Help for families of Algerian War’s ‘disappeared’

Researcher Malika Rahal tells The Connexion how a President’s visit to a victim’s wife finally opened doors to a dark period in modern French history

1 May 2019
By Jane Hanks

In 1957, a 25-year-old French woman with three children living in Algiers watched as her husband was taken away by the French Army during the Algerian war.

She never saw him again.

Josette Audin was repeatedly told by French authorities that her husband, Maurice, had escaped from a prison camp. She was, however, convinced he had been killed in captivity. 

In September 2018, President Macron visited Mrs Audin, then 87, at her home in Paris. He told her that the State was responsible for her husband’s death. The precise details remain unclear, but Maurice had been tortured to death or had been executed after being tortured.

The President said he wanted the national archives to be opened up, so that families could get answers. Mrs Audin did not live to find out what happened to her husband. She died five months later, in February 2019.

Maurice and Josette Audin’s story is just one of thousands. The website 1000autres.org  has been set up by two historians to find out who else disappeared in this period of France’s history.

 

Can you explain more about the life of Mrs Audin?

Malika Rahal: Her tale is the story of someone who was French and who grew up in Algiers and who married another French person, Maurice Audin.

Both were on the side of Algerian independence and chose to become Algerian, which distinguished them from the rest of the French population living in Algeria.

In the process of struggling for independence, her husband was taken by the French paratroopers and became one of the numerous people who were the so-called “disappeared”.

Her life was transformed. From then on, it revolved entirely around this event as she struggled for some kind of recognition and explanation of what had happened at the hands of the paratroopers.

 

Algeria had been a French territory since 1830. The Algerian War began in 1954 and lasted until 1962, when Algeria gained independence. So what was the situation in 1957?

The context in which Maurice Audin disappeared is the context of what was often called the Battle of Algiers.

At that time, the Algerians had been fighting for independence for three years, and they were trying to find a way to bring the revolution into the most important city at that time, Algiers.

On the other side, the French were leading a counter-revolution. In January 1957, the French decided to bring in the paratroopers and give them full authority over the city of Algiers.

There was harsh repression from January to the autumn of 1957. During that time, the paratroopers used kidnapping, torture and assassination as a means to repress the Algerians in their struggle for independence. Maurice Audin was one of the activists who was arrested by the paratroopers.

 

Josette Audin wrote to each new French President, asking them for answers as she tried to find out what had happened. In 2014, François Hollande admitted Mr Audin had died in custody. What had she been told before then?

The authorities repeatedly told lies, the main lie being that he escaped. This was told of a great many other activists when they were captured and they were killed. It was, of course, extremely difficult to get the answers she was looking for.

 

How important was President Macron’s visit to Josette Audin?

Its importance is twofold. One, he recognised the entire responsibility of the French army, and behind the army, the French state for whatever happened to Mr Audin.

Secondly, he explained that there was a system in place in Algiers at the time, the aim of which was to arrest and torture activists; this recognition that it was not an accident but a system that had been created was quite striking.

 

Some were not happy about President Macron’s visit. General Bruno Dary, on behalf of around 1.5million veterans in 40 associations, wrote to him, saying they were fed up it was always the people tortured by the French army who were remembered, rather than the 20,000 French soldiers who were killed during the war and the hundreds of French who were kidnapped, tortured and assassinated by the Algerians fighting for independence. What is your response?

Dary’s letter is characteristic of one opinion within the army: it gained support from several associations grouping categories of military personnel, though not all of these associations have signed it. The letter uses the usual rhetoric of defining Audin, the Algerian National Liberation Front and all Algerians struggling for their independence as terrorists.

He also claims that the French presence in Algeria cannot be reduced to the Battle of Algiers but should also be remember for its positive aspects. The debate about the “positive aspects of colonisation” resurfaces in France regularly, though in the history of Algeria it takes a significant denial of facts to prove that colonisation benefited the colonised population.

What I’m also interested in is that Dary’s letter went almost unnoticed.

 

Since the visit by President Macron you have created a website 1000autres.org with historian Fabrice Riceputi, to find out the details of other people who were arrested at the same time. How many do you think were involved?

We think it is thousands, but it is difficult to know exactly how many.

Because the Battle of Algiers took place during the war and because of the complicated relations between the population and the colonial authorities, many of them had nowhere to go to lodge a complaint that their loved one had disappeared.

We are left with very little material to work with in order to count people or to give a name, though some families did go to the prefecture. The website is based on a discovery by my colleague Fabrice Riceputi of a partial list he stumbled upon in the National Archives.

This list was probably made by the French prefecture in Algiers when someone thought that there should be a trace of the people coming in to enquire about missing relatives and that families should fill in a form.

Fabrice found about a thousand of these forms.

We know there were more and we know there were families who never came forward.

We have put these names on the website and asked people to confirm if these people disappeared for good or came home.

We have come across people who have said, ‘Yes, this is me and I survived’. But in many cases we have had people saying ‘Yes, this is my dad or my uncle or my brother and, yes, he disappeared’.

In some cases, the people who write are the children of the disappeared, who say they were there when the kidnapping took place.

 

Were most of these people Algerians and not French?

The vast majority of people fighting for independence were Algerians and it was only a handful of French people, like the Audins, who considered the cause a just one.

We believe the repression did not target only the activists but also the inhabitants of Algiers. Some of the men and women we have on our files and who we are learning more about from the families we are now in contact with, were not necessarily activists. We have one who was just a teenager.

 

How many people have come forward so far?

We started in September and we already have 160 cases where we know whether the person survived. We are in contact with over 50 or 60 families who are willing to correspond or to meet up with us so we can look into their situation.

 

What is the importance of finding the answers? Is it for the families or for history or both?

What everybody is looking for is a number which would give us the idea of how massive the repression was. But it will be difficult to find this.

There is also a desire to name the victims. It is amazing that when the name of someone who disappeared appears on a website it creates huge emotion among families. They are hopeful that something more can happen.

I do not know if we will be able to give them more truth. But perhaps it will at least give them something tangible which tells a part of their story.

We are learning about things we hadn’t planned to learn about. We hadn’t realised we would get so many narratives of arrests and we hadn’t planned we would get so many stories of how it was very often the women in the family who would go and stand in front of the prefecture or the prisons, day in and day out to get information.

We are starting to learn about these families after Independence. What it was like, for example, to grow up when you were a child and you had a murdered father but there was no body.

Mourning is different and it is extremely moving to hear about it from so many different people.

 

Are you just talking about 1957 and Algiers?

At present, we are only looking at 1957 because that is the file we came across – but we know the same methods were used throughout the war in Algeria, though not as intensively as during the Battle of Algiers.

We get many, many messages from people telling us about the disappearance of their father in another part of Algeria on another date. But we cannot launch an inquiry or integrate them on this website.

At this stage we don’t have enough people and time to expand the scope to cover the entire war, or to the vast number of people who died at the hands of the French military and “disappeared” – not only in Algeria, but even in France as we know torture was also used in France during the war of independence.

 

So, you are just at the beginning of the story?

Yes, I did not realise that when I started. When the website was launched it took just three hours to get the first response and Fabrice and I cried when the first email message came from someone who found their parent’s name on our list.

 

How important is it that we in France and the rest of Europe know that this happened not that long ago?

In France, we talk about people disappearing as if it is something very exotic associated with different regimes, say Latin-American dictatorships.

This is a recent European regime, using these kind of tactics on its own territory, because Algeria was not officially a colony, Algeria was officially part of France.

So, we have a French army performing practises that are more usually associated with exotic dictatorships.

It is both recent, very close geographically and was taking place in the French Republic.

 

Profiles of two out of thousands

Rabah Milat (pictured, below) - Born around 1920.

His children wrote on the website that “On February 16 1957, a group of paratroopers came to the house late at night, while he was sleeping and took him away from his home in front of his wife and young children and according to our mother they beat him on the head leaving blood everywhere.”

The family never saw him again.

His grandson wrote: “Thank you for shedding light on a long and sombre history, full of doubt, which has led us to imagine many things.

I thank everyone who has helped to relieve our pain.”

 

Saïd Khemissa (pictured, below) - Born 1941.

His brother wrote that he wanted to join the resistance fighters but was not accepted as he was too young at 15, so he tried to do things on his own with his cousin.

This led to his arrest and he says he was tortured to death, though the army told the family he was killed when he tried to escape.

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