Two weeks ago I was at a conference about the “refugees crisis” in Europe. The talk was given by a geographer researcher specialised in migrations, one who could have been among the 19 who signed the contribution in Le Monde refuting Kamel Daoud’s article in the same newspaper. A “bien-pensant” intellectual as Daoud’s friends would have called her (cf. this article in El Watan and a reaction to it in Le Matin) or simplistically a jealous person as prodigy Daoud himself would have called her had she been Algerian.
So there were maps, statistics and graphs with some geopolitics putting things back in their context. It was very interesting and informative. People should get access to such information to, at least, try to avoid situations such as having some former refugees who do not want their new country to take in new ones. Especially when a “renowned” journalist and writer implies that the new refugees come with a cultural sickness which makes them prone to violence and “that the disease is spreading to their own lands.”
The same happens in Algeria with the sub-Saharan refugees who either stay in the South or move farther to the Northern cities (dying, for some, while crossing the Sahara). In Bejaia (and elsewhere), you can see them, men, women, children and babies turned into street beggars or very low-cost workers in construction/farming fields. They rely on the locals’ generosity and also suffer from their animosity (some in Algeria say they’d spread their diseases – yes, it’s the bell ringing that you hear.)
So I though I’d write a very short review of a beautiful book on the times when our people were themselves refugees, pushed out by the French occupier’s policies and seeking refuge in neighbouring Morocco and Tunisia if not farther.
Many people in Algeria are familiar with the Army of the Frontiers because of the role it had in shaping the country’s power centres. People also know of the Algerian refugees’ existence, they read about the Challe and Morice lines and they heard of the Sakiet Sidi Youssef bombing in 1958 which we commemorated some 20 days ago and which reminds us of the solidarity between the Algerian and Tunisian people during the war.
But not many know much about these refugees’ lives. Abderrahmane Naceur, in 227 pages, shares his memories and gives some insights in this regard.
Before I speak of the book, I’d like to say a few words about the author. Abderrahmane Naceur was a psychologist specialized in education. At the USTHB, he researched the biology of behaviour. In 1958, Naceur went to Tunisia to help the people after the Sakiet Sidi Youssef bombing and there he had his first hand experience with the refugees. From 1958 and till the independence, he worked as the director of a school in a refugee camp, and this is the story he tells us in “Les enfants des frontières”, published in 1983 and again in 2009. After the Evian Negotiations ended, Naceur returned to Algiers using hitchhiking. There he founded the New Generation (Jil Jadid) Association and opened a school for the martyrs’ children. He wrote that he did it before the new government and its bureaucracy were set-up.
Abderrahmane Naceur died in August 2012. I may be wrong but I don’t think the Algerian officials paid him the tribute he deserved.
It is not easy for me to review this book. I guess I will just give, in bullets, some of the points or rather moments which I found interesting. I hope you will still want to read the book after reading the below.
- When Naceur reached the school, he found that it was managed like a military camp with even a prison cell to punish the children. The first thing he did was to request that each boy keeps himself and his clothes clean. He also suppressed the prison cell because schools shouldn’t have one.
- Naceur created a small republic in the school with ministries and workgroups. He also installed democracy with every project debated and voted. This not only motivated the boys who felt involved but also, as a consequence, set their imagination free with ideas’ flow never stopping. The school’s newspaper was one of the boys’ biggest challenges and achievements.
- When the boys learn from a djoundi of the martyrdom of one of their comrades who joined the ALN and many of them, individually, write letters to Naceur with this text:
- “Report to brother director, please allow me to fulfill my duty and join the maquis”,
- And he answers with a letter, “To brother pupil, your duty is to learn, your pen is your dagger, your notebook is your battle field”.
- On 1 November 1960, it is decided to celebrate the beginning of the War of Independence on Algerian territory with the Jounouds. The boys and teachers alike couldn’t stop their tears as they walked on their country’s soil and met those fighting for its liberation.
- The night before Eid El Adha, when everyone is very sad and goes to bed believing that there wouldn’t be anything to celebrate, and then a generous Tunisian offers a sheep to the school bringing joy to and warming the boys’ hearts.
- At some point, the boys are invited to spend their holidays in Czechoslovakia. There they meet with “comrades” from Eastern Europe but also lefts from Western Europe. They take the plane for the first time, they get acquainted with boys and girls from other countries. The Swedish girl Corinne’s infatuation with El Hachemi is touching. The feelings the Algerians (and the others) share when some of them win in one of the sports competitions that are organized is moving.
Going through the book, the reader gets to know each of the children, their personalities, their past and present, their dreams. The reader grasps their bitterness and hope and cannot but feel sympathy for them. Abderrahmane Naceur quoted Frantz Fanon who told him that “our children need to smile, nothing but to smile, just to smile” and Col. Mohamedi Said who told him that “they must be free men. Algerian needs free men”. He aimed at this in the refugees camp and then in the schools which he founded in Algeria. I am curious to know what have become of all his pupils.
At the end of the book the reader can see some old pictures of the author with the boys as well as a set of short dissertations written by the boys in Arabic and French about how they imagined independent Algeria and their role in it. Unfortunately all in a very low print quality as we’re used with most Algerian books.
And as today’s world seems to react only to images before quickly forgetting them, I share “Comme la pierre est a la pierre”, a UNHCR documentary directed by Stanley Wright about the Algerian refugees in Morocco. A Must watch and a call to the world’s humanity, empathy and altruism esp. with what we see these days at the Greece/Macedonia border or in Calais’s “jungle”.