France’s non-sacred bond

The Harkis fought for France in Algeria, but were abandoned after independence.

Chirac honours Harkis
Jacques Chirac, the then French president, shakes hands with former Harkis members [EPA]

The apartment of Fatima Besnaci Lancou, not far from the Sorbonne University in Paris, is a far cry from the tent cities and low-cost apartment blocks she and her family had been confined to when they first arrived from Algeria in 1962.

During that year, Algeria was beginning to emerge from a bloody war of liberation against French colonialism.

For Besnaci’s father, Ammar, the conflict would soon mean a prolonged physical and psychological exile from his native country.

Ammar was a member of the Harkis, one of tens of thousands of Algerians who fought for the French army and trusted that Paris would never abandon its allies.

The Harkis (a word derived from the Arabic Haraka, meaning the movement) were members of a force armed by the French to counter the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN).

The objective was to deprive the Algerian guerrillas of support in the countryside. It was essentially a rural phenomenon.

However, France ultimately abandoned the Harkis and members of the movement found themselves left to the mercy of a liberated Algeria after the cease-fire.  
Mixed heritage

Ammar bequeathed a mixed heritage and bittersweet memories to his daughter. She is proud both of her father who fought for France and of Algeria for securing its independence.

She says the liberation was an act of “justice being served”. 
In the years since her family was forced to relocate to France, Besnaci founded Harkis et Droits de l’Homme (Harkis and Human Rights), an association which lobbies the French government to officially acknowledge its role in abandoning the Harkis in 1962.

There are no solid figures, but it is estimated that between 15,000 and 200,000 Harkis were killed in the months immediately following the cease-fire in Algeria.

The French army stood idly by as the Harkis were being killed; even receiving orders not to intervene.
Historians and politicians

Many French historians now admit that their country abandoned the Harkis.

But, for Besnaci, this is not enough.

“It is not up to historians to recognise a tragedy brought about by politicians,” she told Al Jazeera in a telephone interview from her apartment in Paris.

“All a historian can do is to shed light on the tragedy. Ultimately, recognition is something that should be taken up by the French state.”

In 1992, François Mitterrand, the then French president, admitted his country had been ungrateful to her allies in Algeria.

In March 2007, Nicholas Sarkozy, then a candidate for the presidency, promised to recognise the French role in abandoning the Harkis. Eighteen months into his presidency, he still has not.

“There is a risk Sarkozy will not honour his word, but I cannot judge his intentions. We will be alert and remind him of his promises,” Besnaci said. 

Turf war

Besnaci looks through a family album belonging to her father in her home in Paris

When used by an Algerian politician, especially in electoral campaigns, the word Harkis denotes only one thing – treachery.

For many Algerians, the Harkis were more brutal then the French. Their knowledge of the local culture was very helpful in the interrogations the French army carried out.

However for Besnaci, they were but the “wretched victims” of a brutal turf war between the FLN and France in the Algerian countryside.

“They were caught between two fires. Independence was not their priority. Their priority was to protect their children and to feed them,” she said.
A number of Algerian politicians, some of whom were senior members of the FLN during the war, have come to recognise in the last few years the complexity of the phenomenon.

Ali Haroun, the founder of La Fédération de France, told an Algerian newspaper in 2006 that most of the Harkis joined the French army in order to feed their families.

Those who brutalised them the most, he said, were fighters who joined the rebellion only when it became certain a cease-fire was to be signed.

In Algeria, these fighters are called the “Marsiens”, in reference to the month of March during which the cease-fire accord was signed by both sides.
Harkis and “collabos”

In September 2006, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the Algerian president, recognised that the families of the Harkis were victims of injustice.

Though he did not directly address the Harkis themselves, many surviving members of the pro-France movement found it to be a highly symbolic step forward.

Five years earlier, on a visit to France, he said accepting the Harkis back in Algeria would be like asking the French to shake the hand of a “collabo”, the French idiom used to describe those who cooperated with the Nazi occupation.

The role of the Harkis in the war is vivid in the Algerian collective memory. But when it comes to curriculums, the revolution is cast in a heroic light that admits no grey areas.

“The Algerian population stood up to France as one man,” goes the official story.

However, Daho Djerbal, a leading Algerian historian and editor-in-chief of NAQD, the Algerian journal of social criticism, said: “The state has monopolised the way history should be written.

“Whoever voices independent and critical opinions, is denied the freedom to express them publicly.”

He noted, however, that as individuals who retain French citizenship, the Harkis can move freely between France and Algeria.

Versions of history

More than 46 years after the war’s end, the Harkis still say they are the victims of discrimination in France. Besnaci says a long battle too ensure their rights looms ahead.

Bringing the French state to offer its mea culpa is not an easy task when it comes to a country that has always shied away from confronting its colonial past in Algeria.

It took France 37 years just to acknowledge that the conflict with the FLN was, in effect, a war.

Yet the harshest of battles Besnaci has to wage is getting the Harkis to agree on one version of history.

In September 2006, a Harkis website accused her of “intellectual swindle” because she suggested that most of the Harkis were recruited by force.

Djerbal believes Algeria may still be unable to face up to its past, and conditions are not ripe for a free debate over the question of the Harkis.

He believes the historical narrative on the Harkis, France’s abandonment and Algeria’s road to reconciliation should all be addressed within a more comprehensive context.

He said: “If the so-called abuses the Harkis were victim to should be investigated, so, too, should the bigger injustices that befell the Algerian people as a whole.”

Source: Al Jazeera