The Shuhada of the Past Fifty Years

Mustapha Benfodil

The Blood of the Martyrs Will Not Stop

“A million and a half million martyrs”. Ever since I was a child, that’s what I have heard. It is a figure of myths and legends. For a long time it was lodged in my mind and in the minds of thirty-six million Algerians. It refers, of course, to the death toll of the War of Independence (1954–1962). It is one of our founding myths, us Algerians. It follows us everywhere we go. When I travel to any other Arab country, as soon as I say that I am Algerian, someone is always there to remark, “Ah! al-Djazaïr, balad al milioune chahid.” (Ah, Algeria, the land of a million martyrs!) It is a sort of brand we cannot shake, not even fifty years after independence. I admit I was astonished when I learned that this total was based more on legend than on fact and that historians (Benjamin Stora and Mohammed Harbi, to name two), actually estimate the toll to be around 400,000 deaths—most of them civilian. I admit that I was a little sad. It was as if you had discovered, at age forty, that your father was not really your father. I learned late in life, very late, that this story of a million and a half martyrs was rooted in of one of President Ahmed Ben Bella’s impassioned speeches. Addressing a highly charged crowd during the summer of 1962, he threw out this number on the fly. One of the key phrases in our national story was thus etched into marble.

Beyond these guesses and exaggerations about the death toll are the so-called laurels of post-colonial martyrdom, which in hindsight are striking. This bloodshed continued to torment the majority of the country even after the ceasefire,1 as if my people needed to offer up every one of the supposed one and a half million bodies to some vicious deity in order to reach nirvana.

Algerians, rise up!
In this account, I want to trace, in broad strokes, the story of the river of blood that will not let. The post-1962 martyrs, the shuhada,2 were just so many offerings to this cannibalistic monster, an Algerivore that is never sated. A demon-god that I imagine takes the physical form of the Maqam Eshahid; literally, “the shrine of the martyrs,” a giant concrete beast looming over Algiers. This beast devours a hundred men for lunch and as many for dinner. It wolfs down thousands of legs, hearts, kidneys, and other throbbing organs before puking them all up again into the Bay of Algiers.

Portrait of Ramdhane Mekhaznia, a twenty-two year old biologist who immolated himself on August 16, 2011. He was the only member of his family to have earned a diploma. He lived in El Ouenza, a small Algerian mining town that borders Tunisia.
Ramdhane Mekhaznia’s father and sister, with his portrait.

“Seven Years is Enough!”

Emerging at last from colonial domination, this parched earth, hacked and furrowed by the claws of conquerors, called out to be watered with fresh blood. Not watered gently, as one would a garden, but violently; brutally. The liberators had hardly put down their guns before the country plunged into civil war.
It was the crisis of the summer of 1962, as the news referred to the fierce rivalries among the factions of the FLN.3 Indeed, a muffled war was about to break out between the political and the military wings of the ruling party. It would pit the followers of Colonel Boumediène,4 operating out of Morocco, against the Provisional Government (GPRA), based in Tunis. Ben Bella, hoisted onto Boumediène’s tanks, entered Algiers triumphantly on August 3, 1962, leaving behind him a trail thick with the blood of 3,000 bodies. People filled the roads chanting, “Sabâa snine barakat!”, or “Seven years is enough!”

Hocine Aït Ahmed, one of the leaders of the original section of the FLN, shut down the constituent assembly and, in September 1963, created in its wake the Socialist Forces Front (FFS), which came to be known as the oldest opposition party. While dissidents suffered under repression, he took refuge at his stronghold in Kabylia and along with Colonel Oulhadj established an armed guerilla resistance. The death toll: 400 combatants from Kabylia.
More deaths. Algerians, rise up again! Among the casualties were luminaries and leaders. Their celebrated names fill history books and mark the main streets of Algiers. Yet there remains a sharp contrast between their status as icons and heroes, and their tragic fate. They were not brought down by the obvious enemy, the French, but by their own brothers in arms. The most emblematic case was that of Abane Ramdane, the brains of the FLN and architect of the Revolution.5 His motto, “politics over militarism,” cost him dearly.6 Some consider the assassination of Abane, occurring years before Algeria achieved national sovereignty, to mark the first coup in the country’s history.
After independence, the number of political assassinations escalated. On January 4, 1967, Mohamed Khider, another historic figure and co- founder of the FLN, was killed in Madrid. The Algerian Special Forces were most likely behind the job. Khider’s mistake? He had denounced Boumediène, who on June 19, 1965 had ousted Ben Bella. And then on October 18, 1970, Krim Belkacem, the very man who had signed the Evian Accords that marked the end of French colonial rule, on behalf of Algeria, was strangled with his own tie in his hotel room in Frankfurt.

Heroes without a grave

Some heads of the Revolution proved themselves to be troublesome even in death. This was notably the case with Colonel Amirouche, nicknamed the “Lion of Djurdjura”, who was killed near Boussaâda by French paratroopers on March 29, 1959. Of course, it wasn’t just the French whom the valiant Amirouche troubled—he clearly worried his brothers in arms, too.
The deputy Noureddine Aït Hamouda, son of Colonel Amirouche, openly accused the head of the FLN’s secret service, Abdelhafidh Boussouf (yes, him again) of having betrayed his father. The most tragic part of this affair is that Amirouche Aït Hamouda never even had the right to a burial. As soon as the country was liberated, Amirouche’s remains were thrown into the basement at the headquarters of the national police force in the hills above Algiers. It was a way of erasing all trace of him; razing his legacy. His remains were not dug up until 1984. He had to wait twenty years to claim the right to a monument in Martyrs Square, the renowned cemetery of revolutionary heroes. This is precisely our relationship to our martyrs; we honor them selectively, and this praise is always strongly dependent on power struggles within the nationalist movement.
For civilians, the violence did not stop in 1962—far from it. The protests of October 1988 left 500 dead. Activists called the victims “martyrs of democracy.” Then came the war in the 1990s, bringing funeral after funeral to the streets of the country. The first martyr of the new Algerian war was President Mohamed Boudiaf. He was considered to be the father of the FLN, a revolutionary from the start, and his assassination was seen as a sort of patricide. Barely six months after his inauguration, Boudiaf was shot on June 29, 1992 while giving a speech at a cultural center in Annaba. The event was broadcast live on television. This dramatic end ushered in a new war, and its own harvest of casualties. The numbers are shocking. Some say there were between 100,000 and 200,000 deaths. No one has the list. No one has the names. And no government agency has ever been made to turn over an official report on the casualties.

Ramdhane Mekhaznia’s family. The photograph was taken in their neighborhood, a slum at the foot of the mine called Hai Edhalma, which literally means the “City of Darkness”.
A child in the Hai Edhalma neighborhood, who totes the Algerian flag on his jacket. What does the future hold?

Remembrance is forbidden

April 15, 1999: Abdelaziz Bouteflika was “elected” president, roadmap in hand: an amnesty project to be carried out immediately. September 28, 1999: a referendum is held regarding the Civil Concord and the fate of the Islamic Salvation Army7 the military branch of the Islamic Salvation Front.7
This act pardoned the minor offenses of Islamist prisoners. September 29, 2005: the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation was also adopted via referendum. This meant total amnesty for the worst killers among Allah’s guerilla fighters. The problem: both these projects were top-down measures. There was no debate on the pardons. There were only wounds torn open in the hearts of the victims of terrorism and the families of the disappeared. There was only death. According to a report from the Algerian League for the Defense of Human Rights,8 some 18,000 people abducted by “agents of the state” remain missing to this day. Every Wednesday, the mothers of these victims camp in front of the headquarters of the National Observatory for Human Rights, portraits of their children held tight to their chests, demanding the truth. Inevitably, they remind me of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina. These families do not even have the luxury of mourning their children, of kneeling at their graves. Worse, they do not have the right to demand accountability from the state since the security services responsible for the abductions were granted amnesty outright. A presidential decree issued on February 28, 2006 expressly prohibited any inquests into “the national tragedy.” An excerpt:

Anyone who writes, speaks, or otherwise acts to use or exploit the wounds of the national tragedy to undermine the institutions of the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria, to weaken the state, to damage the agents who have served with dignity, or to tarnish the image of Algeria on the world stage will be punished with three to five years in prison and a fine of 250,000 to 500,000 dinars.9

It was not just the families of the disappeared who were outraged by this text. The families of the dead also considered that this total absolution of crimes attributed to Islamist activists constituted an attack on the memory of their loved ones. To top it all off, the leaders never descended from the djebel (or mountain) not once, to express even a sliver of regret for their actions. For them, the initial violence had been a justified jihad, after which the Islamic Front for Salvation had been robbed of their rightful electoral victory. Some people requested that a reconciliation process based on the South African model, under the aegis of Nelson Mandela, be implemented, including a committee on truth and justice, where the main players—that is, the Islamists and agents of the state—would admit to their crimes, allowing for a cathartic processing of trauma. The regime wanted to move quickly and bury the dead without delay, however. They stitched up the wounds carelessly. This did not go over well with the population. In the cities and towns where the so-called penitents had reintegrated into civil society, life became agonizing, especially for the families of the dead. Penitent (repentant): another word that was in vogue. A new class of citizens who were going to invest in the public sphere, improve their communities. A perfect example of this situation was the case of Mohamed Gharbi, a former mujahid10 from the eastern Algerian village of Souk Ahras who picked up a gun in order to defend himself and his family after repeated threats and taunts from Ali Merad, a repentant former Islamist leader. One day, Gharbi refused to endure the affronts any longer and shot him point blank. He was sentenced to death in February 2001 for killing the penitent. His case—which brings into sharp focus all the absurdities and the folly of the amnesty law, the official decree for total absolution—sparked a substantial popular rally.

Our very own Boutef11 shouldered the mantel of savior by promising to put an end to Islamist guerilla warfare and to expel the guerilla fighters. Unfortunately an insurrection broke out in Kabylia when a police officer shot and killed a high school student, Guermah Massinissa, at police headquarters in Beni Douala (Upper Kabylia). It was April 18, 2001.
This new cycle of violence lasted three months. Death toll: 126. They were the martyrs of the Black Spring.

Still more deaths.

Algerians, rise up again!

The War of Monuments

When speaking of the current Arab insurrections, everybody asks me, “And you? When will your revolution come?” I regret that when the October 1988 uprising broke out, over twenty years before the ones in Tunisia and Egypt, there was no al-Jazeera and there was no Facebook to give it the attention and support it deserved. It is worthwhile to emphasize that at the moment when Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire and the people of Tunisia rose up, a series of unprecedented riots erupted across Algeria. Numerous protests followed, demanding change hic et nunc (here and now). I participated in many of these demonstrations, and despite a strong mobilization of elites and supporters of democracy, the movement never quite caught on at the popular level. People told us they were sick of the violence. “Barkana dem!” they said. (“Enough blood already!”)

Yet, the fact remains that Algerians continue to die, disgracefully sacrificed at the altar of oppression and injustice. Every day brings new offerings to the Maqam Eshahid (Monument of the Martyrs). Every day, groups of harragas (“burners”, or undocumented immigrants to Europe) throw themselves into the sea, illegal migrants trying to reach Europe on makeshift boats. Kamel Belabed, father of a harraga whom he hasn’t heard anything from since 2007, declared to me in words full of truth: “The harragas are neither harebrained nor suicidal. They are a political movement.” Another growing phenomenon that has emerged as a form of citizen resistance by contradiction is self-immolation. Not a day passes in which a citizen, a man or a woman, does not drench herself in gasoline and set herself on fire. Sometimes, she sets fire to her children, too. A full fifty years after independence, and the number of self-immolations is soaring. This is a scathing critique of Bouteflika and his cronies.
How many times have I heard this phrase—how many times from former guerilla fighters themselves? “Mazal maddinache l’istiqlal.” (or, “We have not yet gained independence.”) Where does the blood run from now? As the death toll escalates, Algerians just don’t know where to stop. Martyrs supplant martyrs. Walking around Algiers, I am often struck by the succession of monuments to the dead. Each new war produces its own set of martyrs. I note with a certain shudder, however, that at a certain point, the Algerians stopped erecting new commemorative monuments. I was simply astonished to see that the massacres of Bentalha, Rais, and Had Echkalla, which claimed fifty victims, are not marked by any monument, not even a cardboard sign. Nothing. It is as if only a pack of wild dogs had been killed there.
I do not know what could stop the bleeding and heal our hearts. I do not know how to hasten the clotting of the blood of history. Yet I am just dim enough to believe that mourning can begin when the terms of the autopsy are agreed upon. The language of the autopsy, the autopsy that reveals the true cause of death and that allows us to move on to other things. I know that the right words carry a sacred healing power. We must begin to tell the truth. We must put an end to the legends and the exaggerated tales; put an end to the falsely cathartic lies. We must relieve the corpses of their festering truths and let the graves blossom in full. Only words can heal; free speech. It is no longer possible, after Ben Ali, after Moubarak, Qadhafi, Assad, and the whole group of outworn dictators, that the heirs and heiresses of Djamila Bouhired, Abane Ramdane, Louizette Ighilahriz, Frantz Fanon, Mohamed Boudiaf, and Larbi Ben M’hidi can keep their heads down.

Algerians, rise up again! Finish the job.

Strike one more time and seize this damn independence !

Mustapha Benfodil, author, artist, and journalist

All images courtesy of Mustapha Benfodil

  • 1. A ceasefire between France and the FLN was established on March 19, 1962, the day after the Evian Accords were signed.
  • 2. Shuhada, plural of shahid, Arabic for “martyr.”
  • 3. Front de Libération Nationale (National Liberation Front), the legendary revolutionary party that led the battle against colonialism.
  • 4. A nickname for Mohamed Boukharouba. He was the chief of staff and figurehead of the so-called Border Army (Armées des Frontières).
  • 5. In Algeria, this term is used in reference to the War of Independence (1954–1962).
  • 6. At a farm in Tetouan on December 26, 1957, he was strangled in cold blood by Abdelhafidh Boussouf, the head of the FLN’s secret service, the precursor organization to the political police.
  • 7. Front Islamique du Salut (FIS).
  • 8. Ligue algérienne de défense des droits de l’homme (LADDH).
  • 9. Presidential decree regarding the implementation of the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation, article 46.
  • 10. An FLN guerilla fighter during the War of Independence.
  • 11. Boutef is a nickname for sitting president Abdelaziz Bouteflika.