Women of the Algerian Resistance

On May 8, 1945, France joined the festivities of V-E Day, celebrating the total defeat of Nazi Germany as well as the ...

On May 8, 1945, France joined the festivities of V-E Day, celebrating the total defeat of Nazi Germany as well as the liberation of France. On that same day, a group of Algerians demanded independence from their colonial occupiers—the French—in protests throughout eastern Algeria. French reports claim that around 100 Europeans settlers died in the pro-independence demonstrations. In response, France launched air and ground raids against the eastern cities of Setif and Guelma, killing between 1,000 and 45,000 Algerians, depending on estimates. The 1945 massacres marked a crucial turning point in both the political and the armed reaction to French rule. In 2005, on the 60th anniversary of these massacres, Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika highlighted the significance of the moment: “The paradox of the massacres of May 8, 1945, is that when the heroic Algerian combatants returned from the fronts in Europe, Africa and elsewhere where they defended France’s honor and interests … the French administration fired on peaceful demonstrators.”1

The conflict would last for nearly 17 years and would include the legendary Battle of Algiers, which took place in the Algerian capital from 1956 to 1957. One of the heroes of that battle was Zohra Drif. Her memoirs, first published in French in 2013, have been beautifully translated by Andrew Farrand and were published in English by Just World Books last year.

There is no one else who can tell this story of Algerian resistance. At its height in 1957, Drif was on the run in the Casbah of Algiers, moving from hideout to hideout to escape the French paratroopers. She lived with a sisterhood of fighters as a member of the National Liberation Army (ALN), the armed wing of Algeria’s independence movement, the National Liberation Front (FLN). She worked with figures like Yacef Saadi, Ali La Pointe, and Larbi Ben M’hidi—all three legends in the anti-colonial struggle. She describes, in meticulous detail, the emotions and events at the heart of their battle for freedom as well as the incredible individuals who gave their lives for the dream of an independent Algeria.

The story of Drif’s social background, family, and entry into violent resistance is a truly gripping account of freedom, sisterhood, and the creation of a nation. Through her relationship with members of the ALN, readers get a firsthand look at the unbreakable bonds built in the anti-colonial struggle and come to understand the existential necessity of independence in the development of the Algerian state. Drif takes us into the heart of colonial atrocity and illuminates how violent resistance became the solution to throwing off the chains of foreign occupation and creating Algerian statehood.

In February 2017, at the height of his presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron gave an interview to the newspaper Le Figaro, in which he criticized France’s conduct in Algeria, calling colonialism a “crime against humanity.” He visited Algiers and urged his homeland to apologize for its behavior during this dark period, sparking harsh reactions from right-wing candidates François Fillon and Marine Le Pen.

Center-right candidate Fillon attacked what he saw as a “hatred of our history” and a “perpetual repentance that is unworthy of a candidate of the presidency of the republic.” Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, also jumped on Macron’s stance: “Is there anything worse when you want to become president than going abroad to accuse the country you want to lead of crimes against humanity?”

Soon after his election, in December 2017, President Macron returned to Algeria to promote economic ties, eliciting another round of discussion about France’s colonial history and its problematic relationship with Algeria. Macron continues to waver from fierce critic to proud patriot in his descriptions of the former French empire and its continuing impact on countries in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia.

The French empire reached its peak between 1919 and 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II. Situated in Northern Africa, along the southern coast of the Mediterranean, Algeria was one of France’s crown jewels for more than 130 years, from 1830 to 1962. The occupation of this Muslim majority country has become a powerful symbol of the systemic political, social, and cultural violence that marked colonial rule in the 19th and 20th centuries.

With the onset of resistance movements within Europe against the Nazi occupation came a more universal discourse of liberation, resistance to foreign occupation, and the rise of nationalist, anti-colonial movements. The blatant hypocrisy of France fighting for its own liberation while continuing the violent occupation of Algeria galvanized the Algerian resistance in the 1940s.

Drif illuminates how violent resistance became the solution to throwing off the chains of foreign occupation and creating Algerian statehood.

The 1945 Sétif massacre was one of the first and most vivid catalysts for resistance, but more were to follow. After the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu and lost their dominance over Indochina, Algeria’s resistance movement, the FLN, decided that the time was right, in November 1954, to begin a series of armed revolts by guerrilla groups; these groups would become the ALN.

Drif and her best friend, Samia Lakhdari, were students at the University of Algeria in 1956 when they signed up to join the military wing of the resistance. Both young women became part of a sisterhood of moudjahidate—women fighters working with the ALN—during the Battle of Algiers. Both were sentenced to death in absentia in a 1957 trial. Drif was ultimately arrested with her one of her commanders, Yacef Saadi, that same year and spent half a decade in prison in both Algeria and France.

The Battle of Algiers, a 1966 film by Gillo Pontecorvo, made the deadly confrontation between French occupiers and the ALN infamous to viewers around the world and helped solidify Algeria’s position as a leader of the global anti-colonial struggle. The film depicts three young women who bombed French areas around Algiers and helped launch a months-long battle between French armed forces and the ALN. These confrontations centered around the Casbah of Algiers, a Muslim neighborhood in an older section of the capital that helped hide and support members of the resistance.

The three women who carried bombs to French quarters in Algiers were Drif, Lakhdari, and Djamila Bouhired. All three would go on to become legendary heroes of Algerian independence. To this day, they maintain a primary place in the country’s history and national pride.

Inside the Battle for Algiers takes us right into this moment of violent resistance. As tensions were rising in Algeria, Drif, the daughter of a respected Qadi (judge) and a very traditional mother, was a voracious young student. In 1947, she’d begun secondary school at the prestigious Lycée Fromentin as one of four “native students” in a class of two thousand pupils, along with her best friend, Lakhdari. When war broke out in November 1954, both she and Lakhdari were starting their first year at the University of Algiers.

Drif describes her family history and the values of both education and tradition that her parents instilled in her. This background gave her a unique connection to her roots in the Algerian countryside while also allowing her to prosper in the French educational system, a nearly impossible feat for Algerian students under colonialism.

In the memoir, Drif recalls an endless series of massacres, torture, forced disappearances, and rapes. Any whisper of Algerian resistance, violent or nonviolent, was met with overwhelming force by the French colonial administration and by the pieds-noirs—French settlers. News of these massacres, absent from the colonial media, came through the “native population,” who traded stories of the 1945 slaughters, of Operation Violent and Operation Veronica in January and February 1955, of the thousands killed in Skikda in 1955, of the bombing in Rue de Thèbes in 1956, and of the Vaubay Way Massacre in 1957. The mass killings were interlaced with public executions, various accounts of torture and rape, bombings, and a rigidly enforced system of apartheid and lack of due process for the “natives.”

Both Drif and Lakhdari actively pursued a connection to the ALN as soon as they arrived at university. The two thought that their French education could help them move through European areas with ease, and it was their deepest desire to take part in the resistance movement. They knew they could be of use to their brothers fighting for independence, and in 1956 they finally made contact, through mutual friends, with a member of the FLN who heard them out and officially recruited them.

In a clear-eyed monologue, Drif describes her and Lakhdari’s decision to become active members of the FLN’s armed guerrilla wing, the ALN:

In August 1956, Samia and I, assuming full responsibility, chose to become “volunteers for death” to recover and free our mother, Algeria—who had been taken by force, raped, and kidnapped for 125 years—or to die. Faced with the choice between our mother and our lives … we chose our mother … The only case where a people has the right and duty to take up arms is when its country and territory are attacked by an external force. This is called self-defense. That was our case in November 1954 and throughout our struggle.

After the Rue de Thèbes massacre in August 1956, where the “ultras”—violent pied-noir groups dedicated to maintaining “French Algeria”—bombed a major part of the Casbah, killing or injuring hundreds of natives, mostly women and children, the ALN decided to respond by bringing the war to the capital’s European quarters, as the French paratroopers continued to terrorize, torture, and arrest the native population throughout the country. On September 30, 1956, Drif, Lakhdari, and Bouhired dressed up in Western clothes and entered European Algiers carrying bombs in baskets. Drif was assigned to the Milk Bar and Lakhdari to the cafeteria, where they caused some civilian fatalities and injuries.

After these bombings, the women went into hiding alongside other resistance fighters and activists. Lakhdari left to be married and ultimately moved to Tunisia, while Drif continued to take an active role in helping the cause alongside Bouhired and other women, such as Hassiba Ben Bouali.

Drif also spent time in hiding with Larbi Ben M’hidi, one of the six founding members of the FLN. He was captured and killed by the French in February 1957. His revolutionary fervor had helped to create and cultivate a clear political agenda behind Algeria’s anti-colonial struggle, and he’d been one of the leaders of the armed revolt that officially began the war for independence on November 1, 1954.

An incredible exchange between Drif and Ben M’hidi is one of the most telling moments of the book. Known as “Si Mohammed” in Drif’s account, he explains how the Algerian struggle is ultimately a political one and the use of arms is a function of the asymmetry of power between the colonizer and the colonized, the oppressor and the oppressed—not just in terms of political and military control but also the cultural genocide implemented against the “natives” throughout 130 years of settler colonialism. “We are not killers,” says Ben M’hidi:

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 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. To do this, our people have established a political organization, the FLN, and an armed organization, the ALN. That is the meaning of the primacy of the political over the military, which is a fundamental principle of our revolution.

While the FLN succeeded in creating a clear political agenda and raising international awareness about French atrocities, Algeria’s war for independence, which lasted officially from 1954 to 1962, came to be one of the deadliest anti-colonial struggles. There was an enormous price to pay for engaging in armed resistance against the French, but as Ben M’hidi emphasizes again and again, the only way to get outside attention and apply pressure to France was to bring the revolution to the international stage during a period of international anti-colonial struggle and a wave of decolonization. In her political actions, violent or nonviolent, Drif likewise yearned for the whole world to see the injustices and horrors experienced every day by Algerians.

On July 14, 1957—the anniversary of the storming of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution—Drif’s fellow activist Djamila Bouhired was put on trial and sentenced to death. She showed up to court wearing the colors of the Algerian flag, white, green, and red, in the face of the mob of pieds-noirs surrounding the proceedings. She stood stoic, full of moral fiber and superiority, in the face of French apartheid.

“They had their Marianne,” Drif writes, referring to the personification of the French Revolution’s ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité; “we had our Djamila.” This was the beginning of the legend. Djamila—her face, body, and name—became, rightly, an icon for people worldwide in their struggles for liberation, and the object of crippling hatred from all the disciples of colonial systems.

Shortly after Drif was arrested with Saadi, Hassiba Ben Bouali and Ali La Pointe were killed. The mass media coverage of and international attention to all these events was a major turning point in the struggle for independence. It also spurred the French section of the FLN to carry out attacks in the metropole, increasing pressure on the government to capitulate. In 1960, Algerian citizens mobilized for mass protests in Algiers, and the greater resistance struggle never let up, even when defeat seemed likely.

Drif was pardoned and released from prison after the signing of the 1962 Évian Accords. This agreement, made between France and Algeria’s newly recognized provisional government, composed of FLN leaders, laid out the framework for a military ceasefire, the release of prisoners, and the establishment of a sovereign and independent Algerian nation. The young resistance fighter would go on to become a major human rights activist, a lawyer, and a senator. She was elected to Algeria’s first National Assembly in 1962 and was made vice president of the country’s Council of the Nation, the upper house of the parliament, in 2003.

Credited with starting and winning their revolution, the FLN has stayed in political power since 1962, thanks to its historical legitimacy in the eyes of many Algerians. Unfortunately, while the group’s image remains admired and legendary, the reality is that the FLN has become one of the key institutions behind an authoritarian system based on a status quo of wealthy military and political elites dominating the country’s public administration. The spirit of revolution has been overtaken by the tentacles of the deep state and economic corruption.

The FLN lived up to its goals of creating an Algerian nation, but, as a political party, it has not kept its promise to support the freedom, human rights, and dignity of its citizens. President Bouteflika, a prominent FLN leader and the longest-serving president of Algeria, is rarely seen in public, and it is unclear to many who is actually running the country. Bouteflika is credited with leading Algeria out of a deadly civil war in 1999, but its citizens remain some of the poorest in the Middle East and North Africa, despite the country’s immense natural resource wealth. National politics are still dominated by elite interests and opaque decision-making, and protests for socioeconomic and political reforms continue to rock the country.

Nevertheless, at a moment when the colonial legacy is still being debated and at times even defended, Drif’s story of resistance and sisterhood is a must-read reminder of the crimes against humanity that France and other Western nations have committed in the name of empire. icon

  1. Reuters, “Algerians Remember Massacres of 1945,” Washington Post, Monday, May 9, 2005.
Featured image (from left to right): Samia Lakhdari, Zohra Drif, Djamila Bouhired, and Hassiba Ben-Bouali (ca. 1956). Wikimedia Commons