The massacres of Sétif, Guelma and Kheratta are considered by historians to be the very first events of the Algerian war of independence against French rule, which erupted in earnest in 1954 and ended in 1962, when the country became an independent state after 132 years of colonization.
The massacres began on May 8th 1945 in Sétif, a market town in the province of Constantine in north-east Algeria. A parade in the town celebrating the victory over Germany that day marked the end of World War II in Europe was joined by pro-independence Algerian nationalists to bring attention to their cause. After scuffles broke out, Bouzid Saâl, a young Algerian Muslim scout who was brandishing a flag of independent Algeria was shot and killed by a police officer, leading to a violent riot which left many dead. A similar demonstration in the nearby town of Guelma was broken up.
More than 100 European settlers were killed in the ensuing fighting in the towns and the countryside. The initial violence was ended by the French army, after which a bloody campaign of reprisals was launched against the Algerian civilian population in the region, led by both the military and by militias set up by the colons, the European, mostly French, settlers. During the weeks of mass murders and summary executions that followed, villages were bombed by aircraft and Kheratta, a town in the region around Constantine, was shelled by the French navy.
The killings lasted until June. Varying estimates by historians put the death toll of Algerian civilians at between 6,000 and 35,000 (the official French estimate of the total death toll was between 1,020 and 1,340).
On April 19th 2015, French junior minister for war veterans, Jean-Marc Todeschini, travelled to Sétif, which lies 300 kilometres east of the capital Algiers, to pay tribute to the victims of the massacres. It was the first time that a representative of the French government had joined in the commemorations of the killings.
A 55-minute documentary by Mehdi Lallaoui and Bernard Langlois tells the story, through rare witness accounts and archive footage, of how, just as Europe was at last liberated from the horrors of World War II, the colonised population of North Africa was subjected to devastating barbarity.
Mehdi Lallaoui recounts here, and on Page 2, the context of the events, and the difficulties he met with in putting together the documentary (which can be seen further below, in French only). He argues that France’s recent recognition of its responsibility in the massacres will not be complete until they are finally classified as crimes against humanity.
Mehdi Lallaoui writes:
The ‘1945 Sétif massacres’, which lasted from May 8th until the end of June, is actually a generic term for summary killings that occurred in a large part of the Constantine Province in north-east Algeria. The brutal breaking up of the people’s marches (at Sétif and Guelma, the police shot into the crowds) - initiated by Algerian nationalists who wanted to celebrate victory over Nazi Germany and bring attention to promises of emancipation - prompted riots in which 103 Europeans died. The blind repression against the Algerian population was terrible. Twenty years ago, with the help of my friend Bernard Langlois, I made Les Massacres de Sétif, un certain 8 mai 1945 for Franco-German TV channel Arté. In parallel to this, the association Au Nom de la Mémoire (In the Name of Memory) published a book on the events that is a work of reference: Chronique d’un massacre. 8 mai 1945, Sétif, Guelma, Kherrata, by Boucif Mekhaled.
Working on the project, and despite the hazards on the roads due to the dark years that Algeria was experiencing (notably the false road blocks by the Islamic Salvation Front, the FIS), I spent several weeks travelling around the country looking for survivors and witnesses of the tragedy. We had to put names and faces on those who experienced this large-scale racist attack, which began on the day of victory over Nazism, the fight for which had seen local men spill more than a little of their own blood.
Among them were Amri Bourras and his brother Saad (tortured in the gendarmerie in Sétif) and numerous other witnesses who are no longer with us today. They have passed away after leaving their accounts of these terrible weeks, and sending one single message - that we never forget.
It is the same for all these men who return from war, the liberators of France, covered with wounds and medals. They found their families massacred, their villages and their livestock destroyed by bombs, and…denial as the only official reaction. Their descendents have kept their medals as derisory proof of their combat during the Second World War and the injustice that they were offered in exchange for their sacrifice.
For the documentary, I gave a central place to just one of those soldiers: corporal Lounès Hanouz, whose father and brothers were assassinated in May 1945. A young man at the time, Bachir Boumerza - who would 50 years later become the president of the May 8 1945 Foundation - recalled the murder of the Hanouz in a book published in 1959 called La Gangrène:
“It was May 10th 1945, in Kherrata, my home village. Hanouz Arab, a medical auxiliary worker, who was reproached for being the secretary of the local association for culture and benevolence, was taken with his three children, the youngest of whom was my age, to the house of the senior settler in my village. There, on the spot, amid the encouragements of all the European population, women and children included, the Hanouz were tortured by the Legionnaires during several hours. In the evening, as they no longer moved but still breathed, the soldiers forced the Muslims to walk in line past the four bodies, laid out with their faces to the ground. The soldiers then took the Hanouz to a bridge, three kilometres from there and threw them from a height of 50 metres into the wadi.”
'Words must be placed on acts committed in France’s name'
Most of the former French soldiers we interviewed, who were at the scenes of the massacres (they were about 20-years-old in 1945), recalled with precision the events and acts perpetrated against the Algerian population. But some of them, as it were, “lost their memory”, remembering only anecdotal events and attributing the summary executions to others. Was this from a feeling of shame? At the archives in Aix-en-Provence, and despite our requests submitted to the public administration, we were refused the use of certain documents, such as the ‘J. Bergé report’, named after the police commissaire [Editors note: equivalent to a superintendent, or captain] from the Algiers serious crime squad who was appointed to investigate the “rumours of massacres” by the settler militias in the Constantine Province.
We borrowed these documents that were banned from being shown, just for a few hours, the time to photograph them in order to make them public. Once we had done our work, we put them back in their place. They are shown in our documentary, Les Massacres de Sétif. A few years ago I discovered that the archive footage (of nitrate film) that I had requested in 1995 from the French army’s Cinematographic and Photographic Establishment (the ECPA, now called the ECPA-D), had been ‘cleaned’ of several troubling sequences. One of these sequences removed following my initial request shows soldiers on a half-track executing, at close range, two farm workers holding their arms above them. I have reintegrated these forbidden images, 20 years later, into the documentary.
The massacres of Sétif, Guelma and Kherrata have only been publicly acknowledged by representatives of the French state during the past decade. It took 60 years to pass before France’s ambassador to Algeria, Hubert Colin de Verdière,described - on February 25th 2005 in Sétif - the massacres perpetrated by France in May and June 1945 as an “inexcusable tragedy”. Three months later, in an interview with Algerian daily El Watan and published on May 8th 2005, the then French foreign minister, Michel Barnier, declared: “To build a common future, it is essential that we succeed in studying the past together, in order to overcome the most painful episodes for our two peoples. That requires encouraging the work of historians, from on side and the other, who must work together, serenely, on this mutual past.”
French President François Hollande went much further. On December 20th 2012, speaking before the lower and upper houses of the Algerian parliament during his first visit to Algeria, he said: “For 132 years, Algeria was subjected to a profoundly unjust and brutal system […] and I recognise here the sufferance that colonialisation inflicted on the Algerian people. Among these sufferances were the massacres of Sétif, of Guelma, of Kherrata which, I know, remain anchored in the memory and consciousness of Algerians, but also of the French. Because in Sétif on May 8th 1945, the very day that the world triumphed over barbarity, France did not respect its universal values.”
The trip to Sétif and the homage to the victims made by French junior minister Jean-Marc Todeschini on April 19th certainly deserves being noted, but it will bring nothing. To recognise a crime without naming it, without identifying it as a crime against humanity, is to only go half of the way.
- After decades of denial, France recognises 1961 police massacre of Algerians in Paris
- October 17, 1961: the night Paris police turned mass murderers
- When François Mitterrand ordered deaths of 45 Algerians
- Paris 1955: Algerian immigrants in a hostile land
- 'France has withdrawn into itself'
- A daughter's literary tribute to French mathematician tortured to death in Algeria
- Who murdered the beheaded French monks of Tibhirine?
Because just what, beyond the turn of phrases like “the most painful episodes”, “inexcusable tragedy” and “unjust and brutal system”, is being talked about? What is being referred to is the massacre of members of the civilian population by the military authorities and settler militias, of which the estimated death toll ranges from between 9,000 to 35,000. Also referred to is the use of the navy and planes to reduce to rubble dozens of villages of so-called insurgents, and the summary judgments and the executions of the same type of hundreds of unarmed civilians. What is referred to is torture, the forced disappearances of people, and imprisonments of which some only ended on the day independence was obtained, in July 1962.
The events in Sétif in 1945 were undisputedly a crime against humanity under the definitions of that crime by the International Criminal Court, which includes the following: “Crimes against humanity include any of the following acts committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack: murder; extermination; enslavement; deportation or forcible transfer of population; imprisonment; torture […] persecution against an identifiable group on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender grounds.”
For years, the demands that France give solemn and official recognition of the crimes of 1945 remained in vain, despite the attention drawn each year to this requirement of justice by various associations, a moral requirement that demands words must be placed on the acts committed in France’s name in Algeria 70 years ago. The act of recognition that allows for a certain peace, for justice and the transmission of our common history was made possible by former French President Jacques Chirac when, in July 1995, the role of France’s police and civil servants in the mass roundup for deportation of Jews in Paris in July 1942, known as the ‘Rafle du Vel d’Hiv’. Similarly, the current French president made these conditions possible with his recognition in October 2012 of the crimes of October 17th 1961, when Algerians demonstrating in Paris for their country’s independence were massacred by police.
It is time to talk, it is time to not forget, it is time to build.
“Nothing is constructed amid dissimulation, amid forgetting, even less so amid denial,” said President Hollande during his visit to Algeria in December 2012.
Today, the citizens on both sides of the Mediterranean are waiting for actions!
Film director and president of the association ‘Au Nom de la Mémoire’.
The French version of this article can be found here.
English version by Graham Tearse