x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

The day my mother almost died at the dawn of a free Algeria

The human cost of Algeria's independence is still being paid, and the revolution has been a disappointment.

October 5, 1961 is a date well-remembered in my family. On that autumn evening during Algeria's War of Independence, my mother - who is still known by her nom de guerre, Saliha - faced death while on a mission to provide freedom fighters with medicine, ammunition and uniforms.

About 15 fighters were in a refuge in Ouled-Rahou, about 16 kilometres north of the city of Mascara in north-eastern Algeria. Imagine the scene: a few fighters were having an animated discussion about the latest news. Others were busy trying on the uniforms Saliha had brought from Mascara.

Suddenly, screams and shouts in the distance punctuated the calm. Shadows were moving in, orders were barked out, Jeeps roared up. The fighters, realising that they had been betrayed, had no choice but to flee, dodging between trees, thickets and rocks.

Machine-gun bullets chased them, and one hit my mother in the mouth. She collapsed, a pool of blood forming around her and a noise overwhelming her ears. As her right hand tried to cover the wound, her left one waved to ask for help.

The bullet had cut her tongue, crushed some teeth and buried itself in the right side of her neck. It stayed there for 27 years, seven months and 20 days.

Saliha's husband, my father, was known as "Si Belkacem" Cheref, a lieutenant in the Algerian Liberation Army. She had herself joined the organisation when she was only 19. Like so many other women, she was "determined to militate for the independence of the country until her last sigh", as she would later say. As a liaison agent for the liberation forces, she had been in charge of distributing pamphlets and collecting donations for combatants in the Mascara area.

The Deuxième Bureau, as French military intelligence was known, had her listed among the "fellaguas", the outlaws, so for three years she had not dared to visit her young children and relatives. But, as a child, I still remember my grandmother taking me to see my father in a mountain hideout, and his smile is still chiselled in my memory.

Many years later, my mother described the sequence of events after she was wounded, and why she didn't have the bullet removed after the war: "When I was shot, my damaged tongue swelled. I couldn't talk. Some of the brothers-in-arms led me to another retreat where I learnt from a doctor that the bullet was very close to a vertebra; it was impossible for him to extract it. He gave me some drugs, but the pain was unbearable."

The only solution was to transfer her to Oran, the second-largest city in Algeria. In the anonymity of the metropolis, it was easy to locate a reliable physician. A French surgeon examined her at his clinic. Twice he tried to remove the bullet, but could not, so he left it there after doing what he could, and assuring my mother that she was out of danger. Soon afterwards, she resumed her political activism.

Years after independence, the painful wound in her neck was almost crippling her. "No longer 20," she admitted. In 1989, X-rays, a CAT scan and an MRI exam revealed that the bullet had moved a few inches - enough to leave her in torment.

In May of that year, she had another operation in Algiers. Most of the bullet was removed but scraps were impossible to extract. And so my mother still endures corrosive pain, especially in winter.

Yet neither the original trauma nor its repercussions on her health prevented her from raising her three children. "My husband died, as a soldier, arms in hand, for an independent and democratic Algeria," she told me with tears in her eyes. "But Allah made me a witness to what the present rulers have made of that ultimate sacrifice. They ruined the promise made to the martyrs."

Great men died before Algeria won its independence on July 5, 1962 - 50 years ago today. But the Front de Liberation Nationale, which helped to liberate the country, also helped in its re-colonisation by a corrupt elite. In 50 years of independence, the ancien regime has been restored, but with new, Algerian faces.

Democracy was lost in the 1992 military coup that prompted a senseless civil war, claiming thousands of lives, and seeing the incarceration, torture and exile of an incalculable number of innocent Algerians.

Then this year, with the empty parliamentary elections of May 10, Algerians were sold another lie. The current regime presents democracy as a hazard, and change as a dangerous venture. Now, Algerians must once again await their independence.

 

Dr Abdelkader Cheref is an Algerian assistant professor of comparative literature and cultural studies at the University of Connecticut