Seventy years on from the Setif massacre, journalist Hafsa Kara-Mustapha recalls the events which ultimately led to the end of “French Algeria.”
Official history puts the 1st November 1954 as the start of Algeria’s war of independence against the French occupying power. However, most Algerians know that the first sparks of the conflict can be traced back to a more sinister chapter in France’s 132 year rule over the North African country.
On May 8th 1945, thousands of Algerian men, women and children joined a march organised by the French authorities to mark the victory by allied forces over the Nazis.
Many of the Algerian men marching that day were returning from the front line where they had played a vital role in fighting German troops.
Despite the apparent celebratory mood of the march, tensions were high in Algeria at the time. Many Algerian intellectuals such as Messali Hadj had been imprisoned for speaking out against the brutality of the occupying regime and were now demanding that the ‘Muslim’ population, as Algerians were referred to, gain more rights.
As the marchers gathered, many Muslim organisations joined the movement in a bid to publicise their cause. Amongst the placards held up were “End to occupation,” “We want equality” and “free Messali Hadj.”
The march turned violent when a 14 year old member of the Muslim Scouts held an Algerian flag. The local head of the police ordered him to dispose of it, the boy refused, he was shot.
What followed was a wave of panic and clashes between Algerian and French protesters that led to all-out insurrection. The ensuing clashes culminated in the death of over 20,000 Algerian men, women and children in and around the region of Setif, Guelma and Kherrata.
The number of French killed, in what would become known in Algeria as the “Setif Massacre,” was 102.
While the numbers of French victims is precise and not subject to questioning, the death toll amongst the Algerian population is open to great debate – American officials posted in Algeria at the time spoke of 40,000 killed.
Because of the nature of the massacre itself conducted over a two month long period in reprisals after the initial clashes, establishing how many were killed remains a contentious point.
The head of the temporary government of France at the time was none other than General De Gaulle, hero of France’s victory over Nazi Germany, who appointed General Duval to put an end to the clashes by all means possible.
General Duval called in all available regiments and various bodies such as the foreign legionnaires to quell the insurrection. He ordered that farmers and villagers from surrounding areas be killed in what often amounted to lynching operations.
Cases of villagers rounded up and set alight by the French military or “gendarmerie” were recorded and established as a common modus operandi of the French repressive machine.
The methods used were of “unbelievable” violence as reported by observers of the time. Bomber planes were called in to flatten several villages. Two war ships stationed in the port of Bedjaia fired over 800 cannon shots against the coastal towns.
The thousands of bodies that accumulated over the two month long killing orgy could not be buried and were consequently dumped in wells and surrounding ravines.
One local who lived near the lime furnace of Heliopolis near Guelma, later questioned over the massacre, recalled the ongoing “unbearable” smell of burning flesh and the constant comings and goings of trucks over-spilling with the remains of the dead.
Saci Benhamla also described the bluish colour coming out of the furnace’s chimneys. When villagers demanded a general pardon for their village, they were forced to give up the young men in exchange for mercy.
These would then be taken to nearby barracks and tortured or killed.
French official records describe how over 4,500 arrests were made, 99 death penalties had been handed down with two formal executions carried out by February 1946 and a further 2,000 arrested men remaining in custody.
When the events of 8th May finally came to an end, the French military organised “submission ceremonies.”
They would round up local men and force them to kneel in front of the French flag forcing them to shout out loud “we are dogs and Messali Hadj is a dog.”
Many of those forced to participate in these ceremonies were later taken away never to be seen again.
The trauma on the local population was such that many Algerian villagers would flee at the sight of any French official vehicle for many months following the massacre.
The Setif massacre, remains ingrained in a whole nation’s psyche. The 8th May is an official day of mourning in Algeria, and often contrasts with the pomp and celebrations organised in France to commemorate the defeat of one of Europe’s most violent and bloodthirsty regimes.
The irony of seeing French leaders describe the horrors of the Nazi regime while many of them were contemporaries and actors of the slaughter of thousands of innocent civilians in Algeria, is not lost on Algerians.
Various civil movements have demanded a former apology from France for this shameful chapter in her often shameful history. France is, after all the only European country involved in both the slave trade and the holocaust.
The irony, sadly does not end there.
In 2007, the French government passed a law that formerly outlaws any one denying that an Armenian genocide took place, with a possible five year jail sentence as punishment. It is therefore obligatory in France to rule against a foreign power’s crimes, but unacceptable to take responsibility for its own.
The same politicians, while refusing to apologise for France’s murderous policy in Algeria, also tried to pass a law calling for the recognition of the “benefits of colonialism to former colonies.”
If ever the expression “insult to injury” was pertinent, then the law of February 2005 surely, sums it up.
It took another nine years before the Algerian population rose up and fought a long and bloody war that eventually led to its independence in 1962; but what Setif 1945 did was finally establish that the time had run out for French Algeria.
No amount of humiliation and murder could stop the course of history started across Africa in the aftermath of the Second World War.
And while history retains independence days and formal treaty signatures as notable dates, Setif is etched in history, like the Mai Lai massacre in 1968 in Vietnam or the attack on Gaza in December 2008 as the events that set the wheels in motion.
The wheels of a machine that grinds and roars and says time and time and again that the weak do not remain weak forever, and the powerful do not remain powerful for ever.