When ‘Algeria’ is mentioned, some people might have heard of the book Djamila and Picasso, others might have seen the film The Battle of Algiers depicting Algerian women playing an active role in the revolution. In the Arab collective memory, Algeria is known as the country of the three Djamilas, an Arabic name, meaning ‘beautiful’ in referrence to three Algerian women war veterans: Djamila Bouheird, Djamila Boupasha and Djamila Bouazza, symbols in the fight against the coloniser during the Liberation War (1954-1962).
What unites these memories is the Algerian Revolution of the 1st of November 1954. However, Algeria has witnessed another traumatic phase during which more than 200 000 Algerians lost their lives. This historical period is what is known as the ‘Black Decade’ of the 1990s. Despite the atrocities of that period, little is known about what happened and above all, victims and activists struggle to keep the memory of their loved ones alive and bring the perpetrators to justice. In an effort to break the official and public silence, activists and survivors are attempting to appropriate the symbolic signification of the 1st of November to all Algerian victims and survivors of both periods: the Algerian Revolution and the Civil War of the 1990s.
To that end, the Association Djazairouna (our Algeria), directed by Ms. Cherifa Keddar, one of the victims of terrorism, who witnessed the assassination of her brother and sister at her family home in Blida, organised a two-day conference titled Our memory, our fight: for the memory of our victims. The conference was held on the 1st and 2nd of November 2016 at Riyadh al Fateh, Algiers and Blida. It was to commemorate those who lost their lives in the Civil War in the 1990s and to remind the Algerians of the atrocities which took place in what is known as the ‘Black Decade’. The theme of the conference falls within the context of my current research project on the 1990s.
The 1st of November was chosen consciously to remember the eruption of the Algerian revolution against French colonialism in 1954. It symbolises the will of Algerians to fight against French brutalities and inhuman way in which they were subjugated. The date also coincides with the International Remembrance Day, as Cherifa Keddar explains.
For Zahira Guenifi, a mother who lost her twenty year-old son, Hisham:
the 1st of November is chosen on purpose…I have all the right to use this day as I want and in the way I want…I was seven years old when the French killed my father…he is a martyr…that was not the end of that, 296 members of the Mehsen family, from Al Sitara, Beni Staih, near El Melia (Jijel) were assassinated in one afternoon by the French. This date is chosen not to steal the lime light out of the 1st November (Algerian revolution)…It is a date for all Algerians, except the Harkis. The 1st of November belongs to all Algerians…therefore; we said it is a date to send a strong warning to our government …to commemorate our victims…a date for the memory of our sons, husbands, brothers, sisters, all of those who were hurt, a date to remind us that we are not alone, a date that might help (not sure of that) us come to terms with our pain, a date that narrates stories of those who died…a date exactly like the 1st of November.
Three films were specifically chosen for the event. The first was l’Heroine (the heroine) by Cherif Agoune. The story goes back to the 1990s and takes place in a remote village, few kilometres away from Algiers, where Ashour and his two brothers lived on a farm. The men of the family are killed either in clashes between the security forces and the terrorists or by the terrorists. Two women are kidnapped. Houria, Ashour’s widow and the heroine of the story, was able to escape and save the children. She is received in Algiers by her family, but conflicts re-emerge and she finds herself facing another harsh reality of life. No longer willing to accept her status in her family, she decides to roll up her sleeves to meet the needs of her children. She becomes a professional photographer specializing in wedding ceremonies. She also joins the association of women victims of terrorists. The story is about survival and the strong will of the heroine to live for her children and overcome the obstacles of her society. After the screening of the film, an actor who played the role of the officer, gave a short interview in which he said that the film was based on the true story of one of his patients, when he was the doctor in that town.
In Memoire de Scènes by Abderrahim Laloui, again, the story takes place in the 1990s. Azzedine, a professional journalist, prepares an adaptation of the play Tartuffe by Molière which he wants to stage in the municipal theatre. The story depicts the daily life of Algerian intellectuals in the 1990s. Throughout the story, intellectuals like Tahar Djaout, the francophone writer, as well asmany others are remembered. At the end, the playwright is killed but the group of actors swear to perform the play as an act of defiance against the terrorists.
The third film was El Manara by Belkacem Hadjadj. The film revolves around three characters, namely: Fawzi, Ramdan and Asma, who have been friends since childhood. The two men and the woman lead a happy life in the old city of Cherchell. Their relationship is complex; it includes a combination of friendship and romantic love. Their world is shaken and slowly torn apart as they become overwhelmed by events around them: the popular riots of 1988, the military heavy-handed response to the riots, the initiation of the democratic process and its abrupt dissolution, and then the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. The abduction of two female characters and their rape constitute the climax of the story and reveal the systematic sexual violence against women. Alongside the theme of violence, the film tackles the issue of the ‘new’ Islamic concepts which started to make their way in the Algerian society, such as the abolition of festivities such as the celebration of the prophet’s birthday, known as El Manara festivity, aiming to highlight the foreignness of this ‘new Islam’.
The audience was mostly victims/survivors of terrorism, who were crying and shouting out phrases in approval throughout the films. “Yes, it was like that during the nineties!” would be heard in the room. The survivors were happy that those films were produced. “These films say what we cannot express, they document to the coming generation what we have seen and above all, help us feel a sense of belonging to a group, particularly that the official narratives do not recognise that the 1990s existed,” one of the survivors said. During the debate, the film makers said that their works were not shown on national television. Similar voices were heard on the second day of the conference. Voices which called for remembering of victims and, most importantly, calling for justice to take place. All of the survivors, with no exception, stressed that they were against the Amnesty Law (1999, 2005) and that they want to bring to justice the perpetrators.
Mr. Ali Bouguettaya, President of the National Coordination of Resistance, talked about their role in restoring security, particularly in the villages most badly hit by terrorism. He mentioned that 5000 paramilitary men (patriotes, also called Civil Defence) died and 11000 were left handicapped. In his testimony, Mr. Farid Asslaoui, a retired official who worked closely with the victims of terrorism, referred to nine magistrates killed on the same day, as well as intellectuals (he cites Djilali El Yabes), journalists (e.g., Tahar Djaout) and many others. He adds that it was not possible to go to their families to pay tributes for fear of being identified by the terrorists. As for rape, he classifies it in terms of space and time, in other words, where and when it happened.
Dr. Amira Bouraoui, a doctor and an activist discussed how she lived the Black Decade as a child and as a daughter of a doctor who worked in the military hospital of Ain Naadja. She described the daily atrocities she and many of her generation had witnessed. Prof. Cherifa Bouatta, an academic and a psychologist worked closely with survivors throughout the Black Decade, and explained her role as someone who had not only witnessed the atrocities but also as a professional known to most of the survivors in the room. In a moving testimony, Fatima Zahra Keddar described how her brother, sister and mother were shot in the family home. Similalry, Ms Nadjia Bouzeghrane, a journalist who was exiled to France described her feeling of being away from her loved ones and hearing news about the death of colleagues and people she left behind. Prof. Fadhila Boumendjel-Chitour, founding member of Réseau Wassila, and niece of the martyr Boumendjel, stressed the need to mend the social linkages and rebuild the collective memory. Mr. Mohamed Boudiaf, the son of the late president Boudiaf also talked bitterly about the assassination of his father and condemned the terrorists who “have no relation to Islam” as he says.
What was clear from the event is the determination of the participants to continue their battle towards justice. Moreover, it shows the strong bonds between survivors, professionals such as psychologists, jurists, activists and doctors as a product of a long lasting combat by people who share similar memories. These men and women from different backgrounds and political opinions came together in opposition to the president’s charter for peace and reconciliation. Djazairouna represents the place to remember, to mourn and to get support. Through it they launch their call to make the 1st of November their day of remembrance too, a day that unites all Algerians and symbolises the fight against colonialism and terrorism at the same time, a day which denounces violence and puts forward notions of humanism.
Anissa Daoudi is a lecturer in Arabic and Translation Studies at the University of Birmingham. She is head of the Arabic section and specialist in the Translation Studies (Arabic-English-Arabic) programme. She recently won the Leverhulme Fellowship for her project: narrating and translating sexual violence in Algeria in the 1990s.