Fletcher School hosts Algerian independence freedom fighter

Retired Algerian lawyer and former vice president of the Council of the Nation, Zohra Drif, shares her experience and role in National Liberation Front (FLN) during the Algerian War of Independence, during a Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy event on Oct. 4.

Zohra Drif, a leading figure in the Algerian independence movement and former politician, discussed her memoir “Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter” on Wednesday at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.

The talk, titled “Memories of Algeria’s Struggle for Freedom,” took place at the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies. It was co-sponsored by the Colonialism Studies program, the Department of History, the International Relations Program, Middle Eastern Studies Program and the Jonathan A. Tisch College of Civic Life.

Drif played a key role in the Battle of Algiers in 1956 and 1957, which was fought between the occupying French government and Algerians pushing for independence. In particular, at the age of 20, Drif set off a bomb in the Milk Bar café in Algiers, killing three people and injuring dozens. Drif has argued that the bombing was in retaliation against French aggression and colonialism.

The Milk Bar bombing was not discussed during the event on Wednesday. Fares Center Director Nadim Shehadi told the Daily in an email that he is unsure of whether Drif’s role in that bombing 61 years ago factored into the decision to invite her to Tufts, because he was not personally aware of it.

The event was hosted both to promote Drif’s memoir, which was published in English this year, and to bring awareness about Algeria to the greater Tufts community, according to History Professor and Algeria specialist Hugh Roberts.

“Algeria is an extremely important country that is generally neglected in America in studies of the Middle East and Islamic world, so part of my role and purpose is to bring Algeria to the attention of people here at Tufts,” Roberts said.

Roberts said it is significant that the book is now published in English. He hopes that Drif’s visit will educate a younger generation of American students.

“It was important in my view that Tufts also provide a welcome for [Drif] and encourage Algerians to look more towards America as a country that is beginning to take an interest,” Roberts said. “It’s also the idea of giving some encouragement to the development of relations between Algeria and the United States.”

Drif spoke to an audience of around 50 people in her native French while Roberts translated her responses in English to the crowd.

The talk began with Drif relating the background history of Algeria and the tensions arising up until the Algerian War of Independence, which began in 1954.

She explained that Algeria went through a critical change when France invaded the country in 1830, describing the extent of the effects of colonialism on the Algerian people.

“[Algerians] were reduced to beggars, their best land was taken and there were very high levels of unemployment,” she said. “[There was a] cultural regression in terms of very very high rates of illiteracy, as well as the cultural institutions of precolonial Algeria had been destroyed.”

Roberts summarized it as a time of “very grave regression for the Algerian people in terms of their living standards and cultural life.”

Drif then went on to explain how resistance among the Algerian people began taking form around the year 1900.

“[The resistance started] becoming a non-violent political movement, developing the outlook of the Algerian people. It became a more nationalist anti-colonial outlook, preparing society to take on the French over the issue of the colonial regime,” she said. “It was the colonial aspect that was the target of Algerian nationalism.”

Despite the Algerian people’s dire situation under French colonialism, Drif said Algerians held onto their identity, ultimately developing into a fully fledged national sentiment.

Drif explained that, while the French considered Algeria to be a part of France, the majority of Algerians were unable to become French citizens because of their Muslim identities. French officials put them in a category called the Muslim French which was not deemed to be actual French citizenship, she added.

“The contradiction was that Algeria was considered by France to be part of France, but the vast majority of Algerians could not be citizens,” Drif said. “My generation in particular became more and more aware of this inequity.”

Drif explained that Algerians began getting the confidence to start fighting for independence when they saw France losing its status as a great empire.

“A crucial event which happened just before the beginning of Algeria’s independence movement was the enormous defeat of the French in Vietnam,” Drif said. “The fact that the French army was defeated by people of the Third World made an enormous impression on the Algerians.”

Another critical moment in history, according to Drif, was V-E Day, when Algerian Muslims who had fought in the ranks of the French and contributed to the Allied victory held a rally.

“These demonstrations led to a bloodbath, thousands of Muslims were killed by the French,” she said.

This event, formally known as the Sétif massacre, convinced most politicized Algerians that the previously favored peaceful strategy would no longer work, Drif noted.

Drif then explained how she joined Algeria’s newly formed National Liberation Front (FLN) in the 1950s to fight the country’s French occupiers. She was particularly active in the FLN during a key period of the Algerian War of Independence called the Battle of Algiers, she added.

“A key element of FLN strategy was to internationalize the Algerian question [of independence] and demonstrate to the world as a whole that they, the FLN, were not what the French were describing them as, but that [the FLN] represented the Algerian people,” she said.

Drif also emphasized the critical role that Algerian women played in their country’s war for independence.

“Without women, the war of independence would not have been possible,” she said. “In the countryside and in towns, women played a major role in supporting the [men] who were fighting by providing food, safe houses, clean clothes and by organizing medical services of the liberation army.”

Drif added that some women, like herself, stepped away from their traditional roles by joining the guerilla forces in the fighting. She noted the equality that women felt fighting in the FLN; in particular, she and other young women discussed strategies with the most senior chief of the FLN.

An audience member posed the question to Drif asking how she hopes her book will inspire ongoing struggles, such as the current conflict in Palestine.

“The lesson others could draw is from the success of the FLN in establishing and preserving real unity of the Algerian people,” Drif said. “[Their] understanding that it was necessary to put other differences aside, identity or ideological or religious differences, that if you are part of the Algerian people you should all unite for this and not let other issues divide you, was how they succeeded.”