Reviewed by Vacy Vlazna
(Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter, Zohra Drif, Just World Books, 2017)
“Colonialism creates the patriotism of the colonized. Kept at the level of a beast by an oppressive system, the natives are given no rights, not even the right to live. Their condition worsens daily. And when a people has no choice but how it will die; when a people has received from its oppressors only the gift of despair, what does it have to lose? A people’s misfortune will become its courage; it will make, of its endless rejection by colonialism, the absolute rejection of colonization.” – Albert Memmi
Stylishly dressed in a lavender blue summer dress with small stripes, Algerian student Zohra Drif, 22, in a state of surreal disassociation yet guided by ‘absolute necessity, the sacred duty to succeed in my mission so that my people would not despair’, planted a bomb concealed in a beach bag to be set off 6.25 pm in the Milk Bar cafe on the elegant Rue d’Isly, a 10 minute walk from the Muslim Casbah held captive under the oppressive French military siege.
Across town, on the same sunny afternoon of September 30, 1956, Zohra’s friends, Samia Lakhdari and her mother, Mama Zhor, successfully targeted the Cafeteria on Rue Michelet and Djamila Bouhired planted a faulty bomb in the Air France agency in the Mauritania building.
As an activist for Palestine, I was eager to understand the mind, soul and motive of a young freedom fighter. Zohra Drif’s profoundly personal and nationalistic autobiography is a precise holographic sliver of the whole 1954-1962 Algerian struggle for independence from 130 years of France’s brutal colonization; a struggle that claimed over 1,000,000 Algerian lives.
Daughter of Qadi Ahmed and Saadi Drif, Zohra’s destiny from childhood in rural Tiaret to schoolgirl and university law student in Algiers and her dogged determination to join the National Liberation Front (FLN) in the Algiers Autonomous Zone 5, to her stressful clandestine life, subsequent arrest and imprisonment is a compelling read.
Its power lies in a tense dramatic immediacy, intriguingly heightened by the voice of the young Zohra, not the 82-year-old Zohra, the author who splices Algeria’s tragic saga underscored by French colonial privileged racism with the idealism and valiant acts of young revolutionaries….
And herein lies the rationale and honor of the revolutionary identity:
“Perhaps the reader of today expects me to regret having placed bombs in public places frequented by European civilians. I do not. To do so would be to obscure the central problem of settler colonialism by trying to pass off the European civilians of the day for (at best) mere tourists visiting Algeria or (at worst) the ‘natural’ inheritors of our land in place of its legitimate children. I will not adopt this position because I hate lies and their corollary, revisionism, whatever they are and wherever they come from. Samia and I did not regret our actions in 1956 or 1957, nor do we today, nor will we ever. I speak here in my own name and on behalf of my friend and sister Samia Lakhdari, who died in the summer of 2012. What’s more, if today, God forbid, my country were to be attacked and occupied by a foreign force, I know that even at my advanced age, propped up on a cane, I would be with all those (and I know there are many of them, in Algeria and elsewhere) who would offer their lives to liberate our land and its people. In declaring this, I seek neither to boast nor to challenge anyone. I am simply trying to convey an idea, a simple conviction related to the concept of responsibility.
“As for the civilians who perished during the war of national liberation, if they are Algerian, I would propose that they go to the ALN fighters and ask them, “Why did we die?” I know that the ALN will reply, ‘You are dead because your lives were part of the price we had to pay for our country to be free and independent.’ And if they are French, I would propose that they go see the French authorities and ask, ‘Why did we die?’ I do not know what the French authorities would say, but I would propose to them the one real truth there is: ‘You died because you were among the hundreds of thousands of Europeans that we used to subjugate and occupy a foreign country, Algeria, so that we could make it our settler colony.’ In any case, this will not make me forget all the French who chose justice and the values of freedom and dignity (of which their own homeland boasted) and joined our camp.”
The rightness and justice bolted to Zohra’s vindication of her mission intensifies when you consider the barbarities that the French regime perpetrated against Algerians – whole scale massacres and napalm bombing in Setif, Kherrata, North Constantinos, the massacre of thousands of men in the Skikda stadium, collective punishment, humiliations, lynchings, impalings, collective rape, annihilation of villages and their occupants, mass arrests, disappearances, concentration camps, tens of thousands of summary executions, bombings of trade unions, terrible tortures in prisons and in homes in front of the family, curfews, checkpoints, rampant raids, looting, psychological warfare, blowing up homes, the relentless incitement fear and terror, military courts replaced civil courts, decapitation by guillotine, the Paris massacre of 300 Algerian protestors – all executed with merciless French arrogance and indifference to the humanity of the ‘natives’. An arrogance that masks the moral inferiority of the colonist.
French colonial sadism exists to this day thus explaining why since 1947, Presidents from Auriol to Macron ( with the exception of Pompidou and d’Estaing) have enthusiastically supported the savage colonialism of their Israeli frères d’armes:
Auriol: approved Partition Plan, voted for the Israel’s membership to the UN.
Coty: France and Israel cooperated “in research and production of nuclear weapons,” and build Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor.
de Gaulle: “I raise my glass to Israel, our friend and our ally.”
(Pompidou and d’Estaing)
Mitterrand: “Indeed, the French nation is a friend to the nation of Israel.”
Chirac: “France is determined to strengthen Israel and I say that it is important that the process move forward towards full development and assure full security for the people of Israel.”
Sarkozy: “On behalf of France, we would like to declare our love for Israel – we love you! “
Hollande “I will always remain a friend of Israel”
Macron – “French law prohibits … boycotting [Israel]. There is no question of changing that law and no question of acting indulgently on this. For me, these [BDS protests] are anti-Zionist moves, thus profoundly anti-Semitic … I condemn this approach both legally and politically.”
The timeless universality of Zohra’s insurrectionary call to dignity and freedom has invaluable resonance for Palestinian resistance. Reading Zohra’s memoir is Palestine’s story and the lessons are electrifying:
1. Maintain focus on the occupiers fault lines:
“First, France was not invincible. Not only had she not resisted the German occupation but, even worse, over 80 percent of the French parliament had voted for the armistice- France’s abdication to Germany – and what’s more, the majority of the French elite had even collaborated with the occupiers, supporting the Vichy regime and its Marshal Philippe Petain. We were well aware that without Britain and the United States, France would never have been liberated.” Also France had been defeated in WWI and later defeated in Franco-Thai War and the Indochina War.”
Israel, for all its army, navy, airforce, vast cache of nuclear and high tech military hardware ( France ties with Germany in arms exports to Israel) is not invincible. Its European Jewish immigrants, apart from the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, like the French submitted to the Nazis. The 1973 Yom Kippur War resulted in the Israeli return of its Sinai gains to Egypt, and in the 2006 Lebanon War Israel failed to destroy Hezbollah. Israel’s three wars on Gaza, 2009/10, 2011 and 2014 have incrementally caused heavy losses to Israel’s credibility and fabricated victim reputation. In 2014, without an army, navy, airforce, Hamas inflicted 67 ZOF deaths and wounded 468.
2. Resistance is justice and a right.
“We are not killers. We are fighters for a just cause, moved by the most sacred of duties: to liberate our land and our people. It is the colonial regime that kills -torturing, oppressing, and repressing to perpetuate its system of occupation on our land and our people, trying to convince everyone that Algeria is French. That is why each of our attacks, each of our ambushes, each of our lives sacrificed must serve to unmask France before the world, to show that our people are at war against a foreign power occupying us by force.”
The Zionist occupier also tries to convince the world that Palestine is Israel via western media and lackey governments spreading its false propaganda: that its daily war crimes in violation of the 4th Geneva Convention are acts of defense, that its daily theft of Palestinian land, livelihood and dignity was decreed by a god, that Palestinian legitimate armed and BDS resistance to foreign domination is ‘terrorism’ and ‘antisemitic’.
In Algeria, all settlers had to “know that Algeria was at war and understand that they could no longer sit back and enjoy life while watching us die.”
In historic Palestine, according to Miko Peled, all Israelis are settlers. At arms length from their inflicted suffering on indigenous Palestinians, the settlers move freely on apartheid roads sans 500 plus checkpoints, many live in coersively vacated Palestinian homes, they enjoy cafes with views of beaches that the majority of Palestinians have never seen. In their illegal settlements, they bathe in private swimming pools while Palestinians are rationed water for necessities. Colonists enjoy first class medical care while at a stone’s throw away, desperately ill Gazans are denied access to dialysis and cancer treatment.
3. Against great odds, independence can be achieved.
“Knowing that ‘We all knew that each day we lived was a victory over a possible arrest or a probable death,’ the poorly armed Algerian guerrilla resistance movement was up against ‘an army of nearly half a million highly equipped men’ and despite lethal internal divisions between the FLN and the MNA and collaborators such as the Harkis and Bachagha Ait Ali who ‘was notorious for his public condemnation of our national liberation struggle and for his participation in France’s fierce repression against our people’, Algeria achieved independence in 1962 and many of its fighters went on to serve Algeria in government. Zohra became the Vice-President of the Algerian Senate.”
Palestine too has its Bachagha Ait Ali in Mahmoud Abbas and his Zionist PA/PLO band of traitors to Palestinian resistance who uphold, “The security relationship [with Israel]…security coordination is sacred, is sacred. And we’ll continue it whether we disagree or agree over policy.”
Zohra shares the upheaval of betrayal by a comrade:
“Safi’s obvious, devastating betrayal stood out for its violent clarity, like the flash of a bomb. I shuddered. A new pain that I had never experienced until then wracked my insides: the very unique pain of betrayal. Not only is its intensity particular, but also its extent and the way it destabilizes you and your whole world. Suffering a betrayal destroys your points of references, the certainties necessary for life and for trust in the human race, including in yourself.”
She realizes that betrayal as a tool of the oppressor is intended “to annihilate our humanity.” However, she states that judging a victim of torture as a traitor would exonerate “his torturers and the colonial system” and that “would be the true betrayal.” Self-serving betrayal was rabidly punished after independence.
Ultimately, France’s tactics of disproportionate violent repression, racism, lies, deception, defiant abuse of the rule of law and international law courted defeat by raising the bar of Algerian resistance.
And so it is with Israel. Every Israeli war augments international support for Palestine’s legitimate right to sovereignty and independence. Israel’s settlement expansion is ironically the wrecking ball destroying the Zionist dream of Eretz Israel, the occupation’s strangulation of Palestinian society has birthed the counterinsurgency of BDS worldwide.
Decades of Israeli cruel repression have never made a dent in Palestinian sumoud- the resilient soul of Palestine and her children:
This is my rendition of an anthem to be sung
I will rise and soar above your matrix of control
With the strength of my will your walls will fall
And this concrete that segregates us will be used to rebuild homes
Your bulldozers and tanks will dissolve into the earth
The sap will run in the olive trees
The gates will open wide for the refugees
We will be free
I will be your equal
And only then you will be mine
My other self
My fellow human being. (Samah Sabawi)
As with French colonialism, Israel is imploding under the violent pressure of Zionism. The death of Zionism will inevitably herald what Svirsky calls ‘the noble ‘one state’ of equal partnership.’
– Dr. Vacy Vlazna is Coordinator of Justice for Palestine Matters and editor of a volume of Palestinian poetry, I remember my name. She was Human Rights Advisor to the GAM team in the second round of the Acheh peace talks, Helsinki, February 2005 then withdrew on principle. Vacy was convenor of Australia East Timor Association and coordinator of the East Timor Justice Lobby as well as serving in East Timor with UNAMET and UNTAET from 1999-2001. She contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.