An investigation into Algeria's Harki community has shed new light on what really happened to the indigenous allies of France, following the French population's retreat from the country in 1962.

Harkis aided the French army during the independence war from 1954 to 1962, and the term has also been extended to refer to any Algerian who favoured the French presence over the National Liberation Front (FLN). When the French were ultimately driven out at the end of the war, tens of thousands of their Algerian allies were left behind.

While it is widely believed that most Harkis subsequently relocated to France or were killed by their fellow Algerians, this is not the real story, French historian Pierre Daum argues in his new book, The Last Taboo: Harkis Who Stayed in Algeria After 1962. Daum, who has travelled frequently to Algeria over the past decade and interviewed more than 60 Harki families, says most have remained in Algeria, despite inequitable treatment by the government there.

Al Jazeera spoke with Daum about the Harkis' precarious existence in their homeland.

Al Jazeera: Why did thousands of Algerians side with France during the war?

Pierre Daum: None of them sided with the French army for the love of France. All those who claim that the Algerians who chose the French army over the National Liberation Front to defend France's interests, are wrong or lying.

Harkis who were released without charge were allowed to go back home, while those who were found guilty of torture or rape were killed on the spot. Others were subjected to forced labour or sentenced to prison.

 

Actually, there are two kinds of liars: on one hand, anyone nostalgic of the French Algeria, who heartily talks about the Harkis as brave patriots; on the other hand, the Algerian textbooks that still rewrite history by treating Harkis as traitors. This is completely not true.

Al Jazeera: So why did they actually choose the French army over the FLN?

Daum: That was a way to survive. To understand the commitment of the Harkis to France, we need to take into account the fact that the Algerian rural population was living under extreme poverty when the revolution started in 1954. The conditions of living were harsh, especially in Algeria's countryside, due to more than 130 years of colonisation and occupation. Besides, the standard of living worsened during the liberation war. In that context, some young Algerians went to the French military barracks to beg for a job in order to support their families.

There is a second reason that should not be neglected: The blind violence of some mujahideen against the residents of the villages in the countryside prompted some of them to side with France.

Al Jazeera: How many Algerians sided with France during the war?

Daum: The Algerians, who were engaged with France during the liberation war, were divided into three groups. First, the Muslim auxiliaries of the French army, who were themselves divided into five sub-categories, including the Harkis.

Secondly, the Algerian soldiers incorporated into the French army, including the Algerian regulars and the volunteers. Indeed, it is little known that France did continue to call up young Algerians over 18 for military service during the liberation war, and approximately half of them agreed. The third group was composed of the Algerian pro-France officials, including town councillors.

According to the French army's archives, there were about 250,000 Algerian auxiliaries, 50,000 professional soldiers, 120,000 volunteers and 30,000 officials, at least. As a result, over 450,000 Algerians worked for France during the independence war.

Al Jazeera: In 1962, some Harkis and their families fled to France while others stayed behind. How many left, how many were murdered and how many survived?

Daum: Very few Harkis managed to escape to France after 1962. There were less than 30,000. It is still not clear how many Harkis were murdered after 1962.

However, what we can say for sure is that 150,000 Harkis weren't killed following the French population's removal, as some French organisations exaggerated. What is certain is that thousands of Harkis were actually assassinated in 1962.

More than 50 years after the end of the liberation war, the Harkis and their descendants, who live in Algeria, are still victims of unpleasant social segregation and discrimination that makes their lives miserable.

 

Hence the conclusion of my investigation: The vast majority of Harkis remained living in Algeria after the 1962 independence.

Al Jazeera: How was life for the Harkis who stayed in the newly independent Algeria?

Daum: A handful of Harkis moved across the country to build a new life elsewhere, but most of them came back to their native towns, near their parents. They were naturally worried when they returned to their villages, since people's revolutionary tribunals were set up in the summer of 1962. That was an expeditious form of justice, with local residents testifying against their fellows who sided with France.

Harkis who were released without charge were allowed to go back home, while those who were found guilty of torture or rape were killed on the spot. Others were subjected to forced labour or sentenced to prison.

When the French population left Algeria, some Harkis were violently assaulted by the National Army of Liberation soldiers, but most of them were attacked by the so-called "Marsiens", Algerians who became mujahideen once the war was over.

That violence was the result of the surrounding chaos in Algeria, following the first months of the independence. Ahmed Ben Bella, Algeria's first president, was effectively ruling the country only by the end of 1962. He publicly called to end the violence against the Harkis in a speech delivered in the beginning of 1963, [and afterwards] aggression against the Harkis significantly diminished.

Al Jazeera: In your book, you wrote that the Harki tragedy is still ongoing in Algeria. Can you expand on that?

Daum: Yes, the Harkis are the last community to continue to suffer from the French colonisation. Although the physical violence against this population stopped in 1963, the Harkis have been subjected to another form of violence.

More than 50 years after the end of the liberation war, the Harkis and their descendants, who live in Algeria, are still victims of unpleasant social segregation and discrimination that makes their lives miserable. For instance, practically none of them were recruited by public administration or state-owned companies.

Algerian society will be able to heal the wounds inherited from the colonisation only if the Algerian people consider Harkis no longer as traitors, but as victims of the colonial oppression too.

Source: Al Jazeera