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books One Person’s Terrorist? Reflections on Zohra Drif’s Memoir of the Algerian Revolution

Written nearly six years ago about the brutal French colonial suppression of the Algerian population. Is the civilian population of a colonial-settler regime ever a legitimate military target?

Arrest of Zohra Drif,Photo: Just World Books // The Nation

I have seldom felt compelled to write a review or an essay after reading a book. I am often inspired, saddened, or reflective after finishing a book, but normally I don’t feel compelled to publicly think through issues that emerged for me in the course of reading someone’s work.

Inside the Battle of Algiers:
Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter
by Zohra Drif
Translated from the French by Andrew Farrand
Foreword by Lakhdar Brahimi
Just World Books; 320 pages
Paperback:  $29.95
September 1, 2017
ISBN 978-1-68257-075-3

Just World Books

Zohra Drif’s Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter left me in a very different place. I grew up inspired by the Algerian national liberation war against France and had, along with thousands of other activists of my political generation, seen the famous Gillo Pontecorvo film The Battle of Algiers—and Drif played a key role in some wrenching scenes depicted in it. What I failed to grasp was how close the film had actually been to the facts, at least as described by Drif.

Yet Drif’s book is striking less because of its connection with the Pontecorvo film than because it is the story of a woman who, in the very conservative climate of colonial Algeria, became a revolutionary in the cause of Algeria’s freedom. Drif had to overcome the reluctance that existed within her own family, in addition to the repression carried out by the French authorities.

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These issues, in and of themselves, would be enough to lead one to appreciate Drif’s story. But it is her discussion of the armed activities in which she was involved, including the bombing of civilian targets, that sent chills up my spine and caused me to stop and reflect.

Anyone who has seen The Battle of Algiers will remember that the urban guerrillas of the FLN (Front de Libération Nationale) carried out bombings of civilian targets in retaliation for the torturing and killing of Algerians by French troops and terror attacks against Algerian civilians by French colonists. Every time I have watched those scenes—and I have seen the film multiple times—I have been deeply unsettled at the sight of settler civilians killed and wounded. I wondered how Drif would handle this question in her book. To some extent I was surprised by her direct and unapologetic approach.

Drif’s description of the Algerian Revolution can be more fully appreciated when one looks at the entirety of the situation and, especially, the treatment to which the Algerian people were subjected. Algeria was among those colonies of Europe that could be defined as “settler states” or “settler colonies.” These were colonies where the Europeans not only controlled the territory and seized its resources but where there had been a conscious decision to settle Europeans. Other such settler states included Ireland, Kenya, Rhodesia/Zimbabwe, South Africa, Palestine/Israel, Canada, the USA, Australia, and New Zealand.

There are many noteworthy things about settler states. One is how often God is referenced, as having allegedly given those territories to the European settler population. That was particularly true in Ireland, South Africa, Israel, and the United States.

A second is the manner in which the settlers psychologically and physically displace the native population and redefine themselves as the legitimate population of that territory. In the United States we are familiar with this, and the ramifications for the American Indians. In Algeria the French encouraged poor southern Europeans to migrate to Algeria and settle. As far as the settlers were concerned, they were now the Algerians, or, more specifically, the French Algerians. The indigenous Algerians were the equivalent of chopped liver.

The poor southern Europeans who settled came to be known as the pieds-noirs (black feet). They arrived after the French military had defeated the indigenous forces and seized the best land—a conquest that began in 1830. The settlers proliferated, and the indigenous Algerians became their servants. Whenever the Algerians rose in revolt, they were brutally suppressed.

The French government felt a special bond with the territory of Algeria, ultimately declaring it to be a part of France. This distinguished Algeria from many other territories occupied by France, as well as territories colonized by other European powers. It was along the lines of the way the United States claims Puerto Rico, after having seized it from the Spanish in 1898.

The indigenous Algerians—a population made up of a broad mixture of African peoples including Arabs and Berbers—had a different point of view, of course. They engaged in various forms of both violent and nonviolent resistance to colonial oppression over the many decades of French colonization. The forms of resistance mattered little to the French government and the pied-noir administrations. Resistance was forbidden.

In the immediate aftermath of World War II, a war during which France was occupied by Nazi Germany, the Algerian people rose in protest. On May 8, 1945, French authorities carried out massacres in the Algerian cities of Sétif, Guelma, and Kherrata, targeting thousands of unarmed Algerians. By 1954, a wing of the Algerian independence movement—the FLN—chose to move toward armed struggle as the only means of achieving total liberation from France and the elimination of the settler-colonial regime.

When the oppressed are jailed, tortured, and murdered in settler-colonial systems, the oppressor force treats this in one of several ways. There may be outright denial, e.g., “No, we would never have….” The incidents may be explained away, e.g., “We had to take these steps because the natives were out of control.” The actions of the oppressor state may be treated as an accident or as collateral damage, e.g., “We didn’t mean to shoot those children on the beach; we thought they were terrorists.” The incidents may also be ignored, with no explanation ever given.

There is an additional response from the oppressor group that overlaps each, which can be summed up as, “So what? Things happen.” In other words, the lives of the so-called natives, be they racially, nationally, or colonially oppressed, are in no way comparable to the lives and experiences of the oppressor population. The suffering that befalls the oppressor is always treated as of qualitatively greater significance than anything that happens to the oppressed, at least according to the settler/colonial framework.

That settler/colonial framework was of course at stake in the Algerian Revolution, as it is in every national liberation movement. In the debased morality of such a framework, to what extent can the oppressed be understood as human beings, as opposed to an unidentifiable black, brown, or yellow mass? To what extent should their pleas for freedom be understood as eloquent demands for emancipation rather than the inarticulate moans of suffering?

The Algerian Revolution encountered this challenge on multiple levels. After numerous acts of brutality on the part of the pieds-noirs and/or the French authorities, including but not limited to a particularly ignominious terrorist attack against Algerian civilians by a pied-noir group known as the Ultras, the FLN decided to retaliate. Their view was that such attacks on Algerians would continue and the world would hear nothing and do nothing until and unless the settlers suffered in like manner. As a result, Drif and others made the fateful decision to place bombs where pied-noir civilians congregated.

It was at that moment in the book that I paused. I had to think about the implications. I have always been someone who has felt very strongly that civilians should never be the target of military operations. Yet, here was one of the greatest national liberation movements of the 20th century, and they made a very different decision.

I found myself reflecting upon Native Americans/American Indians who, in their battles with the expanding white settler populations of North America, engaged in warfare that sometimes included kidnapping and/or killing white settlers. With their backs to the wall, was there another option? When white settlers, either formal military or militia, carried out massacres against the Native population, which they would later claim as military victories—massacres that were commonly celebrated by the white civilians—did the indigenous have any options?

The FLN bombings shook the settler population of Algeria in ways that they had never expected to be shaken. The national liberation war was now a reality that hit very close to home. The settlers were no longer safe. And they certainly no longer had the luxury—if they ever did—of remaining neutral, since, by their very presence, they were asserting their right to the land, and control over the people, of Algeria.

Military actions by the FLN throughout Algeria contributed to the ultimate victory but, as the film The Battle of Algiers illustrated at the end, it was mass actions by native Algerians throughout the country that made colonial Algeria ungovernable. Finally, in 1962, to the pleasure of most of the world, Algeria achieved independence.

Yet the moral/political conflict inherent in the decision to hit civilian targets was not resolved, though the FLN members seemed comfortable that they had made the correct decision. Drif certainly believes that the decision was correct and not to be confused with jihadist violence that we have seen in the more recent past around the world.

How does an emancipatory struggle gain world attention? How does it point out to the oppressor group, whether settlers or simply occupiers, that there can be no normality? And, most controversial, when does a so-called civilian population become not merely an instrument of an oppressive regime but an intrinsic and crucial weapon of control?

The FLN saw their actions as retaliatory violence. But they also saw the settler population as part of the enemy. This conclusion seems neither illogical nor irrational. The overwhelming majority of the pieds-noirs believed in what they called “Algérie Française.” On more than one occasion the settlers came close to creating a civil war within France, including through the establishment of a notorious crypto-fascist organization, the OAS (in English, the Secret Army Organization), in order to permanently secure Algeria to France.

Yet in striking at civilians, the challenges for the FLN included not only the intrinsic ethical dilemmas posed by such attacks but also the response of world opinion and the legacy they would have for future generations. Though the mass base of the FLN may have supported hitting civilian targets as a form of retaliation for state torture and pied-noir terrorism, the reality is that much of the rest of the world either did not agree or did not understand. As far as much of the rest of the world was concerned, these were civilian establishments that were not engaged in the war and, therefore, should have been considered off limits.

The battle against settler regimes is a unique fight because the settlers are, in most cases, an unofficial component of the army of occupation. In this sense, the pieds-noirs were never a neutral civilian population that had to make a choice between two sides (as every population ultimately does during war). Certainly individual settlers made choices, including the minority of settlers who chose to enlist with the FLN. (Frantz Fanon, originally from Martinique but a hero of the Algerian Revolution, devoted a chapter in his book A Dying Colonialism to the European minority and made the point that they were not a monolithic bloc.) That said, the mass of settlers’ presence in a colonized land represents an act of aggression, an invasion.

Settlers actually know this, if only subconsciously, which is why they try so hard to claim or mythologize that there was allegedly no one on the land before they arrived, as in the settler’s tales in South Africa, Israel (“a land without a people for a people without a land”), and the United States. The admission that there was a population in existence, even if the justification is that the population was “primitive,” raises myriad questions about how and why the land was expropriated. The fact that settler-colonial states generally go further and ensure that the settlers are armed, have military training, and can frequently be enlisted in military operations by the settler-colonial state is only the icing on an already toxic cake.

In settler states the settlers have access to weapons, while for the natives it is generally prohibited. Settlers have a racial or national privilege that separates their existence from that of the natives, whether in the form of housing, access to water, utilities, freedom of movement, or education. The settler is living a completely different life from that of the native, and attempts by natives to assert their humanity and demand even a modicum of equality are perceived as threats to settler privilege. The settlers, as a group, never see themselves as aligned with the interests of the natives but rather fight to assert their settler privilege, even going so far as to proclaim themselves “nationalists,” insofar as they want the settler state to remain a settler-dominated formation, no matter how that state might change in formal terms.

To those not directly involved in a conflict with a settler regime, the civilian settler is perceived not as an extension of the repressive apparatus of the occupying regime but as a simple civilian and, as such, a non-combatant. The conflict is perceived as being a formal one between the apparatus of the occupier, on the one hand, and the organization(s) of the native, on the other. In such a scenario, the civilian settler is frequently perceived as being a neutral party who only wishes to live well and be left alone.

While such a scenario is false on its face, it is what is often believed and, in the Western media, what is frequently portrayed. The oppressed are not given any “permission” to retaliate against atrocities—often not even against the occupier’s military forces—while any attack by the armed forces of the oppressor are viewed as legitimate acts of self-defense.

The acts on the part of the FLN were historically understandable but politically problematic, a point that must be reflected upon in similar such struggles and which goes toward the legacy of the Algerian Revolution. Liberation struggles never take place in isolation, and they never involve only two sides. Surrounding any conflict are “invisible” forces that interact with and influence the parties directly engaged in the struggle. In some cases, such forces are very active, for example US establishment support for the ongoing Israeli colonization of Palestine. In other cases, they may initially be neutral but then come to be engaged, for example, the USSR in the Algerian Revolution (initially neutral but later supportive of the national liberation struggle). The activities of the other parties can be influenced by various factors, including but not limited to the nature of the actual fight itself.

Though an anti-settler movement can legitimately argue that the settlers are complicit in oppression, in each case the movement must determine the consequences of identifying targets. What, for instance, will be the impact on potential allies—including not only other governments but solidarity movements abroad—if civilians are targeted? Will potential allies recognize a legitimate right of retaliation, or will they look at such acts as terrorism?

During the so-called Troubles in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s through the mid-1990s, the Irish Republican Army generally took great pains to distinguish hard targets (military or government targets) from soft targets (civilians). This did not mean that civilians were not killed—there were some horrendous exceptions to this policy—but rather that they were generally not the targets of military activity. This, in fact, distinguished the IRA from the loyalist paramilitary organizations, which disregarded the soft target/hard target distinction and were quite comfortable attacking nationalist/Catholic civilians. Such an approach made it difficult for the British to successfully portray the IRA as terrorists, though the British media worked overtime in support of the London government on this issue.

The example of Ireland also illustrates an additional complication. During the Troubles, the British would establish military installations in or near civilian establishments, which I witnessed first-hand in 1988, during a visit to Northern Ireland. This meant that if the IRA were to carry out a military attack on a British installation, there was a good chance that civilians would be killed or injured, and the British could describe the attack as an act of “terrorism.” The fact that the British created this situation was generally missed by the media.

During the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, the African National Congress took a similar approach toward military actions. The basic policy was that civilians were not to be targeted, though there was always a recognition that civilians might be killed or injured as a result of an attack on a military or government target.

The fundamental challenge in decolonization struggles and national liberation movements against settler-colonial regimes is that the dilemmas of the oppressed are almost never given contemporary equality with those of the oppressor. On the other hand, when viewed retrospectively, actions by an oppressed or “righteous” group, including against civilians, often receive some degree of legitimation.

Thus, the question of the FLN’s campaign in Algiers must be viewed in the context of the 1950s. What were the ethical considerations, and to what extent would targeting settler civilians hurt the cause of Algerian liberation? To what extent would it stop the French and/or pieds-noirs from further atrocities against the Algerians? And, what would be the lingering impact on the Algerian Revolution itself of authorizing attacks on civilian targets?

At the same historical moment, the Vietnamese left made a very different decision. In both the war against the French and, later, the war against the US puppet regimes, the Vietminh, and later the National Liberation Front and the Vietnamese People’s Army—in comparison with the apparatus of the respective regimes they fought—worked to distinguish between hard targets and soft targets, not always successfully. Their behavior had a major impact on the manner in which the Vietnamese national liberation struggle was perceived internationally.

The Algerian FLN won and Algeria became free. An outstanding question, besides one of morality, is again, one of legacy and, specifically, the conclusions arrived at by other movements for national freedom. Were there specific challenges in the Algerian Revolution—in comparison with other anti-colonial and anti-settler movements—that necessitated a turn toward the killing of settler civilians?

Other movements in similar circumstances made very different choices. This is not a matter of passing judgment, but an assessment. Did the killing of civilians in Algeria’s anti-colonial war legitimize, in the minds of those who became jihadists years later, the blurring of the lines between hard targets and soft targets? Did it lead some to conclude that through terror against a population one could force that population to make certain choices?

These are the issues that Zohra Drif opens for consideration in her critically important memoir. In her actions as a militant, Drif casts aside the romanticization of revolution. One need not agree with her conclusions in order to appreciate her courage and that of her other comrades in the FLN, who fought what many people assumed at the beginning of the struggle to be an unwinnable war of national liberation. 

[Bill Fletcher Jr. is a past president of TransAfrica Forum, a longtime trade unionist, and a cofounder of the Ukrainian Solidarity Network. He is a member of the editorial board of The Nation.]

Copyright c 2023 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp

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