The Written Word
By: Joey Wang
In the 2007 movie, L'ennemi Intime (Intimate Enemies), a cinematic tour de force of the French-Algerian War, some soldiers in a French company are ordered to take a fellagha, a captured insurgent out for a "walk in the woods" and dispose of him. During this walk, Saïd, a Harki (an Algerian fighting on the French side) in the company strikes up a conversation with the fellagha. Saïd discovers that the fellagha's name is Idir Danoun, and that they both had fought at the battle of Monte Cassino. When the company stops for a rest, Saïd shares a cigarette with Danoun and asks him why he had joined the FLN guerrillas. Danoun silently takes the cigarette that he has just lit and, while Saïd watches curiously, lights the other end. Danoun then says, "Look at this cigarette. This is you. On one end is the French Army, on the other, the FLN. Either way, you lose. You don't know who you are anymore. You're no longer an Algerian. You'll never be a Frenchman."
We know the fate of Danoun, who had chosen to side with the FLN. But the movie never reveals the ultimate fate of Saïd, who sided with the French Army. Was he killed in the war? Did he survive? We never know. Saïd's role ends thus perfectly, neatly swept off the stage.
Harkis like Saïd have remained a vestige of the brutal French-Algerian War that all the protagonists sought to ignore, forget, or exterminate. Unlike Saïd, however, history and historiography do not always allow uncomfortable truths to be neatly swept off of the stage. It is in this context that the fate of the Harkis and the impact on their descendants are explored, in Vincent Crapanzano's latest work, The Harkis: The Wound that Never Heals. Based on a combination of archival research and face-to-face interviews, Crapazano's results are riveting. In a typical scene, Crapanzano observes that the father of a man named Boussad "speaks to no one. He just sits at home and stares into space." (p. 116) This silence in Crapanzano's interviews is pervasive. It speaks to the presence of memories that have nowhere to go. Crapanzano inquires if perhaps Boussad's paternal uncle, who is often drunk, might be a willing interlocutor. Also to no avail: "What the use? The past is the past." (p. 116)
This silence is pervasive. It speaks to the presence of memories that have nowhere to go.
Throughout his work, Crapanzano makes extraordinary efforts to engage the old Harkis and record their stories to ensure that they do not simply vanish from the stage like Saïd. But, like the other protagonists in this war, these men would rather forget: "What's the point? ... It's over. It's best forgotten." (p. 9) Crapanzano, however, recognizes that it is often far harder to forget than to remember. Indeed, the lifeless stares into space, the depression, the drunken stupors, the psychoses, the apathy, the suicides, the violence, all suggest that, in fact, nothing has been forgotten. It is evidence that demands a verdict.
Approximately 260,000 Algerians of Arab or Berber descent served in various capacities in the French Army as Harkis.
During the French-Algerian War, the Muslim community was faced with a choice: join either the FLN insurgency, or the French Army as an auxiliary. As all students of insurgencies know, the only neutrals are dead ones. Indeed, Muslims often joined the French Army only after being forced to witness the slaughter of their family members en masse. All told, approximately 260,000 Algerians of Arab or Berber descent served in various capacities in the French Army as Harkis.
As the war drew to a close, the period leading up to the ratification of the Treaty of Evian (July 3, 1962) was a defining period for the Harkis. With Algérie Francaise quickly slipping away, the French Army was losing its ability to maintain order. In the midst of the transition's chaos and confusion, the Harkis were told to return to their villages. Crapanzano recalls a conversation with Hacène, whose father, a Harki, was told by the French to turn in his weapon because he was going to be issued a more sophisticated one. Once he had done so, his father and the entire attachment were sent back to their village unarmed, with the understanding that with the Treaty signed, they would be protected. As the men had feared, this provision, however well intended, was totally unenforceable and proved to be an outright death sentence. Indeed, "some of the Harkis were sacrificed as soon as they entered the village."
Many [French soldiers], disgusted and dispirited, lamented their powerlessness in the face of negotiated defeat.
Betrayal and abandonment run throughout the Harkis' story. As with so much in Algeria, though, there was another side to it. Crapanzano reminds his readers that the French army did not always stand by in abject obsequiousness while this murderous rampage took place. Some, in fact, made heroic attempts to spirit their Harkis back to France. While one officer with whom the author spoke "simply denied knowing anything about it," he found many more who, disgusted and dispirited, lamented their powerlessness in the face of negotiated defeat.
For those Harkis who were fortunate enough to escape, life was anything but predictable. For most, however, emigration—which began in the summer of 1962—began with a harrowing ride in the cargo hold of a ship to Marseille. Most had never even seen the ocean, let alone been on a ship. Upon arrival, the families were transferred by rail to military camps that had been hastily erected to accommodate the surge of refugees. Those unheated and rodentinfested camps, according to Crapanzano, were representative of the deplorable conditions that most would endure for years. They were overseen by poorly trained, often unsympathetic and resentful administrators who thought their own careers had been brought to a dead-end by the assignment. Even once in France, the war's dangers never subsided completely for the refugees, who were viewed with suspicion by the French even as they were pursued by the FLN with revenge in mind. Whether or not one ever found his way out of these camps depended upon skills, qualifications, connections, and often a bit of luck. As Crapanzano explains, this reflected the dichotomy between French assimilationists, who advocated settling Harki families throughout France, and the isolationists who advocated keeping them separate from French society. Put another way, "The assimilationists wanted to make them French; the isolationists wanted them to disappear."
The camps have long been closed and abandoned, but they serve as constant reminders of France's imperial past and its consequences. Crapanzano, in his final reflections, addresses the monumental challenges in achieving forgiveness and reconciliation; from France, the Harkis' adopted country, and from Algeria, their native country. In both countries they exist at best as pariahs, at worst as traitors. Most of his interviews were with the children of the Harkis, many of whom experienced both the deprivations of the camps and the excesses of the camp administrators. Consequently, they also bear the scars of their parents.
Some have moved on with their lives, becoming writers, businessmen, doctors, or lawyers. Others have become activists fighting for recognition of the sacrifices their parents made for the tricolore. But many, if not most, of the grandchildren are unemployed and living on welfare in subsidized housing. Tragically, today, this world is becoming more isolated, and its inhabitants are undergoing an "intensification of Muslim identity," according to a report for the Institut Montaigne.
"The assimilationists wanted to make them French; the isolationists wanted them to disappear."
Crapanzano has chronicled the story of the Harkis with a well-researched and heartfelt, deeply disturbing personal journey. He illuminates not only the immediate costs of the Algerian rearguard action, but the less known collateral damage visited upon those forced to make choices that meant only preserving one's life for the moment. Insightfully written, this work skillfully shifts our focus in one of the great geopolitical conflicts of the twentieth century to the most elemental level, that of the individual.
About the Author(s): Joey Wang is an analyst with the U.S. Department of Defense. He received a M.A. in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College, and a M.A in Strategic Security Studies from the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University. He has also completed the National and International Security program for senior executives at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. His essays on international security and insurgency have received international recognition.