In search of the missing after the Algerian War for Independence

Several years ago, I started conducting biographical interviews with left-wing activists in Algeria. This research isn’t over yet, but in the process, it has led to unexpected findings, because when these men and women tell you about their activist lives, they also tell you, in fact, about their lives. From one life to another, I finally understood that one day, I must write about 1962.

One of these interviews took place at the Ijtihad bookshop, in Algiers. “My” interviewee was telling me about how he became an activist. He began his story with his own experience of independence: like many others, his family had migrated to Algiers during the war, fleeing violence; but because of the violence caused by the OAS (the Secret Army Organization, a pro-French Algeria terrorist organization) in 1962 in the city, they took refuge in their home village in Kabylia again. He remembered various tasks that he and other village youth had taken on during the transitional period between the cease-fire in March and independence in July, as well as during the summer of 1962. These included visiting surrounding areas to record the numbers of dead, of survivors, of houses destroyed, the needs in food etc. They also took part in reburial ceremonies for the mujahidin whose bodies had been brought back to the village: from the moment of the cease-fire, relatives of the combatants had gone in search of the their bodies, and — when they were able to find them — brought the remains back to be buried in their village cemetery. The youth who attended such ceremonies sang nationalist anthems [anashid], lined up in scout outfits, playing a quasi-official role in ceremonies that were only just being invented, thus representing the absent (or the not-yet-present) authority of the Algerian state.

The idea of this quest for bodies took me by surprise: I work in a research center, where such subjects are discussed on a daily basis; I had read The General of the Dead Army by Ismail Kadare1 many years ago, and yet I had never given any serious thought to the bodies of those killed during the Algerian War for Independence. (While listening to my interviewee, I was astonished to realize that — through one of these denials that the mind has the capacity to produce —, I had never asked myself where my own Uncle-the-Martyr had been buried.) That day, I walked to the bookshop near the general post office, in the center of Algiers: there, I found a copy of Les Chercheurs d’Os (The Bone Seekers) by Tahar Djaout2. The novel written in 1984, tells the story — set in 1962 — of a young man sent by his family in search of the remains of his mujahid brother killed during the war.

The phenomenon is enormous: with so many dead (and it matters little that we don’t exactly know how many died at war), the fragmentary information that circulated during the war, and the fact that soldiers were buried, often by their comrades, in the conditions created by a revolutionary war, tens or hundreds of thousands of families were likely concerned. How the dead were buried, by whom, as well as the rituals invented by the resistance fighters in the maquis varied considerably from one place to another. However all of these rituals have in common to have taken place in the absence of the relatives, and often in the presence of fellow combatants. In La Grotte éclatée, Yamina Méchakra portrays a nurse-freedom fighter confronted to the death of a very young man:

When he had ceased to live, I placed my hand on his chest and recited “Le Cœur d’Hialmar” as I used to do with my friends from the orphanage, in a corner of the courtyard we used as a theater.
Later Kouider and I will drag him to the pit that serves as an collective grave. A crow will accompany us.

No one will ever know that this young man, who left in the dawn of his youth, died without a tomb; the soil he fought for refused him in the end.
Neither his mother nor his wife know that he is dead; neither his mother nor his wife imagine that his body aroused the appetites of wild animals.
For a long time, they will wait for news and fear for him at night.

They will pray on Fridays.

They will visit the village sorceress for him.

She will tell them that he has risen through the ranks and is well.

They will come back pleased and give a little more to beggars on the day of the souk. They will promise a seven night and seven day-long celebration when he returns.

They will continue to see him in their dreams and will try to interpret those dreams every morning. They will talk about him through the nights.

His wife had already promised to give his name to the child she is expecting.

On the edge of the collective grave, I began reciting the verses I knew, then stopped, chasing after the old memory of a mimed burial in which my soul was recommended to the poet.

This monologue sums up everything: the heightened pain of dying away from the intimacy of home, and the lasting pain caused to the family by the absence of any mourning ritual to connect the living and the dead. Faced with the separation between resistance fighters and their families, comrades or local villagers invented rituals and remained alone in remembering where the dead were buried.

Alger républicain, September 8th, 1962.

The search for bodies and reburials likely began even before the end of the war but were constrained in number by violence and forced displacements of populations. However, the ceasefire of March 1962, and the relative freedom of movement it allowed for, accelerated the phenomenon and set thousands of families in motion. The stories of these quests often remain within the families themselves, but in 1962, they left traces in the nascent press. The recirculation of Alger Républicain in July and the publication of Al Chaâb, the National Liberation Front’s daily newspaper, beginning September 18th, led to the development of missing persons columns. Initially, people who were sought for had gone missing recently, often during the transitional period, the final weeks of the war, or even during the summer of 1962. In a few words, a missing person notice outlined an itinerary that would help identify the person: date of birth, date of desertion from the French army, or date the person joined the resistance, and date of the latest news. Reading such brief notices, one cannot help imagining the stories behind them: how had those who deserted the French army at the last minute to join the Algerian combatants — and who had gone missing since — been received by the combatants who had joined the National Liberation Army years before?

Gradually, those who had disappeared much earlier were also claimed. Their stories retrace, without naming them explicitly, episodes of the war such as the Battle of Algiers:

Zergoug Dahmane, born in 1937 in Algiers, has not been heard of since April 4th, 1957, when he was arrested by the paratroopers. Anyone likely to provide any information about him is requested to write to his mother – Mme Zergoug Dahlia – 54, boulevard de Verdun – HBM – Bt. 13 – Algiers.3

Al Chaâb newspaper, 26 September 1962, n° 7.

The subjects of these notices were mainly men who had joined the resistance forces, more rarely women. Sometimes notices also referred to missing civilians. Between the weather and Mohammed Zinet’s crossword puzzles, photographs accompanying the notices reveal the faces of a generation devastated by war. The notices suggest efforts made by the families to elaborate a story of their lost one, in an attempt to grasp them narratively, if not physically. From one newspaper issue to another, they became more standardized and patterns emerged such as the “request to brothers in arms” to provide information:

M. Beraouane Mahieddine, born on 21 April 1925, has not been heard of since 1955, when he joined the resistance.

He is said to have been M. Krim Belkacem’s secretary before becoming the commanding officer of the region of Bou Saâda – Sidi-Ali Bounab – L’Ouarsenis – Palestro and the Tizi-Ouzou area.

Brothers in arms able to provide any information are requested to contact his father: M. Berazouane Rabah – 9, impasse du Tigue (Casbah) – Algiers.4

Even without direct news, families had already gathered snippets of information referred to in the conditional in these notices, so as to urge comrades to share everything else they might know.

Such parents in search for their missing children appear in other sources: Youcef Ould-Lahoucine, who was himself wounded in the maquis, was treated in Tunisia before joining the National Liberation Front health service set up by Dr Mohamed Seghir Nekkache. At the beginning of 1962, he received the visit of one a mother who had come a long way seeking news of her missing son. Ould-Lahoucine had taken the time to tell her about her son’s shahada [death as martyr], which he had witnessed. As no standard documents yet existed, he had provided her with a provisional certificate confirming she was the mother of a shahid, and a small amount of money.5 He thus gave her material support on the one hand and psychological comfort on the other.

The National Liberation Army combatants was different from European armies during “their” great twentieth-century wars, for example. In Algeria, there was hardly ever a military administration capable of informing soldiers’ families. Erich Maria Remarque’s comrades returning from the front at the end of World War One were not usually responsible for informing the parents of their comrades that their child had been killed.6 In Algeria however, many men and women — some of them very young — had decided to “take to the maquis”, sometimes against their families’ approval. There were no forms detailing next of kin or emergency contact, as we say today. Seldom was al-nidham, the organization (the FLN) able to inform the parents. While some of them were positioned in their home regions, making contact with their families easier, many fought far from home increasing the risk of dying into oblivion, and for the family the chances that “their” combatant might disappear without a trace.
In 1962, families still hoped that their missing relatives were still alive. More rarely, death had already been established with certainty, and in these cases, they sought the comfort of mourning in the presence of a body, or of praying on a tomb. Thus concerning this man whose death is certain:

Pray may the brothers in arms who knew him or saw him fall will provide information and if possible to indicate the location where he is buried.7

Al Chaâb newspaper, 28 September 1962, n° 9

My work on the biography of Ali Boumendjel, who was assassinated during the “Battle of Algiers”, revealed how the story of his life and martyrdom had gradually been pieced together as his family met those who had known him intimately, more distantly, or even only heard of what had happened.8 More than 40 years after the events, the story the family recounted was a sedimentation of these fragile tidbits which had solidified into certainties over the years. Sometimes it was possible to identify which comrade had added which detail (however false) to the story, and at which point in time this detail had been added.

What the classified notices in the press reveal is the multiplicity of quests and the profusion of stories, some of which were sketched out during wartime but only fleshed out after the ceasefire, when news and people circulated more freely.

A letter published by Al Chaâb at the end of September provides an interesting point of view on this flow of information. This reader, one E. Mansour writing from Greater Kabylia, was upset as he described the atmosphere of expectation and uncertainty:

So many mothers and fathers wait in vain for the return of a combatant son! The child awaits his father, the wife her husband; both wait for those fortunate and happy to return home after so many years of armed resistance to try and learn from them the fate of the missing, of their loved ones.

So many vague answers, innuendos and lies have been given to them!… To the point of creating for the martyrs’ families a toxic atmosphere of hope and uncertainty, a real moral torture! …9

He then denounced those who caused this moral torture by describing the discussions between parents and comrades returning from the war:

It is a guilty conscience that leads one to say: “So-and-so is dead but his parents must not know” … It is also a case of guilty conscience to answer a father asking for news of his son by saying: “Your son was seen in Tunisia, or Morocco, or even Europe”, when he is in fact resting in peace, in a land he loved so much…

If, for this kind of answer, the truth remains painful and difficult to speak, it is because it hides many things, and particularly the hideous ghost of the 1958 purges, the so-called “conspiracy”.

What I learned from the Boumendjel case is that reluctance to speak or distortion of the truth were caused by the circumstances of the interaction rather than the political circumstances. How to “speak the truth” about the experience of war when one is returning from the maquis and feels so lucky to have survived? Here, Erich Maria Remarque is useful in reminding us of the glass wall that separates comrade-combatants from civilians, and their guilt (or astonishment) of having survived. Some may have wished to lessen the sorrow of parents by telling them a story that would, in one way or another, bring them comfort, by emphasizing the heroism of the deceased, glossing over the ugliness of the conflicts between Algerians, or altogether denying death and inventing the certitude of survival.

Beyond Yamina Méchakra’s “village sorceress”, who offered a life which no longer existed, were there religious and magical practices linked to the quest for the missing, as there were in other wars? Charlatans promising the earth in return for money? Who were the Algerian counterparts of the Europeans who held séances to communicate with the dead after the catastrophe of the World War One? The time of a mourning made impossible by disappearance lasts until the present, as the emails I sometimes receive from strangers still seeking for their missing — and hoping for my help — show.

A colleague and friend I was discussing the topic with in 2015 told me a personal story. In 1990–1991, when he was 11 or 12, he visited his family’s village between Guenzet and Ighil Ali. He took part in one of these unpromising searches: the emigrant brother of a man who had died in the War for Independence had travelled from France to search for his brother’s remains. At first, the village elders had indicated a tree at the foot of which workers were instructed to dig. Then they dug at the foot of many other trees, in vain. Then, it was suggested the brother should talk to Ammi Hammou, another elder who was there when the mujahid had been killed in 1956. Ammi Hammou described the event and located the place very precisely. This time, the brother dug the ground himself, while the village children watched. He dug and dug with a pickaxe. Then the pickaxe hit something hard and came out with a piece of bone, a femur.

The man began to cry and scream. He shouted out in tears: “Iroumyen [the French] shot you and I killed you a second time, I am sorry, brother”.
And for us, to see this old man of 70 crying and shouting like that, it was terrible, we cried with him. Then, we dug and found the man’s remains, his clothes and shoes. I remember his flask. I was 11 or 12, it was the first time I ever saw a dead person. We helped him search and we gathered the bones. I remember, we picked up his teeth. We put everything in a white bag. When we took it away, we sang the national anthem. And then he was buried again in the martyrs’ area of the village cemetery with the mayor and everything.10

The uncertain tone used in newspaper notices from 1962 sometimes disappears from family stories, as the tidbits of stories they glean rightly or wrongly become certainties. But others uncertainties remain. Families whose relatives’ bodies have not been gathered and buried in martyrs’ cemeteries continue to seek for both body and certainty.

Some of them remain, to this day, bone seekers.

  1. Kadare, Ismaïl. The General of the Dead Army. W. H. Allen, 1971. []
  2. Djaout, Tahar. The Bone Seekers. Translation by Marjolin de Jager. Dialogos, 2018. []
  3. Al Chaâb, n° 15, 15 October 1962. []
  4. Al Chaâb, n° 8, 27 September 1962. []
  5. Ould-Lahoucine, Youcef. Parcours d’un militant de la Wilaya I. Khenchela dans le mouvement national. Algiers: Chihab éditions, 2015, p. 92–93. []
  6. Erich Maria Remarque. The Road Back. Little, Brown and Compatny. 1931. []
  7. Al Chaâb, n° 13, 3 October 1962. []
  8. Rahal, Malika. Ali Boumendjel. Une affaire française, une histoire algérienne. Belles Lettres, 2010 and Barzakh, 2011. []
  9. Al Chaâb, 30 September–1 October 1962, n° 11 []
  10. Personal communication, 29 September, 2015, from notes. []

Auteur : Malika Rahal

Malika Rahal est historienne, chargée de recherche à l'Institut d'histoire du temps présent (CNRS). Dr. Malika Rahal is a historian at the Institut d'histoire du temps présent (CNRS) الدكتورة ملكة رحّال باحثة في التاريخ، معهد تاريخ الزمن الحاضر، المركز الوطني للبحث العلمي

3 réflexions sur « In search of the missing after the Algerian War for Independence »

  1. I am writing a book chapter of desertion during war. Might anyone have a rough figure as to how many Frenchmen & Algerians fighting for France deserted during the Algerian War? Any information appreciated.

    Email: cjATtuDOTacDOTth

    1. Tramor Quemeneur would be the person to ask. He did his PhD on military opposing the war (including deserters) and that work had unfortunately not yet been published.

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