Hélène Pilotte March 24 1962


Hélène Pilotte March 24 1962


Hélène Pilotte

ONE FEBRUARY MORNING in 1961 the people of Algeria's largest cities — Algiers, Oran, Constantine and Bône — awoke to find the letters OAS painted on walls, sidewalks, fences.

On that morning few Algerians knew even what the letters OAS meant. But soon l’Organisation de l'Armée Secrète — the Secret Army Organization — was to become almost daily news to all who read or listen throughout the world. In 1961, the three-cornered battle among the OAS, the Moslem nationalists and the French army took more than 500 lives and

injured about 2,000 more. And in the first 50 days of 1962 alone, it killed 920 and injured 1,649. Many of the casualties were women and children who happened to get in the way of OAS bombs, Moslem grenades or army bullets.

In Metropolitan France the news the OAS makes is usually connected with that OAS trademark, the plastic bomb. President Charles de Gaulle’s narrow escape from a plastique

ambush made headlines, of course. So have the 500 plastic bombs that OAS members in Paris have exploded against government buildings and the homes or offices of newspaper editors, writers, politicians and others considered hostile to OAS objectives. The principal OAS objective is to foil de Gaulle’s plan to grant independence to Algeria, which has a population of nine million Moslems and one million colonists of European descent. But the OAS realizes that to accomplish this it must overthrow the government in Metro-


OAS: HOW 1,500 MEN ARE WARRING ON FRANCE continued front page 12

politan France—i.e., fight and win a civil war.

But to the million Algerian colons the OAS is no mere underground terrorist group. It is, almost literally, the government under which they live. The official French authority is the Délégation Générale, but many of its members have had a price — a contemptuous $ 100 — placed on their heads by the OAS, and they occupy the government offices in a constant state of siege, heavily guarded by loyal French troops and police.

To call the OAS the de facto government of the European population of Algeria is no figure of speech. It claims — and several times has exercised — power of life and death over the European residents of Algeria. The OAS also uses more orthodox forms of government. It has v ministries of revenue, of war. of propaganda and even of emigration (the latter sees to it that no settler leaves Algeria t excepi for purposes approved by the OAS. f which considers unauthorized emigration "an act of betrayal”).

To understand how the OAS has become the third "government” of Algeria (the Moslem insurgents have their own provisional government, complete with cabinet ministers, with headquarters in neighboring Tunisia), it is necessary to know what happened in Algeria before and after February, 1961. For seven years the Algerian Moslems had been in revolt and the European colons had been on the receiving end of sporadic outbursts of murder and property destruction.

Before 1954. many observers believe, the Algerian Moslems hoped for no more than equal status with the colons as French citizens. When successive postwar French governments ignored these aspirations the Moslems broke into open revolt and increased their demand to full independence for Algeria.

The colonists left the task of subduing the Moslems pretty much to forces sent from France and to the Foreign Legion stationed in Algeria. But the Moslems, led by their own terrorist force, iront de Libération Nationale, remained undefeated.

Then came the French government crisis that made de Gaulle head of state. The support of the Algerian colonists and the officers of the French forces in Algeria was an important factor in putting de Gaulle into power. They saw in him the strong leader who would quickly crush the Moslem revolt and make Algeria firmly and forever part of France.

De Gaulle’s first pronouncement on the Vlgerian situation was a bitter blow to these supporters. He said he would have to study the situation before deciding on a policy for Algeria. (Later he was to declare: "Those who believed it possible to create a French Algeria have pursued, an impossible dream. It is too late by history’s clock for such visions.”)

As a result of dc Gaulle's "betrayal” the Secret Army Organization was formed. But in February, 1961. when it dramatically announced its existence by plastering its initials across Algeria, it was neither organized nor an army. It was, as one observer put it, “a rag-tag outfit of civilian extremists whose impetuous members lacked discipline and leadership.”

The first bid of the OAS for a major role in Algeria was its support, in April. 1961, of the abortive "revolt of the generals,” led by Maurice Challe, commanderin-chief of the French forces in Algeria, and by General Raoul Salan, then the most-decorated soldier in the French army. The "putsch” petered out in four days be-

cause many of the field officers and almost all the rank-and-file conscripts remained loyal to de Gaulle.

Gen. Challe and a few of his lieutenants flew back to France and surrendered to de Gaulle. Salan and 150 other officers, including Generals Edmond Jouhaud and Paul Gardy, went underground in Algeria. The logical refuge for the fugitive officers

was the fledgling OAS. Salan not only joined the OAS — he became its supreme commander.

Salan and his staff promptly reorganized the "rag-tag" outfit into a tough, disciplined. compact corps. They weeded out incompetent and unreliable members and enlisted several hundred seasoned fighters, veterans of the Foreign Legion and para-

troop units disbanded by de Gaulle after the April mutiny.

The "professional” core of the OAS is small — probably no more than 1,500 full-time salaried men under arms. And this number includes the plastic bombers and machine-gun terrorists who make almost daily news of assassination and destruction. In Algiers, for example, the OAS terrorists number no more than 150 men, divided into thirty squads. Many of these core members are “underground" in the accepted sense — men whose identity is known and who are wanted by the

police, men who must stay in hiding. Chief of these is Gen. Salan, who has been stripped of his rank and of his more than forty decorations, and who has been tried in absentia and sentenced to death by French authorities.

But to the vast majority of active OAS members, “going underground” bears no resemblance to the life of the bearded mountain-dwellers of Castro or the cellar plotters of the wartime French maquis. Most of the OAS underground live in their own houses or apartments and work at everyday jobs. They differ from typical

middle-class citizens of Halifax or Vancouver only in that they possess arms, are expert in their use, and that they and their families arc ready and willing to use them in the OAS cause.

A typical member of the OAS underground in Algiers is a cheerful, quiet grocer who keeps a submachine gun and grenades hidden among his stock of fruit and vegetables. He said recently, with modest pride: “My wife shoots a pistol very well now, and my two sons can take apart and put together a machine gun in less than a minute.”

How many active members the OAS has among the one million European residents of Algeria nobody knows — not even the OAS. There is little doubt that virtually all the colons agree with the basic objective of the OAS: to prevent selfdetermination for Algerians, which would mean domination of the European minority by the Moslem majority. Probably not all the colons agree with OAS methods, but all of them support the OAS — or else.

Government costs money in large quantities, as all taxpayers know, and the shadow government of the OAS is no exception.

But the OAS ministry of revenue uses unorthodox methods of collecting funds. When Salan took over the OAS he found a healthy sum in the treasury — a team of OAS “experts” had cracked a government safe for $800,000 during the confusion of the April mutiny. Since then, armed robbery has become a profitable if sporadic source of OAS income. For example, last February 11 (a day on which nine Europeans and nine Moslems died in terrorist attacks and counterattacks in Algiers alone) OAS machine-gun bandits held up an Algiers abattoir for $18,000 and raided two banks for a total of $22,000.

But the income from crime is too uncertain to finance a government, so the OAS levies monthly — not yearly — taxes on all European Algerians. Many of them, of course, pay willingly — including school and university students, who are among the most fanatical supporters of the OAS. The students’ scale of taxes is as follows:

Preuniversity students, $1 a month.

University students, $2 a month.

University students w'ho own cars o' motor scooters, $4 a month.

University students who own sportscars, $8 a month.

Fivery month, each merchant and businessman in Algeria receives a sheet of white paper bearing two numbers: a code number to identify the OAS man who will collect the tax, and the sum assessed. Or* a designated day an unknown man present, himself to the “taxpayer,” identifies himself by the code number, and collects the tax. If the man does not pay he receives (as from any government tax department), a warning of delinquency. If he ignores the notice a young OAS "bailiff" will help him remember his obligation via a small plastic bomb. The OAS has few living delinquent taxpayers in Algeria.

The OAS attempts to collect taxes by blackmail in Metropolitan France have been less successful, although large sums were undoubtedly collected before the OAS made its first major mistake. For months it had been collecting $400 each from an undetermined number of Paris businessmen via letters threatening to bomb their premises. When these victims did not complain the OAS decided to expand its demands to politicians, movie stars, authors and other celebrities. Instead of small fixed sums the letters demanded a contribution based on the apparent wealth of the victim.

The OAS’s mistake was in putting Brigitte Bardot on its "tax list” for $10,000. BB’s angry and highly publicized refusal — "1 won’t go along with it because I don’t want to live in a Nazi country” — brought a denial from the OAS. but it was too late. The celebrated movie star’s defiance of the OAS led to numerous statements of complaint from victims who had been afraid until then to make themselves known.

Most of the revenue of the OAS goes into procuring arms, ammunition and explosives, to pay its full-time armed forces, and the rather high living costs of its leaders — Salan and his staff do not dwell in caves, but in luxurious villas and in rooms in the best hotels. They must change their quarters frequently to avoid capture.

OAS activities have given birth to a new profession, passeur de plastique — plastic carrier. The gray, putty-like substance which the OAS has made infamous lends itself well to smuggling since it can be moulded into various shapes. One smuggler makes repeated trips with twenty pounds of the explosive worn around his waist in the form of a thick wide belt. Other smugglers mould plastic on the undersides of their cars to resemble parts of the chassis. Sometimes whole truckloads of plastic reach the OAS through police checkpoints manned by officers who are

willing to “look the other way.” Recently OAS passeurs loaded a truck with plastic from a ship in Oran harbor. The truck reached a police barrier. The officers checked the driver’s papers, examined the cargo and waved him on. “Say hello to Raoul.” called out one policeman.

The OAS supplements its stock of explosives by making lethal devices from seemingly innocent ingredients in everyday use — nail polish, peroxide hair dye, hydrochloric acid and nitrate dissolved from ordinary photographic film. These substances are extremely dangerous to the bomb-maker unless combined in just the right proportions. It is undoubtedly significant that booklet No. 259 of a French do-it-yourself edition, dealing with explosives. has long since been sold out in Algerian bookstores.

Although its weapons are often primitive, the strategy of the OAS is ultramodern. Its concept of waging a revolutionary war is to use the entire population in its battles, if not as fighting men then in strikes that disorganize a city’s life, or in mass demonstrations that tie up traffic and divert police attention.

The OAS has incorporated the million Europeans in Algeria into its operations, and keeps a close check on who follows its orders and who disobeys or shows less than fervent enthusiasm. This check is carried out by an elaborate system of observers.

Each building in an Algerian city has its OAS "building chief." Above him (or her) is a cell chief, responsible for a group of buildings. Next come district chiefs, and over all a city chief. When the OAS orders a strike or a closing of all stores to support a demonstration, lookouts report on all who disobey. This close observation also applies to a curious form of support demanded by the OAS: from time to time, at a specified hour, all colons are required to bang on their pots and pans and yell "Algérie Française” — roughly "Algeria remains French.”

By correlating watchers’ reports over a period, the city chiefs can chart their warm, lukewarm and unco-operative residents. The lukewarm are warned: the unco-operative arc likely to receive a visit from a plastic bombardier.

Although “Algérie Française” is still the rallying cry of the OAS, and the organization's activities indicate a fanatical singleness of purpose, actually the OAS leadership is divided on just what it is fighting for. Neither of the present objectives bears much resemblance to the rather simple plan behind General Challe’s army mutiny. Challe was a staunch republican. His idea was neither to oust de Gaulle nor to overthrow France's democratic regime. He only wanted to demonstrate that, given a free hand, the military could win a quick, decisive victory over the Moslem rebels. As he himself put it, “I want to pacify Algeria and hand it to dc Gaulle on a silver platter.”

Salan’s plot is much more complicated. His idea (which has shown some signs of success in recent events) is to provoke the communist and other left-wing parties in France into forming a common front. This would force right-wing parties, in self-defense, also to unite. Squeezed between right and left, the moderate forces — and de Gaulle, whom Salan detests — might be willing to accept army intervention as the alternative to chaos. Salan believes that the army would oust de Gaulle and support the OAS in Algeria.

The opposing OAS objective is advocated by Jean-Jacques Susini, a pale blond man of twenty-eight, a former Algerian student leader who is one of the few civilians in the upper ranks of the OAS. Susini and his supporters no longer believe in a French Algeria. They seek — at

any rate as a beginning — to partition the country into a Moslem territory and a nonMoslem Algerian republic.

Already the process of partition is being carried out in a small way. OAS commandos have been commissioned to "persuade” Moslems to move out of areas designated as part of the Algerian republic by Susini. Day by day the regroupment is proceeding. In several wards French and Moslems are exchanging homes and apartments amicably.

Susini’s republic receives serious support for this reason: although the million non-

Moslem inhabitants of Algeria are generally referred to as French, more than half of them are people with no recent personal ties with France, or no ties at all. Four hundred thousand colons are descendants of French settlers who came to Algeria between 1848 and 1870 — three or four generations ago. Another 100.000 are descended from immigrants who left Naples and Sicily many years ago: thirty thousand are Maltese in origin. Among the oldest inhabitants are thousands of Jews whose ancestors settled in Algeria more than a century and a quarter ago. More

recent comers are thousands of German and Swiss settlers. Intermarriage and mingling in schools and occupations have given birth to a new race that calls itself “less French than Algerian."

Whatever the objective, the struggle against the common enemy — the Moslems and a French government that would hand Algeria over to them — continues. Does even the most implacable colon think it can succeed? One OAS member shrugged at the question. "We fight." he said, “because it is the only thing left for us to do." if