Their names are Lucien, Bachir, Marie-Claude, Serge, Roger and Djamila. They are Algerian or French. In 1954, when the Algerian War of Independence broke out, they were barely out of their teens. It was a time of post-war decolonisation around the world. In Algeria, the so-called indigènes (natives) hoped for an end to 132 years of French colonial rule.
But France did not see things that way. Home to more than a million Europeans (and some 9 million Algerians), Algeria was the only colony of the French colonial empire settled by Europeans and, as a French department, was considered part of France. It was also a land rich in oil and gas. In 1956, the French government of Guy Mollet decided to send in the army to maintain order in the occupied land. In total, 1.5 million young French conscripts were sent to Algeria to battle the fellaghas, Algerian guerrilla fighters.
On March 19, 1962, when the ceasefire reached in the Évian Accords came into force, 400,000 French conscripts were still on the other side of the Mediterranean. Their military service lasted at least 18 months, sometimes 28 or even 30. Many found the experience traumatic. For decades, talking about what they had lived through was taboo, even within their own families. These were not war experiences, at least officially, since the “events” in Algeria – as they were known – were not recognised as a war until 1999.
We interviewed French conscripts, the wife of a conscript, a harki (an Algerian who served as an auxiliary in the French army), a member of the pro-independence Front de Libération nationale (FLN, or National Liberation Front) and a fighter in the FLN’s armed wing, l’Armée de Libération nationale (ALN, or National Liberation Army). They told us about colonialism, the horror of conflict, torture and fear, but also their desire for healing. Sixty years after that war without a name, they have dug deep into their memories and told us their stories.
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