A Savage War of Peace: Algeria 1954-1962
At midday on March 19, 1962, the cease-fire came into effect and finished the seven-year war between the French and the Algerians. I was sitting at a table in a tiny Moslem café on the edge of the Algiers Casbah. There were two other men at the table, both responsables of the FLN. The glasses of mint tea cooled in front of us and we watched the clock.
Outside, the Moslem crowd flowed back and forth along the narrow Rue Randon, and a few boys, balancing against the stream like trout, watched me with black eyes. I looked at them, and again at the clock, and then at the hands of the men with me. There were two things about those hands. First, they were fibrillating with a fine, ceaseless tremor. Secondly, the fingers ended in a flatness where the nails had been torn out.
We looked at the clock once more, and it was twelve. Nothing seemed to happen, and then, within ten seconds, we were aware that the stream past the door had changed its flow somehow, as if rocks were obstructing it. I went to the door and saw that men in civilian clothes with green-and-white armbands had appeared in the street and were policing the crowd. The ALN, the Army of National Liberation, had come out into the open and begun to rule their country.
It wasn’t the end of the killing, which had cost perhaps half a million lives and was still to cost many more. The huge structure of French Algeria, which had been founded in 1830 and which had brought a European population of a million and more to the country, was in its terrible and prolonged death-agony. Most of the pieds noirs (white settlers) had already left their farms and little shops upcountry and had fallen back on the cities of Algiers and Oran. The OAS, a last-ditch resistance movement of pieds noirs, mutinous soldiers, and professional neo-fascists, was fighting in the cities to stop the world turning, to rescue Algérie française even after the clock had come to twelve.
This Algeria went mad as it died. There were the two European girls, stepping casually over the dead man on the pavement and across the torrent of blood which sprang out of his skull and hurried down the gutter, carrying dust and flower petals. There was the tree in the Place du Gouvernement with human flesh on its branches: the OAS had mortared a bus crowd, but across the square the pieds noirs sat undisturbed in the café and finished their Ricard. The scream of widows diving down after the coffin, the smell of hot steel on the armored cars which guarded Frenchmen from Frenchmen, the night curtains suddenly sweeping to the ceiling as the bombs began their ponderous march across the Casbah.
The coming of Moslem Algeria seemed like the prospect of a cool, green tide, washing away the whole insanity and bringing the city at last to silence. And …
Are Ulstermen English? June 15, 1978