In the early months of the Iraq war, the Department of Defense held screenings of Gillo Pontecorvo’s 1965 film The Battle of Algiers, which conveys the brutal insurgency carried out by the National Liberation Front (FLN) against 132 years of French colonial rule in Algeria. Not portrayed in the film is the miserable fate of the tens of thousands of Algerians, known as harkis, who had served the French throughout their rule.
Two years before the peace agreement between France and the FLN, the latter issued a public proclamation to Harkis in July 1960, urging them to renounce their affiliation or face retribution:
In the face of the operations of which you are the unknowing executors, we could react using the same methods we have been forced to use in the past in rendering harmless the agents of the enemy; traitors, stool pigeons, etc… The French press would then speak of a “settling of accounts among Algerians,” claiming this proves the division in our ranks and our inability to take our destiny into our own hands.
Colonialism is tottering, it is about to be defeated! It is forced to recognize the patriotic combatants as the responsible interlocutors of Algeria’s destiny.
Tomorrow it will abandon you, like it abandoned all those it used in Viet Nam, in Tunisia and in Morocco.
Tomorrow you will be worthy of no more consideration than a cheap Glaoui. What will become of you in an Algeria that will, sooner than you think, be returned to its people?
One path alone is laid out before every Algerian: the path of Honor and dignity.
Join, before it’s too late, the ranks of the Algerian Revolution
On December 29, 1961, President Charles de Gaulle reassured a war-weary French public that “one way or another,” the occupation of Algeria would end in the following year. As the withdrawal gathered steam, it became clear that the harkis would not be brought along in any significant numbers. A May 23, 1962 top secret note from de Gaulle’s office ordered officials to “cease all initiatives linked to the repatriation of harkis.”
When a harki leader who had already lost ten family members to assassination, pleaded with the French President, de Gaulle reportedly replied: “Eh bien! Vous souffrirez.” (And so, you’ll suffer.”)
And so they did. Out of the quarter of a million who had worked for France, less than 15,000 managed to escape. Alistair Horne’s account of those that remained:
Hundreds died when put to work clearing the minefields along the Morice line, or were shot out of hand. Others were tortured atrociously; army veteran were made to dig their own tombs, then swallow their decorations before being killed; they were burned alive, or castrated, or dragged behind trucks, or cut to pieces and their flesh fed to dogs. Many were put to death with their entire families, including young children.
Final estimates of the number of harkis killed range between 30,000 and 150,000.