394

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Algeria: Recycling Terms from the Last War

Beginning in Algeria in July 1993 there were forests burning once again in the Aurès, Algiers was still living under a curfew, terrorist attacks attributed to Islamists were striking police officers and intellectuals, and hundreds of “suspects” remained in detention, sometimes without trial. The Algerian press had begun to mention the “sweep operations,” and the French press added reports from “the underground.” “Terrorism” and “torture” made their reappearance in the vocabulary of all the triumphant communiques, announcing, on the one hand, the “eradication” of the “last armed groups,” and, on the other, “the imminent victory of the Muslim people.” A strange sensation has developed that this is a remake of the war of independence [1954-62]: an impression of déjà vu or “déja entendu.”

Forty years later, the vocabulary is unifying, consolidating the two eras, making them look alike. Has the country, then, entered a second–and identical–Algerian war?

Nothing is less certain. In the first place, in history, formal analogies have but little pertinence if they confine themselves to highlighting the similarity between certain forms, in this case the resurgence of terrible forms of violence. And, in the second place, the Algeria of the 1990s has only a very distant relation to that of 1962.

The country today is highly urbanized; the rural areas no longer play the same role; more than 60 percent of the population is under thirty; and the rate of schooling is very high. The differences could be multiplied, with, at the center, the end of the colonial system, the massive departure of pieds noirs [French colonists], and the political operation of an independent state. It may therefore seem absurd to assert that the same scenario is being repeated. Yet the protagonists in the confrontation–the followers of the ISF [Islamic Salvation Front], the “democrats,” the army–have intentionally adopted the terms inherited from the past of the Algerian War. And that is what is truly of interest–Islamists speaking of “the valorous mujahideen,” wanting to hunt down “the new pieds noirs” who have appropriated the revolution; “democrats” calling the ISF militants harkis [Muslim colonial auxiliaries] who want to crush the Algerian nation. Some circles within the regime have launched campaigns against the “secular assimilationists,” as during the time of the colonial system, when a lost identity had to be reestablished. And all the camps mention a shadowy “party of France(Hizb França) supposedly destabilizing Algeria.

This mimicry is striking. The memory of the war of independence operates as a factor in the assignment of the roles to be played. The contemporary actors dress in theoretical garments borrowed from the past. But, if they do not realize the novelty of the present, and if they subjectively replay the old situation, it is because they remain under the automatist influence of a memory fabricated forty years ago.

SOURCE: Algeria, 1830-2000: A Short History, by Benjamin Stora (Cornell U. Press, 2001), pp. 232-233

For a more hopeful follow-up, see this OxDem Report from April 2004.

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