No, I don’t have my calendar mixed up. July 5th is Independence Day in at least three countries: Algeria, Cape Verde, and Venezuela. Since I just returned from Algeria, I thought this would be a good time to blog on the Algerian War for Independence.
Many Americans know about this war from Gillo Pontecorvo's film, The Battle of Algiers. But if you really want to understand it, the best place to visit is Maqam El-Chahid, or the Monument to the Martyrs in Algiers. The museum underneath the monument is filled with artifacts from the occupation and the war.
Unfortunately, cameras aren’t allowed in the museum. I will try to offer a brief description of what is found inside.
The first section of the museum covers Franco-Algerian relations before the French invasion. This is where you find information on pashas and pirates. But the most interesting piece in this section is a seemingly harmless feather fan. In 1830, the Dey of Algiers slapped the French ambassador with it for not paying a debt. That was all the justification the French needed. On July 5, 1830, they invaded the country.
Over one-third of the Algerian population was killed during the French conquest, which took forty years. (1830-1870). The museum has a room devoted to popular Algerian heroes who resisted the invasion, like the Emir Abdelkader, for example. And there are several exhibits concerning the mistreatment of Algerians during colonial period.
The rest of the displays are what you would expect to find in a museum of this sort. There is the November 1st Proclamation, similar to our Declaration of Independence. There are examples of every tool of torture and terror employed during the period, including a bright, shiny guillotine.
But foremost in my memory is a darkened room with a life-size replica of the barriers at the Algerian-Tunisian border during the war. A scene from the classic Algerian film, Patrouille a l'Est, plays, and you watch in horror as the protagonists are electrocuted, caught in barbed wired, and blown to bits by hidden land mines. Some of those mines are still in place, killing and maiming people even fifty years later.
In the heart of the monument, there is a sanctuary, where perpetual prayers are offered for those who died in the war. An eternal flame burns in their memory.
Although there are no documented numbers, historians estimate that approximately a million people died in the eight year War for Independence (1954-1962.)
Finally, under the direction of President Charles de Gaulle, referendums were held in both France and Algeria to approve the Evian Accords, which would make Algeria an independent state. Both electorates overwhelmingly approved the treaty. Algeria became independent on July 5th, 1962, ending exactly 132 years of French occupation.
Many Americans have told me that they never heard of Algeria until the United States played against them in the World Cup in June. But in France, the Algerian War is still as sensitive a topic as the Vietnam War is in the United States.
I would love to hear your thoughts. Were you aware of this war before reading this blog, and if so, what were your impressions?