THE LAST DAYS OF THE FRENCH IN ALGERIA
A young Canadian adventurer went back to Algeria in May and found the fairly civilized country he'd known in 1959 was now “an object lesson in how not to govern or to live ” This is his account of the anarchy before the Independence
LATE THIS MAY I went to Algeria. From there. I wanted to reach the Lake Chad area of central Africa. But first I wanted to see for myself what three bloody revolt-torn years had done to a land and a people I got to know fairly well in 1959, when Algerians still lived by most of the rules of civilization.
1 never did get to Lake Chad, or even Tunis. Caught in the cruelest civil war of this generation. 1 wound up roving from one side of Algeria to the other for six weeks. As it turned out. they were the last days of Algeria under the French, and they were an appallingly fascinating object lesson in how not to govern or to live.
Watching the beautiful, jagged. North African coastline appear under the Caravelle made me feel almost as if after three years 1 was coming home. There was Oran — the corniche d'Oran. Aïn-el-Turk. and Cap Falcon where we used to bathe on Sundays. It hadn't changed, at least not from the air. Everything seemed peaceful although 1 noticed that the road along the coast from the city past Mers cl Kebir to Cap Falcon was almost empty of traffic. There should have been scores, on a weekend hundreds, of cars carrying sunworshipping Oranians out to the beaches. And the beaches were completely empty. This simple observation made me so curious I could hardly sit still as we circled for the landing at La Sénia, the airport of Oran. What else had changed?
THE WORLD S BEST-GUARDED AIRFIELD
Together with the twenty-odd other passengers from the Caravelle, I was herded over to the passport office by a party of armed French soldiers who appeared as soon as the ‘airplane door had swung open. The airport had become a military operation; the civilian terminal building was deserted. An officer of the Deuxième Bureau, the French version of Special Branch, took a cursory glance at my laisser-passer. and ushered me, along with the
other passengers, out of the small building serving as the customs and immigration office, and along a road for some fifty yards to the heavily guarded entrance from the highway. The main Oran-Algiers highway passes La Sénia. We milled around inside the gate separating our little military world from .the outside until soldiers brought the baggage from the aircraft.
Never have I seen anything guarded quite so efficiently as the entrance to that airfield. A soldier opened the gate. A passenger and his bags were deposited outside. The guard closed the gate. Then the next passenger and his bags were organized anti he was let out. and so on until the last passenger was gone and the gate shut and locked.
Outside, standing on the side of the road wondering what to do next. 1 had an odd feeling. 1 wasn't outside, 1 was inside. '1 he airport was one of the few bits of outside still around and 1 had just left it. 1 felt suddenlv naked and uncomfortable standing there in the hot Algerian sunshine. Seeing a tank standing guard a hundred yards along the highway, I picked up my stuff and headed for it.
"Say. can you tell me how far it is to La Sénia station?” I put down my things and approached the tank.
The gunner, a big blond fellow, shrugged his shoulders.
"1 couldn't really tell you." He had a Normandy accent.
"1 mean La Sénia station." 1 repeated, thinking he understood me to be asking about the Oran City station, which would be about five miles away. "It's just up the road a few' hundred yards but 1 can’t remember exactly how far. If it's over half a mile I'll wait for a taxi," I said pointing to my bags. "That stuff's heavy."
"Hell. 1 don't know.” replied the gunner. "I've been here four months but we re not allowed outside the airport perimeter. I don't even know how far it is downtown.
"But whatever you do you can't stand ther>' " he said. "This is a forbidden area. We are supposed to open fire on any civilian vehicles that stop in front of the airport."
Looking down the road 1 could see another tank stationed at about the same distance on the other side of the gate. Its cannon was facing our wav. covering the same stretch of highway.
THE LEGION'S LAST RETREAT
"Thanks anyway." I said. "I'm going to Sidi-bel-Abbès. I ll try hitchhiking. Maybe I can get a lift right through.”
He «nodded and 1 picked up mv gear and started off back past the gate, past the second tank sitting at the far end of what was set up to become a sort of Algerian death alley, and sat down to wait.
In spite ol its Beau-Ciesteish name. Sidi-belAbbès is actually a pleasant, quite modern town only fifty miles south of Oran. It was at one time a Foreign Legion fort with all the trappings, but that was seventy-five years ago. Although the Legion still has its main base there, it's being shifted to Corsica. Some of the vineyards that make Algeria the world's fourth largest wine producer are the real basis of the town's economy. Legionnaires are mostly important these days to Sidi-bel-Abbès’ fifty-old bars and five brothels. Fiveand ten-story apartment buildings in the latest Scandinavian style are more noticeable than the Legion's barracks.
Sidi-bel-Abbès is the centre of a rich agricultural area, and important for a provincial town. 1 didn't have to wait long before a van carrying three European Bel-Abbèsians stopped on its way back home from Oran. I threw my things in the back of the truck and climbed in.
"How is it in Oran?" I asked as we turned south for Bel-Abbès. From the way these men were talking they had just been to the port to put their families
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‘Td been in Algeria two hours. I hadn’t seen a single Arab”
aboard the steamer for France.
"Bad," replied the fellow' closest to me. Fie was middle-aged, chubby, and perspiring. "The Garde Mobile Spéciale and the CRS are blocking off whole streets and checking papers. They arrest you on the least suspicion."
The CRS is the Compagnie Républicaine de Sécurité, the French special police for strikes and civil disorder. It’s a sort of official government goon squad and detested even in France. The Garde Mobile Spéciale is the same sort of organization only it’s said to he even rougher than the GRS. In France anyone wanting to join either of these organizations usually goes to some town where he’s unknown, enlists for the very high pay. and comes home later without ever telling people where he's been.
I didn't say anything more for a few minutes, preferring to wait, listen, and find out how' the land lay.
"What arc you, a Legionnaire?" one of them finally asked.
“No. I'm C anadian." I told them that I had taught school in Bel-Abbès three years before. Every Algerian takes anyone with blond hair and a beard for an ex-Legionnaire. For the last seven years almost the only foreign-looking people in the country have been Legionnaires.
"C anada. That's where I'm going.'' said the chubby one. "What's it like in Canada? You speak French there?"
I explained that some of us did speak French, but that the climate was cold. "If it was me I'd go to Brazil." I said. "It's warmer and the way of life is not so different, not like in Canada."
"Yes, but they've got Negroes or Indians or something in Brazil. 1 don't want any more problems. If I have to get out I’m going somewhere where they’re all one color."
"Well I’m not going anywhere." It was the driver talking. "Me — I’m third-generation pied noir. This is my country. If I'm going to be miserable, I’m going to be miserable at home.”
This was a change. Three years ago the expression ‘pied noir' was an insult. It referred to the original European settlers, poor whites who’d landed in North Africa with no shoes. Hence, the "black feet.''
"What the hell would I do in Brazil?” he continued. "I went to France once about ten years ago and I didn't like it."
For a few minutes no one spoke.
"Look, there's the Force Locale." the driver called back to us. We w'ere catching up to an army convoy and sitting on the backs of trucks were Arab troops in French Army uniforms wearing yellow armbands.
"What’s the Force Locale?" I asked. They told me it was units of North African regiments, used since the cease-fire to keep order under the special truce commission.
"Those are Legion trucks. The
bastards are riding on Legion trucks,” our driver said.
"I wonder where they’re going.”
"Maybe they're coming to BelAbbès." They laughed at some private joke.
"One thing that's changed. You won't see any Arabs downtown."
I suppose they didn't feel that I had fully understood, because the third man, who so far hadn't said anything, looked up at me.
"There's none at all downtown. Even the shoeshine boys are European now."
He seemed to feel a little ashamed, somehow. But he didn’t say any more.
"Yes.” the chubby one said. "If they come into our part of town they're killed and the same thing happens to Europeans who go to the village nègre."
Village nègre is a Bel-Abbèsian's way of talking about the casbah. He spoke as if this was just about as utopian a state of affairs as you could find anywhere. I didn't labor the point and looked out the windows.
The ordinarily well-kept vineyards on either side of the road were choked with weeds. There was no smoke pouring out of the great chimney on the cement factory just past Ste. Barbe-du-Tlélat. The huge factory looked as still as death.
As we drew nearer Bel-Abbès we closed in behind a regular Foreign Legion convoy. White-kcpied confidence - inspiring Legionnaires, with rifles across their laps, looked down at us from the back of their large Berliet truck.
“I'm going to stick behind them," said the driver. “It's best until we get through the village nègre.”
The Oran road passes through a part of the Arab quarter on the outskirts of Bel-Abbès. "See how it’s changed,” said the talker.
He was right. It had changed.
For almost a kilometre, from the town limits to the Monument aux Morts, there were scarcely half a dozen people in the street and they seemed to be scurrying rather than walking. It was five o’clock in the afternoon, the busiest time of day. The scores of shops were closed wdth shutters drawn. Here and there I could see where the fronts had been blasted, the display windows a twisted wreckage.
"Arab stores,” the driver said. “Look along there.”
He was pointing down the wide boulevard that intersects the Route d'Oran at the Monument aux Morts. In former times this boulevard was a hive of activity. On one side is BelAbbes' modern, steel and concrete market and the Caisse Familiale, where family bonuses are paid. The w hole of the other side of the street is lined with better class Arab shops and one or two European bars. If you had to pick a place of contact between the village nègre and downtown this boulevard would have to be it. European and Moslem housewives both shopped in the market. There were always several hundred people milling around — herdsmen with sheep and goats, country Arabs riding donkeys, European farmers in their Citroëns. It was the border street although in the pleasanter times of even three years ago the thought would never even have occurred.
Now there wasn't one human being on that street — except for two Legionnaires on the market roof. The muzzle of their machine gun stuck out from behind sandbags. The fifty or so Arab shops were shut and padlocked. Barbed wire blocked off the street in front of the Caisse Familiale and the front of that building was also sandbagged. Looking more closely I could see a few other Legionnaires with machine pistols standing in doorways. The days after the world comes to an end will be something like that boulevard.
The man who hadn't been saying much looked at me earnestly.
“Whatever you do. don't go across the street,’’ he said. “If you do you'll be risking your life.” From his tone 1 could tell he was very serious.
Two hundred yards past the Monument aux Morts the driver pulled over to the curb. We were at the centre of European Sidi-bel-Abbès where the Route d'Oran crosses the Boulevard de la République, or as Bel-Abbèsians call it, simply, “la République.” Here were the people. On the main drag of their tiny city-state the Algerian-born Europeans performed their daily duty — walking up and down the République, or sitting m cafés watching other people walk up and down the République. They seemed oblivious to the silent tract just around the corner. Looking at them made me think of something. I had now been in a country with nine million Arabs for more than two hours and had driven fifty miles along one of its most important roads. So far, apart from the Force Locale, I hadn't seen an Arab.
“Let’s have a drink,” the driver said as we all climbed out and stretched.
We went into a café.
"Beer . .? Four BAOs s’il vous
plait.” Brasserie Algérienne d’Oran.
"God,” I thought, tasting, “It’s as bad as ever.”
But it was bad like Toronto bars are bad. Rather nice to get back to sometimes.
"Where’d you get the straw hat?” asked the driver, pointing to my old wide-brimmed hat. I told him it came from the French West Indies.
Where the flag of France sank for good
“You'd better not wear that here.”
“Oh, why not?”
"Only Arabs wear straw hats. They might mistake you for one. You have blond hair. Show it.”
I thanked them for giving me a lift, told the bar owner I'd come back for my things, and started off up the street toward the school to see if any friends were still there. From the way things sounded, friends would be good to have.
The Sidi-bel-Abbès of three years before, when I had lived there, had been a relatively peaceful place. During a seven-month period there had been sixteen or seventeen Europeans killed in about five bombings. Considering that over half of the killed were soldiers and that Bel-Abbès is a town of 50,000 Europeans and 60.000 Arabs, the casualty list was not high. The truth is that there were not a great many more. European BelAbbèsians killed by the fellaghas — terrorists of the FLN, the Front de Libération Nationale — than died in traffic accidents. Now I could feel a tenseness in the air. It was a tenseness that hadn't been there before. It was summed up by the black painted letters across a piece of boarding that had been erected to replace the glass in the shattered front of a chemist's shop: DEATH TO THE DESERTER . O.A.S. A black skull had been drawn beside the letters. Yes, Sidi-bel-Abbès had quite definitely changed. And I was getting to like it less and less with every step.
“Tiens, c’est le Canadien.”
It was Roland Maman, in uniform with a second lieutenant's bar. Military service. Roland was Jewish. His brother ran the Footbar, one of my old haunts.
"What the hell are you doing here?” Roland spoke English. He had studied in the United States. “Come on and have a drink.”
“Where’s Claude,” I asked, sipping a Pernod.
“Haven't you heard? The FLN condemned him to death and sent down a special commando from Algiers. The Legion moved him out just before they got to him. He was shipped out just the day before Camerone
and he was mad as hell about it.'’ Claude is an old friend of mine from Bel-Abbès. He went to officers college, passed with very high marks and was allowed the special privilege of choosing the Foreign Legion for his military service. The last I’d heard he was working as Intelligence Officer in the village nègre and on that kind of a job it wasn't difficult to get condemned to death. But what would rile him more than anything was not being allowed to stay in Bel-Abbès
for the Legion festival of Cameronc Day. This was the last year the drums beat on April 30 in Sidi-bel-Abbès.
Roland lowered his voice. “I wouldn't stay here long il 1 were you. Bel-Abbès is worse than Oran. You remember the Arab girls working as barmaids across the street. They were all strangled. They even shot a couple ol shoe shine boys until the rest stopped coming into town. They’ve gone completely crazy.”
Substituting, ‘they’ and ‘them’ for
the Secret Army Organization, in stead of OAS, made the image even more menacing. But it wasn’t difficult to see that even saying OAS in English, at least in public, was not a good idea.
“Well I’ll see you later,” 1 said, speaking loudly in French. “I’m going to the lycée."
The Lycée Laperrine lies at one end of the Boulevard de la République. It is a very large school with 1,100 students and covers two blocks
The Caisse Familiale is right across from the teachers' quarters and the village nègre comes almost up to one wall. In other words the school is in a very strategic position, almost straddling the European quarter and the village nègre.
M. Léger, the Surveillant Général, or chief of discipline, who helped plan my Sahara trip of 1959, was still there. After the initial surprise and greetings he said 1 might as well stay in one of the empty rooms in the school. He was helping his wife pack so that he could send her and his two daughters to France and safety.
It was suppertime and, as Madame Léger prepared us some food. M. Léger said to me. “Don't go and pick up your things yet. Wait here and see what happens. It should start around ten o'clock.”
According to the daily murder report in the next day’s Echo d'Oran, the firing actually started around 10:20. We were still drinking our brandy and coffee. Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion that seemed to come from across the street. It was two or three hundred yards to our right. In the village nègre. We rushed out on the balcony. There was no need to douse the lights. The white, powdery column of smoke rising from the shattered power station was clear against a dark sky. Then the fireworks really started.
Pow-pow-pow-pow-pow-pow. From the balcony I could see the flashes as well as listen to the deceivingly soft, steady, punching sounds of machine pistols. Léger and 1 both ducked instinctively as wild shots swished through the trees along the Avenue Jules Ferry. I found that the story is true about never worrying about the ones you can hear. We didn't hear the five bullets that thudded into the wall a few' feet from our heads until they arrived. The whole thing was like something out of a bad dream or. better, like seeing a movie about AÍ Capone and the Chicago of thirtyfive years ago come to life.
The firing continued and we went back to finish our coffee. Mme. Léger lit a candle, but experience had taught her to keep it well shaded so we wouldn't make targets. Suddenly there w'as a PRANG! — and we were out on the balcony again.
A mortar had been set up in the street. OAS gunmen were dropping shells on the roof of an apartment building in which a few Moslem families still lived. We watched the flashes of exploding shells. The plan was to panic the families and then gun them down as they fled their home. Just how successful it was depended on how' you looked at things. The police found fourteen mangled corpses in the street next day.
Mv own feeling at standing and watching all this was a curious mixture of excitement and disgust: excitement because of the horribly exhilarating effect war has upon a man: and disgust at the human animals murdering until murder became as much a part of their day as having a bath to wash away the blood.
The most remarkable feature about these OAS commando raids, for there was one every night, was that they could occur in the very heart of a large town and practically nothing done about it. It was hard to under-
stand how such a state of utter anarchy could exist with 100.000 troops in the vicinity and the first Foreign Legion infantry regiment based 500 yards from where most of the action took place. A gentle translation of the way M. Léger felt about it was: "If this is de Gaulle’s Algerian policy. I'll take vanilla.”
Anyone could kill with absolute security. You could go out with a pistol, walk down the street, and shoot the first person you saw as long as he didn't wear the Legionnaires’ képi blanc—Legionnaires still looked after their own. No one would see anything. The town police were fortunate to have a traffic light, and they stuck to it like glue. Who could blame them? They wouldn't know whether you were OAS. FLN. MNA (a rival nationalist organization that had running gun battles with the FLN). or just private. If the police did shoot, and picked the wrong one. they were dead ducks. So they stuck to writing out tickets.
A couple of days after my arrival I was going out the front door of the school w hen 1 heard someone screaming. Looking up I saw. about twenty feet in front of me. a European boy in his early teens and an old Arab woman. The old woman was doing her best to keep her veil around her face while the boy knocked her to the ground and kicked her. I could hear the loud thumps: they were hard enough so that her veil w'as bloody and torn. He didn't kill her. Actually I don't think he was trying to kill her: he just wanted some fun. He would let her up. let her run a little. Then he and a friend would come after her very fast, punch her. trip her. and kick her some more. But she finally managed to get away.
Now it's very difficult to rationalize something like this with your conscience. Why didn't you do something? I ask myself that question every time I think of the incident. Well the truth is that I was too frightened. When I remember what happened next I'm thankful that what courage 1 have is very well hidden.
As I went around the corner to get out of the way 1 heard a shot. The same boy had caught a young Arab man unawares. The Arab had been w-alking along a path trying to make himself as inconspicuous as possible. The lad pulled a pistol out of his belt, ran up behind the Arab on his tiptoes, pointed his pistol, and blew off the back of the man's head.
At least twenty other Europeans saw both these incidents. But all that appeared in the next issue of the Echo d'Oran was: "At eleven o'clock in Sidi-bel-Abbès a new' Moslem corpse was discovered downtown. " One sentence. A corpse wasn't worth a paragraph. Beating up a poor old woman wasn't worth a sentence. And to me. that was the most vicious and evil thing I have ever seen in my life.
Quite frankly, if someone had told me three years ago that Sidi-belAbbès would ever be in the state it was during May and June I would have told him he was crazy. Three years before, life in the town had been almost normal, apart from the abnormal number of troops. Then, government had functioned slowly but it had functioned.
Now. no one paid taxes. There was
almost never electric power. The civil servants hadn't been paid for months. The banks ran out of banknotes as panicky depositors withdrew their money. 1 watched the teller at the Banque de l'Algérie distribute sheaves of 10.000-franc notes and then shrug his shoulders and point to an empty safe. The Post Office slowed up so that it took anywhere up to eight hours to make a telephone call. Ail the street-names and house-numbers were removed to make it impossible
for the government to find anyone. There were no more cigarettes or matches. The factories had closed. Garbage piled up until volunteers were forced to organize and collect it. Otherwise the town might have found itself in the grip of a plague to add to its troubles. Although 1 left before they started blowing schools up. by the end of June the Lycée was the only school left intact. And of course there was no law enforcement of any kind.
It is not easy to imagine a town in ■>uch a state but that is how it was. Everyone lived from day to day. sent their families to France, and hoped something could be salvaged.
The unavoidable question is: why the OAS? Why ensure that after independence life would be not just difficult hut almost impossible? Well, the question can only be answered in part. The OAS had its beginnings before the Algerian war started, in the rice paddies of Tonkin and Cochin-C hina.
'I he French army, and particularly the younger officers, became fed up with bickering, unstable, French politics. The army fought bitterly in IndoChina and lost thousands of French soldiers—all for nothing, the officers felt, because they were let down at home. The communists grabbed off half oí lndo-C hina. These young, battle-hardened officers began to hate communism with a hatred that confused and distorted their whole outlook. Algeria was the perfect atmos-
phere for this confusion to ripen.
The officers couldn't see that even with a solid government at home the Algerian War was a lost cause. They couldn't see that just because someone was a nationalist it didn't necessarily mean he was a communist. The Algerian nationalists were not communists. But that's not how the officers looked at things. Here they were again. Victims of French politics. In an effort to save France these men revolted and put one of their own
kind in power, a colonel who had made himself general when he was fighting the kind of holy war they were fighting. General de Gaulle. But dc Gaulle pulled a fast one on them.
What was, "Algeria will remain French" in 1958, became, "an Independent Algeria co-operating with France," in 1962.
While dc Gaulle went around talking about the grandeur of France, telling the French people he understood them and asking them to help
him. these officers concluded he was betraying their cause. These men formed the nucleus around which grew the Secret Army Organization (OAS), dedicated to keeping Algeria French and free of communism.
Things started taking a more concrete form after the incident of the barricades in Algiers in January I960. Pierre Lagaillard and Joseph Ortiz, the two leaders of the Algiers mob. made their way to Madrid. Ortiz founded a “government in exile" around which assembled what were to become the most efficient assassins and anarchists of this generation.
But even the combination of the Algiers mob and disgruntled army officers, involved in a quixotic battle against “communism,” were not enough. The putsch in Algiers of April 1961 collapsed because Algiers is only one city and capturing one city was not enough to overthrow' the whole of Algeria, never mind France. So what started off as an attempt to keep Algeria French now became an attempt to make France Algerian— extremist European - Algerian. To make real blood, a catalyst was needed. The catalyst was the district of Oranie in the west.
The ceasefire w'as what did it. Up until then Oran province had been left pretty much out of the picture. It is a gentle, rolling country with none of the mountains and gorges of C onstantine and Algiers Provinces— the kind of country the Moslem nationalists needed to carry on the war.
C ompared with the Europeans of central and eastern Algeria, those in the west had hardly been touched by the seven years of war. Oran hadn't even had a curfew. Then suddenly their world blew up. The ceasefire was signed and Algerian Independence almost assured. The Oranians could hardly understand why and Oran Province with the highest concentration of Europeans in the country was jolted into a bloody awakening. Now with ninety-nine percent of the Oranians behind them, the OAS had some real backbone. With almost incredible naiveness the Oranians, led by cashiered army officers, started the bloodbath, the officers having everything to gain and the Oranians everything to lose. The same question arose with every corpse hauled off to the morgue: how could they be so stupid?
I stayed in Sidi-bel-Abbès ten days before I lost my nerve. I was standing in a bar one evening talking to a Legionnaire when a fellow came into the bar and. rather abruptly, I thought, started talking to me. He was in civilian clothes and told me he was a paratroop officer. He said he was from Pau in France but I thought he had about as perfect an Oranian accent as I had ever heard. He seemed very inquisitive and asked lots of questions about what I w'as doing and where 1 was going. I explained that I was just visiting friends, and left on the Algiers Express the next morning.
1 don't really feel too bad about losing my nerve. I wasn't the only one. Everyone's nerves were pretty shot in Algeria this June. A better example could not be found than the incident that occurred when my train was pulling into the terminus at Algiers. My original intention had been to leave the tnun at Agra, a small station just before Algiers City. I col-
lected my bags as the train started slowing for Agra. It almost stopped as it approached the platform, but suddenly with a jerk picked up speed again. The other passengers tried to peer out the window without making themselves too conspicuous. We could hear a voice coming over a loudspeaker: “THE TRAIN WILL NOT STOP
. . THE TRAIN WILL NOT STOP.”
\s the train sped on I caught a glimpse of the French special police milling around the platform.
What was going on? Had we arrived in the middle of another Babel-Oued? The rumor spread that the fellaghas had descended from the Casbah and were arriving in the middle of a massacre.
After a few' minutes the train pulled into Algiers. People got down their belongings and nervously stepped onto the platform. Suddenly there was i loud bang. The whole crowd dropped to the ground, leaving one man standing and looking very foolish. He had dropped his suitcase. We never did find out why the train didn't tfop at Agra.
In Algiers I bought a railway ticket to a town on the Tunisian border called Ghardimaou. It was very simple really. I asked the ticket agent for a seat right to Tunis and he gave me this ticket. He said. “When you get to Ghardimaou you walk over to another platform and get the Tunisian Railways to Tunis.” The idea was very sound and like a sap I went for it.
I was standing at the bar in the buffet-car on the train to Constantine
w hen someone asked me where I was going. I told him Tunis, thinking I had been very clever. It was almost impossible to get out of Algeria in June because every means of transport was clogged with refugees. But here I was. with a Tunisian visa and a ticket. I'd had the foresight to get the visa in Paris. They were unobtainable in Algeria.
"Hah.” he said. “Just how in the hell are you going to get there?"
I reached in my pocket and extracted my ticket.
He looked at it and cried. “God! Ghardimaou. They’ve sold him a ticket to Ghardimaou.” Then he passed it around the bar. Everybody was laughing. I felt very foolish.
Then he handed it back to me saying. “Keep it. it'll make a good souvenir. There hasn’t been a train to Ghardimaou since 1955 when they sealed the border.” He turned back to the others. “God.” he repeated. “Almost seven years. I didn't know they were that slow in Algiers.”
I thought to myself, "Now that’s real anarchy for you.” I still have the ticket.
Several years ago a progressive Foreign Legion officer explained to me why the fellaghas could never be beaten in the Kabylia. Watching the magnificently rugged landscape as the train slowly edged its way along the sides of canyons and through tunnels I could see what he meant. This new part of Maghreb was as different from Oranie as Alberta is from Manitoba. It would take a lifetime just to find all the hiding places in that maze
of mountain rubble. It was too bad some of the Oranians couldn't see it.
Constantine was as different from Sidi-bel-Abbès as I'm sure Moscow must be from Paris. Outwardly the city looked almost normal, with Arabs and Europeans mingling freely in the streets. Being vastly outnumbered the Europeans hadn't gotten in too deeply with the OAS. I wouldn't say the Europeans were happy about the coming independence but they weren't being idiotic about it. They looked on the events in Oranie as the greatest folly.
From Constantine I hitchhiked further east to Bône. Bône had a fairly strong OAS organization but compared to what 1 had left, it was small potatoes. The OAS held up a large French bank while I sat nearby, watching, and chuckling. The same bank had just refused to change some money for me. All the OAS got was about $8,000. I couldn't help smiling when I heard about the piddling size of the prize. When they hit an Oran bank they didn’t play around at the cash box. They always w;ent straight for the vault.
After Bône I headed south through Souk Ahras and Tebessa. 1 did get into Tunisia. In fact I was the first civilian in seven years to get through the special gate in the deadly electric fence built by France to keep rebels from crossing back into Algeria after training in Tunisia. I even got through the no-man’s land which, at the time, was a three-mile strip outside the fence held by troops of the ALN, the military branch of the
Arab nationalist FLN. The word fellaghas is now passé. They are members of the Armée de Liberation Nationale. Somehow my visa didn't work the way it was supposed to, and I also became the first civilian, other than the Algerian refugees, to cross the border back into Algeria. For a few hours my future looked uncertain while 1 sat in a tent in no-man's land trying to get the French to open the gate. But they finally did.
I couldn't go back to France because of the refugees who were flooding every available means of transport. I couldn't go cast because the border was closed. And I wouldn’t go west because of the OAS; I had had enough of people who just couldn’t stop killing. The only direction that seemed open was south. Being a roving kind of a fellow, I gradually worked my way down through BÍiila and Biskra to the Sahara.
And so it was that on the second day of July, the day after Algeria went to the polls to vote on its future, I was in the town of Ouargla, on the edge of the Great Eastern sand sea. From there, I could catch a plane for Marseilles. Standing in the shade of a doorway, across the street from the Préfecture in Ouargla. and keeping well out of the way of the huge crowd of Moslems that had collected in the burning sunshine. I watched a soursweet spectacle.
The proud blue, white and red flag of France was slowly lowered to the ground. Up went the star and scimitar on a green and white field. After 132 years Algeria was independent. ★