Interview with Algerian anti-colonialist Yacef Saadi

This video is the film The battle of Algiers.

From British daily The Morning Star:

Torture at the hands of empire

(Monday 28 May 2007)

INTERVIEW: Yacef Saadi


INTERVIEW: Sentenced to death for daring to stand up to French rule, YACEF SAADI‘s prison memoir inspired the film The Battle of Algiers. He looks back over a blood-drenched period.

YACEF Saadi is a slightly built man, yet his firm, decisive handshake signals a robust vitality not expected in a 79-year-old.

His playful eyes reveal a restless, childlike spirit brimming with enthusiasm and optimism.

Some 53 years ago, their alertness played a vital role in his native Kasbah, an ancient hillside citadel that forms part of the city of Algiers, where Saadi was a military chief in Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN).

Eighty thousand people lived in Kasbah in dire poverty crammed into just two square kilometres.

It was a social powder keg that exploded in the ugly face of Algeria’s French colonial rulers in 1954. …

Now a senator in the present government, Saadi is the son of illiterate Berbers who became a baker’s apprentice.

His education was cut short during World War II when the Allies turned his school into a barracks.

While in jail, he wrote his memoir of the struggle, which was published in 1962 as Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger, which served as the basis for Gillo Pontecorvo‘s masterly docu-fiction film The Battle of Algiers, which is currently screening at cinemas across Britain.

In 2003, before the invasion of Iraq, The Battle of Algiers was shown internally at the Pentagon to the Directorate for Special Operations and Low-intensity Conflict to see if any insights could be gained.

But the pupil, as time has shown, was particularly unreceptive.

Saadi believes that, just like in Algiers all those years ago, the writing is on the wall for the occupiers in Iraq.

“Iraqis want foreign troops out, the occupation to cease and all the Pentagons in the world will not avert eventual defeat,” he says.

He recalls a meeting that he once had with the French commander in Algiers General Jacques Massu, who is considered a liberal by French military standards.

When Saadi told him that the French would have to face thousands of armed resistance fighters, the perplexed general asked how could the FLN could field those kind of numbers.

Saadi delivered a simple but poignant answer. “You are recruiting them for us.”

The eight-year long intermittent guerilla war in Algeria is considered one of the bloodiest conflicts of the decolonisation period. Algerian sources put the final death toll at nearly 1.5 million.

Saadi says that the society that the FLN was trying to build is summed up by a 1954 declaration calling for “the establishment of a sovereign Algerian state governed by principles of democracy and social welfare guided by a set of Islamic rules, respectful of all fundamental freedoms, without distinction of race or religion.”

Asked about the ideological influences at the time, he singles out Andre Malraux’s Man’s Fate, the 1933 Prix Goncourt winner.

The novel’s lucid, passionate analysis of the dilemmas facing a diverse group of people associated with the failed communist revolution that took place in Shanghai in 1927 must have been received with much empathy in the Algerian Peoples Party and, later, the FLN.

Lenin’s State and Revolution was another source of inspiration, but Saadi says that the main impetus came symbiotically from the economic deprivation and political repression that Algerian Arabs had to endure under French rule.

He points out that the Algerian resistance was nationalist and liberationist in character and religious faith never became an issue within the struggle.

“Militants about to be executed would shout ‘Allahu akbar’ – God is Great – only as a personal affirmation of their faith in the face of death.

“Our struggle was broad and drew support in deed even from Sephardic Jews”, he says, emotionally recalling one particularly committed family in the area under his command.

Saadi emphatically castigates those who exploit genuine religious beliefs to recruit suicide bombers with false promises.

“They are not Muslim. The Koran spells it unequivocally. Anyone who commits suicide goes straight to hell.”

At the mention of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, Saadi’s voice saddens.

“It demeans both the victim and the perpetrator.

War takes many forms, but torture is not part of it. It should be banished from the face of the earth.”

He cites the French paratroopers’ Dominican chaplain Father Delarue, who contemptibly believed that torture was a form of justice for the crime of rebellion, arguing: “Why should it be considered monstrous to submit a criminal to painful interrogation?”

General Massu had little doubt that “these methods be admitted as necessary and morally acceptable.

“The ravings of certain newspapers and magazines in metropolitan France should not unduly upset us, for they confirm that our policy is correct,” proclaimed the French commander.

The worthlessness of any information obtained under torture was already plain to see 50 years ago.

Saadi tells a tragically absurd story of a paralysed man of 55 he met in prison who, “despite his obvious incapacitating condition, under torture, admitted dozens of FLN daredevil attacks and named countless accomplices, among them his own teenage son.”

He had simply had the misfortune to share his name with a FLN militant.

Many of Saadi’s comrades died unspeakable, horrifying deaths at the hands of dehumanised soldiers commanded by infamous torturer General Paul Aussaresses.

Aussaresses, a World War II resistance veteran who later advised south American juntas on counter-insurgency warfare and the use of torture, defended the practice in a controversial interview with Le Monde in 2000.

President Jacque Chirac, to his credit, stripped him instantly of his Legion d’Honneur.

In a sadistic orgy that would leave permanent scars on the French military, “Massu and Aussaresses had their troops torture on such a scale that they eventually ran out of buildings in which to do it,” recalls Saadi.

“It was then that they moved to the very homes of their victims to torture them in front of their families.”

Extrajudicial executions were occurring en mass on a daily basis.

In a further echo of Iraq, the French spin doctors of the day referred to the war as a confrontation between “Western values” and those of “Islamic fanaticism.”

Tellingly, though, women played a major role in the struggle. Saadi is clear that, “without their contribution, victory would have been unthinkable.” …

Despite the brutal reality of French colonial rule, France’s new President Nicolas Sarkozy recently urged the French, not unlike Gordon Brown in a recent speech on Britain’s colonial past, to look back on their brand of colonialism and take positive pride in “its many achievements.”

When asked his opinion on Sarkozy, Saadi reveals that he wrote to the man a short time ago.

Saadi sent him four dossiers on Algerians tortured to death by the French. In an accompanying letter, he stated simply: “These documents, Monsieur Sarkozy, are the only true reflection of French colonialism.”

Did Sarkozy write back? “No.”

Does he expect an answer any day soon? A wise, wry old smile is the only response that Saadi is prepared to offer.

The Battle of Algiers is being screened at 40 cinemas around Britain until June 21.

… phone (020) 7388-1212 for details.

Interview with Mohamed Benchicou: here.

French film on Algerian war: here.

On January 22 1959, French President Charles de Gaulle fired the commander-in-chief of French forces in Algeria, Jacques Massu, over comments the latter made to the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung, in which Massu called de Gaulle “a man of the Left” and said the army regretted installing him in power in 1958. Massu implicitly threatened a coup d’etat, saying the military brass was no longer prepared to follow de Gaulle’s orders in Algeria: here.

Fifty years ago police in Paris killed over 200 Algerian protesters and threw their bodies into the River Seine. Historian Jean-Luc Einaudi exposed the murders in his book The Battle of Paris. He spoke to Sellouma from France’s New Anticapitalist Party about the massacre: here.

Fifty years ago the Algerian revolution won independence from France. Leo Zeilig describes events and interviews veterans of the struggle: here.

24 thoughts on “Interview with Algerian anti-colonialist Yacef Saadi

  1. 50 years ago: French intellectuals and artists censored

    SignoretSimone Signoret

    The de Gaulle government on September 28 banned about 140 leading French actors, writers and academics from appearing on state-owned television and radio programs or in state-run theaters in order to muzzle their criticism of France’s colonial war in Algeria.

    The ban applied to all of those who had signed a petition advocating the right to refuse military service in Algeria. The French Information Ministry also said it was preparing a law that would ban all state funding from any film production whose personnel had signed the manifesto. Also approved was a decree allowing for suspension and pay cuts to government workers who favored “refusal of military service or desertion.”

    Among those affected by the ban were the actresses Simone Signoret and Daniele Delorme, writers Francois Sagan and Simone de Beauvoir, and the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre.

    During the week, offices of left-wing newspapers were sacked by police, including Espirit, Verite et Liberte, and Sartre’s Les Temps Modernes. Police seized the upcoming edition of the latter, which was to include a major article on French torture in the Algerian war.


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