The disappeared of the Algerian War

Author: Soraya Laribi

Corps 1

The French word disparu has the dual meaning of “missing” and “disappeared”; according to Article 88 of the French Civil Code (Order No 58-779 of 23 August 1958), it refers to individuals whose bodies have not been found or not been identified after being in a situation of periculum mortis (danger of death); meanwhile, it also denotes those targeted by an as yet nameless weapon of terror, not classified by the United Nations until 1978: “enforced disappearance”. These direct victims were added to the heavy human toll of the Algerian War, otherwise known as the “War of National Liberation” or the “Algerian Revolution”, which took place from 1954 to 1962. Families and loved ones, deeply distressed by the situation, are accidental victims, for it is often they who notify the authorities of the disappearances and, most certainly, bear the memory of the missing.


n5BLED 58-577-4

Mass grave at Diar El Choukh, attributed to Si Mohamed Bellounis,14/07/1958-16/07/1958, Dar Chioukh, Algeria © Marg Dreager/ECPAD/Défense

The confrontation between nationalists – the frontistes of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and its armed wing, the National Liberation Army (ALN), and the messalistes of the Algerian National Movement (MNA) – and the French Army resulted in large numbers of military and civilian losses, as in other wars, yet the French authorities officially rejected the word “war” until 1999. Before being considered “missing”, however, a soldier who did not return to his unit was initially designated as a “deserter”, unless there was a witness statement attesting that weapons were taken – an aggravating factor – and therefore that the soldier had gone over to the enemy. If he then returned to his post or was apprehended within the grace period (six days), a notice to call off the search was circulated and a certificate was issued removing him from the roll of deserters. Otherwise, the commanding officer (for military units) or group commander (for the gendarmerie) drew up a “missing” file. After five years, a declaration of presumed death might be issued by the judicial authorities, if the individual was unable to be traced. Career soldiers and soldiers of the contingent (born either in France or in the colonies) were exposed to a great many situations, in the line of duty or otherwise, that could lead to their disappearance: “engagement with the enemy”, “plane crash”, “suspicion of drowning”, etc. Similarly, many nationalists who did not reappear at the end of the Algerian War were presumed to have been killed in “law enforcement” or “pacification” operations carried out by the French Army.  

Other independence fighters disappeared as a result of the use of particular operating methods, often involving torture, such as abduction (capture by force) and arbitrary arrest (depriving a person of their freedom and concealing their whereabouts). Their systematic use by the French Army, to gather intelligence and more broadly to put a stop to the independence struggle, resulted in a great many victims during the Battle of Algiers (7 January to 9 October 1957), the most emblematic example being that of the communist mathematician and anti-colonialist militant Maurice Audin. On 24 March 1957, Paul Teitgen, general secretary of the Prefecture of Algiers, resigned in opposition to the lack of any guarantees for people arrested by the army. Meanwhile, counter-subversion methods (which, although not explicitly stated, involved torture and summary execution followed by the disappearance of the bodies) were advocated by officers like Colonel Roger Trinquier – who insisted on a three-pronged strategy: intelligence, psychological warfare and armed operations – in his book La guerre moderne, published in 1961 (English title: Modern Warfare: A French View of Counterinsurgency). The same year, in Paris, a number of protesters disappeared after the demonstration of 17 October was crushed on the orders of police chief Maurice Papon.

While the frontistes counted thousands of victims in their ranks, they too were responsible for disappearances, like that of the Groupe de Compagnies Nomades d’Algérie, a mixed unit stationed in the Abdellys (between Tlemcen and Sidi Bel Abbès), in 1956, or after the Évian Accords of 18 March 1962. During the last phase of the Algerian War, they were assisted by barbouzes, agents sent from Paris whose collusion with the former enemy was justified by the desire to decapitate the Secret Army Organisation (OAS), which opposed Algerian self-determination by carrying out spectacular actions (like bombings) in Algiers and Oran. The frontistes, meanwhile, did not want to officially break the ceasefire of 19 March, which they had signed. Therefore, in the Autonomous Zone of Algiers, abductions of European activists (or alleged activists), whose bodies were then buried in “collective graves”, were carried out on the orders of Commander Si Azzedine, not without collateral damage. The disappeared, whose faces appeared in the newspapers under the heading Family tracing, were not exclusively OAS members. The accounts of those who were released after being abducted or imprisoned alarmed their families, friends and neighbours who, already worried about the fates of those who hadn’t been freed, were terrified at the thought of being the next targets. The discovery of mass graves – and especially the reappearance of bodies that were difficult to identify – further contributed to spreading terror among a population already sensitive to the most appalling rumours about the fates of the disappeared, such as “trafficking in women” or “forced blood collection”.

These disappearances, which were one of the main reasons for the exodus of the pieds noirs, increased due to the insecurity caused both by the implosion of the FLN and by the conflict between the FLN and the MNA. The joint committees that were supposed to be enforcing the ceasefire were ineffectual, and the perpetrators of the disappearances were now varied, as were their motives, with unruly gangs of thugs committing petty crimes, like stealing cars, as well as acts of personal vengeance. The Marsiens (who joined the FLN after the ceasefire, in March) distinguished themselves with acts of great violence. They disappeared a number of individuals, including some French Army auxiliaries (wrongly termed “harkis”), who had their identity documents confiscated, which was another way of erasing any trace. Prior to independence, on 3 July, a number of metropolitan French conscripts, who had been assigned to the local force to keep order during the period of transition of power, also disappeared. On Independence Day, 5 July, a massacre of Europeans took place in Oran, in addition to many disappearances, which General Joseph Katz’s late intervention did not prevent. Border troops entered Algeria and seized power, but it was not until autumn 1962 that a degree of stability was restored, with the formation of a government headed by Ahmed Ben Bella.

After successive negotiations with the French authorities and agents of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Ben Bella authorised a special tracing mission to come to Algeria from 8 March to 12 September 1963, though its investigations were not always effective, since more than a year had passed since independence. Even so, in Algeria as in France, the families of the disappeared still had high hopes that their loved one would be found or freed. Prevented from going through the “normal” stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance) due to the uncertainty of whether the missing person was alive or dead, they were in a permanent state of anticipation. Some got together and formed organisations to trace the disappeared or apply to the relevant authorities (such as the French Ambassador to Algeria and the Minister for Algerian Affairs, soon to be replaced by the Secretary for Algerian Affairs). However, not wishing to receive complaints from Algerians who had disappeared at the hands of the army, or the security forces more generally, the French authorities were cautious in their actions, subsequently issuing declarations of presumed death to conclude the tracing process, as early as 1965; meanwhile, in Algeria, the names of the missing (as well as the dead) appear on the Martyrs’ Memorial, Maqam Echahid, erected in 1982 to give them a final resting place. That year, a new mass grave was discovered in Khenchela (in the north of the Aurès region) – in a camp occupied by the French Army during the Algerian War; Algeria and France each laid the blame on the other for the 1000 to 1200 corpses, and the mystery was never solved. Meanwhile, a group of Algerian servicemen and civilians who disappeared between 1954 and 1962 were written out of national history. The messalistes, who counted a great many disappeared in their ranks, suffered a twofold erasure: in addition to the disappearance of their bodies came the “damnation of their memory”. On 18 February 1992 was the first “National Martyrs’ Day”. That same year, Algeria entered its dark decade, following the interruption of the elections, and disappearances took place once more, as part of confrontations between armed Islamist groups and State security forces.

Thirty years after the end of the Algerian War, the archives became accessible to historians – in particular, Series 1H of the Army Historical Service – although exemption was granted for those of the 2nd Bureau (the French Army’s intelligence service). After a period of amnesia, the veil was lifted on a number of episodes from the period 1954 to 1962, involving torture, the massacre of 17 October 1961 or the suffering of the harkis (many of whom – not having been repatriated to France – disappeared after massacres, after being sent to the border to carry out mine clearance or after enlisting in the People’s National Army, which fought in the Sand War in autumn 1963). The National Memorial to the Algerian War and the fighting in Morocco and Tunisia, inaugurated on Quai Branly on 5 December 2002, was seen by many families and loved ones of the disappeared as a place of contemplation. In Perpignan, the Wall of the Disappeared, in memory of the unburied dead of Algeria, 1954-1963, prompted criticism from a group of organisations and also from university students, rekindling the war over remembrance, in 2007, already stirred up by the stone slabs laid in honour of OAS veterans. Remembrance organisations from either end of the political spectrum were also opposed on other points, such as the date of commemoration of the Algerian War. 19 March was challenged by the families and loved ones of the disappeared, and of all other victims from the months following the ceasefire. In 2012, that date was finally chosen by French president François Hollande (who did not, however, get rid of 5 December, officially adopted by Jacques Chirac). Given the time that had elapsed, the families of the victims turned to another fight: the fight for recognition that their loved ones “died for France”.

The search for the bodies gradually gave way to historical research involving all categories of the missing from the Algerian War. In 2002, prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin set up an Interministerial Mission for the Repatriated, which culminated in a statistical report on missing European civilians, published by historian Jean-Jacques Jordi in 2011. President Emmanuel Macron’s acknowledgement of the French Army’s role in the disappearance of Maurice Audin during the Battle of Algiers, in September 2018, signalled a new phase. Meanwhile, in Algeria, the ministry for Algerian War veterans was similarly responsible for cataloguing those who went missing in the phase of the Algerian War characterised by the widespread use of arrest and detention. A Numerical guide to the disappeared in the Algerian War was published in April 2020 by the National Archives, presenting the archival information available on all victims in Algeria and France between 1954 and 1962. Other research currently underway – concerning not only service personnel (a stone slab in memory of the “Abdellys disappeared” having been laid in Père-Lachaise cemetery in 2015) but also the disappeared of the Battle of Algiers – reduces the “scale of observation” to trace individual trajectories using microhistory methodology. Finally, in his report delivered to the French president in January 2021, historian Benjamin Stora recommends, among other things, the creation of a joint commission of French and Algerian historians to shed light on disappearances in the Algerian War, which could form part of a process of transitional justice.

All these initiatives to trace and acknowledge the memory of the disappeared can alleviate to some extent the grief of families and loved ones. More broadly, they contribute to fighting the global spread of enforced disappearances, considered a “crime against humanity” by the UN, which adopted, on 20 December 2006, the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Corps 2

Soraya Laribi, PhD in history (Sorbonne University)