Now here is a deeply contemporary story. When the Frenchabandoned Algeria in 1962, they also betrayed the tens of thousands of Algerians who fought for them. Stealthily – sometimes, quite literally, in the thick of night – they stole away from the barracks in which their Harki warriors were sleeping, and left them to their fate at the hands of the FLN (National Liberation Front) nationalists who were to inherit this oil-wealthy and deeply corrupt country. Often, they disarmed the Harkis first, so that their fate came more speedily upon them.
Harki – from the Arabic harka – is probably best translated as “volunteers”, auxiliaries who fight for the local master race, in this case France. Their end in Algeria was a despicable affair. So terrifying, in fact – so racist – that the history of the loyal Harkis who fought for France during the 1956-1962 war of Algerian independence has been the last taboo for the colony which Charles de Gaulle betrayed 54 years ago.
Some young French officers refused to obey their orders – they declined to leave their Franco-Algerian soldiers to their deaths – and smuggled them aboard military ships heading across the Mediterranean for France. These officers were disciplined for this courageous act of compassion. Those who left their colonial troops to terrible retribution maintained their ranks in the French army.
So let us first remind ourselves what happened to the 55,000 – the real figure is probably nearer to 75,000 – Harkis who fought for France in their native Algeria. When they awoke on the day of France’s betrayal, they were, almost all of them, taken from their beds and massacred. In villages, towns and cities across Algeria, they were dragged, unarmed, to the slaughter. One of the specialities of their murderers, the FLN whose descendants run Algeria to this very day, was to force the Harkis to swallow the French medals that they had been awarded for their bravery in combat. If they did not choke to death in this miserable performance, they were machine-gunned into mass graves.
And so it was that Francois Hollande, who wants to be re-elected French president in seven months’ time (some hope), has honoured his promise, originally made four years ago, to say he is very, very sorry for what happened to the Algerians who fought for France.
Let me translate his words, uttered in Les Invalides in Paris – where the ashes of Napoleon lie, a man who would never have left his soldiers in the lurch – “in the name of the [French] Republic”. Hollande acknowledged “the responsibility of French governments in the abandonment of the Harkis, the massacres of those who remained in Algeria and the inhuman conditions for those transferred to camps in France”. This statement was made on the national day of hommage to the Harkis instituted by ex-President Jacques Chirac, himself a soldier in Algeria. (So, by the way, was the father of Marine Le Pen, the present leader of the French National Front party, who was also present at Les Invalides.)
The Algerian war was among the most sordid of colonial conflicts. French troops massacred the inhabitants of whole villages in thebled – a word which comes inevitably from the Arabic balad for “village” or “town” – and executed their opponents in mass graves or with more formal guillotining in Algiers. Algerian guerrillas routinely slaughtered their own nationalist opponents, perhaps half a million of them, in bloodbaths of insanity. The total dead of the Algerian war number perhaps a million and a half. Some of the French foreign legionnaires who murdered the Algerians were former SS officers from the Second World War.
Hiring the locals to fight your battles for you has always been a Middle East habit. Or maybe a colonial pastime. After all, we underpaid and undervalued and underpensioned and didn’t care very much about the valiant Ghurkas of the British Army.
Nor did the Americans protect their allies in Vietnam – nor the courageous translators who worked for them in Iraq after 2003, and nor did the British for that matter. Are the Americans going to protect the Afghans who fight alongside them in that most distressful country? Or the Kurds of northern Syria, or will they be betrayed as usual (be sure, it will be the latter).
The Israelis paid a slovenly south Lebanese militia to run (and torture) in their occupation zone, and then largely abandoned them when they fled Lebanon in 2000. Many managed to cross the border to Israel and were indeed protected. Their former commander opened a nightclub in Tel Aviv.
The poor Harkis who did escape in 1962, maybe 60,000, were dumped in insanitary, isolated camps around the southern French town of Rivesaltes, where they could almost smell Algeria. But they were ignored, unemployed, treated as a cancer of France’s dark colonial past. What could they expect from a nation which only acknowledged that the Algerian conflict was a war in 1999? France’s occupation lasted for 132 years but it ended when movie cameras could record the war.
There are saddening pictures of the Harkis – most of whom spoke fluent French, wanted to be French and were told they were French – receiving their medals from French officers. They are smiling, proud, believing they are serving their own country – which then abandoned them.
Now that France has marched down the road of absolution for its own Second World War collaboration with the Nazis, it’s obviously time to close the Algerian chapter.
But then we have another little problem for the French. They are building some warships, corvettes, for Field-Marshal-President al-Sisi in Alexandria. The local workers – “Egyptian Harkis”, I suppose you could call them – have demanded higher pay. The Egyptian army has arrested 26 of the strikers and intends to put them before a military court.
The Arab world will never go away. Nor, I guess, will we ever leave it. Stand by for France’s next “Algerian” story.