The monstrous face of colonisation: Algeria battles with its brutal past
Illustration: Xing Ann Ewe (xa.ewe.)

For a country so accustomed to fighting for freedom, the air feels oddly suffocating as Algeria is plunged, once more, into mourning.

Military soldiers sound a knell of death in a silent Algiers airport; the sonority of the drums reverberates through the still crowd paying their respects to the coffins before them. It is an agonizing reminder of the long and profound shadow that colonialism has cast over the nation.

This is the moment that France returned the skulls of 24 Algerian freedom fighters to Algiers. The French state stole these in 1849 and displayed them as war trophies for decades at the Natural History Museum in Paris. Algeria’s veteran’s minister, Tayeb Zitouni, welcomed “the return of these heroes to the land of their ancestors, after a century and a half in post-mortem exile.”

It is an agonizing reminder of the long and profound shadow that colonialism has cast over the nation.

It is a bitter-sweet moment. The military ceremony at El Alia Cemetery in Algiers took place on Friday 3rd June – just a couple of days before Algeria’s 58th Independence Day, rendering it all the more heart-wrenching. And yet, the ambience is still tinged with a poignant melancholy as the nation is forced to remember the brutal manner in which these soldiers’ remains were decapitated. A tearful president Abdelmajid Tebboune presided over the ceremony, as Algerian mayors and army veterans alike paid their respects in silence.

Algeria’s history with France has been turbulent from the moment it was rendered a French colony – and later, an integral part of France itself – in 1830. Algerian citizens were forced to endure over 100 years of being treated with disdain in their own country, striking a stark contrast to the treatment of the hundreds of thousands of European immigrants who settled in Algeria during this epoch. And yet, the cessation of Algeria’s colonial period was rather more vicious than its inception. After four brutal years of incessant war saturated with torture and violent massacres, the French state finally capitulated to the Algerian resistance movement in 1962. At this point, the People’s Democratic Republic of Algeria was created.

Today, the former French colony and state remains deeply scarred from its struggle for independence in 1958, and the four bloody years of war that ensued. It is no surprise that the Algerian sentiment toward France and its brutal colonial past, along with general relations between the two countries, has been tense for decades.

The cessation of Algeria’s colonial period was rather more vicious than its inception.

Although Algeria’s historians welcome the return of the fighters’ remains, it is long overdue. Brahim Senouci, a prominent Algerian writer and one of the main academics lobbying France for this repatriation since 2016, said in a social media message: ‘it is an immense joy that this happy ending has been reached after a bitter struggle which lasted more than four full years. But the matter should not end there. Our compatriots must be aware of the extent of the tragedy that has been the French presence in our country. The list of harmful effects of colonization is very long.’ He went on to write that, ‘this reminder of the abominable crimes is necessary for the Algerians to regain their self-esteem, and to integrate into the collective imagination the need for a peaceful but firm look at the tragedy that made us what we are today.’

Following this gesture from the French state, President Tebboune has expressed that, whilst welcoming the repatriation, Algeria is still awaiting an apology from France. In an interview with France 24, Tebboune said, “we have already had half-apologies. The next step is needed … we await it.”

Indeed, Algeria has been awaiting an official apology from France for the heinous crimes the state committed since the War of Independence ended in 1962. Unsurprisingly, it has yet to arrive.

French President Emmanuel Macron, in February 2017, went further than any of his predecessors in publicly conceding the atrocities committed by France against Algeria, branding the actions of his country ‘a crime against humanity’. This sparked an uproar among the French people, who were outraged that their president would taint the image of French colonialism in such a manner. Though willing to admit that the crimes France committed were inhumane, even Macron stopped just short of a sincere apology.

Later that year during another visit to Algiers in his first term as president, Macron brushed past the prompts to apologise from the media. He claimed that “these benchmarks block our bilateral relationship. They don’t interest me because the ambition I have for the relationship between Algeria and France has nothing to do with what was done for decades. It’s a new story that’s being written.”

And precisely therein lies the issue: that France remains unwilling to directly apologise for their past actions, whilst Algeria is refusing to move the relationship forward without an apology. This categorical refusal to apologise leads to a subsequent issue: of France refusing to acknowledge the integral part it has played in Algeria’s current political and social crises. This cat-and-mouse game may be amusing to watch from the outside, but for the Algerian people, it is an agonizing experience – and it is only deepening the scars that the nation bears.

“We have already had half-apologies. The next step is needed … we await it.”

Thus far, France has remained largely silent on Algeria’s ongoing political crisis. It has preferred to watch from the sidelines as the former French colony struggles to sweep under the carpet the shards of its colonial past. The fact very much remains that upon relinquishing its colonial hold on Algeria, the French state left behind a trail of political and social destitution in its wake. Despite the repatriation, Algeria’s present remains tainted by its colonial past. It is a bitter reminder that the Algerian people are still reaping the ruin from the seeds of colonialism sowed by France over a century ago.

The return of the freedom fighters’ skulls to Algiers was a step in the right direction for France. But, as the Algerian president and people alike have made clear, it is not enough.

The wounds of Algeria’s bloody and violent past are still open, and France’s gestures are not – and have never been – enough to heal them. The fact remains that only 24 skulls were repatriated, whilst the French state stole 40 in total during the 19th century. It is for this reason that France’s gesture seems even more futile to the Algerian people, who echo Senouci’s sentiment that the repercussions from the crimes committed by the French state during its colonial era are still being felt by the Algerian people today.

But with the arrival of Tebboune and Macron, and their mutual desire for reconciliation, it seems that – against all the odds – a tentative amelioration may be on the horizon.

For now, at least, the remains of 24 martyrs have been returned to their homeland and are finally being buried.

And as the military drums strike their final toll and the remains of the freedom fighters are set to rest, the nation is finally able to release a breath it has held for over 100 years. But the fight is not over yet.

May the souls of the fallen finally rest in peace.