A young Mohammed Cheurfi sitting on the steps of a square in Algiers.
All photos courtesy of the interviewee.
Identity

I Asked My Father About the War That Shaped Our Family

Communication isn't our strong suit, but I wanted to know about his other life, and the people he lost in Algeria.
Souria Cheurfi
Brussels, BE
April 13, 2021, 12:19pm

This article originally appeared on VICE Belgium.

My father, Mohammed Cheurfi, is a 64-year-old Algerian man from the town of Azzaba in the mountainous eastern province of Skikda. He lived there until he was 24, when he came to Belgium on a scholarship to study at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Liège. In 1982, he met my Belgian mother, Françoise de Lannois. They’ve been together ever since. 

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I know my dad is proud of his roots. Although communication is not my family’s strong suit, he’s opened up a few times about his memories of the Algerian War, usually after watching a documentary on TV. I knew, for instance, that he lost his father when he was just three – and that our only picture of him was a photo of his corpse. 

My father was five when Algeria became independent, on the 19th of March, 1962. It was the end of 132 years of French colonial rule, and over seven-and-a-half years of war, not counting the civil conflict that came after. The Algerian War was one of the most brutal conflicts in the history of decolonisation. At the time it broke out, 1 million French settlers were living in the country, so the French fought tooth and nail to keep their colony. According to French estimates, 300,000 to 500,000 Algerians died, while Algeria puts that number at 1.5 million.

Mohammed Cheurfi – Mohammed Cheurfi – Photo of a man with an afro and aviator sunglasses, smoking a cigarette in front of a truck.

My father in Algiers.

“I remember the French army and Senegalese soldiers,” said dad when I asked him his memories of the war. “I remember the planes and paratroops, too.” Back then, Senegal was still a French colony, and soldiers from the country and other parts of West Africa were deployed alongside French troops.

My father’s family was deeply involved in the war. His dad was an Algerian resistance fighter, or “maquisard”. Just like many other young men at the time, my grandfather joined guerrilla groups up in the mountains, fighting against the well-organised and much larger French army. Before leaving for the front, he hid his family – my dad and my grandma – with his parents to protect them. He was a wanted man, so my dad pretended he was not his son but one of his mother’s siblings. 

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Eventually, the French army and their Algerian allies, known as the “Harkis”, identified my grandpa as a rebel. They went to my great-grandparents’ house and tried to get my great-grandfather to talk. When he didn’t, they killed him with a pitchfork and burned down their house.

Mohammed Cheurfi – A group of 5 kids in front of a straw hut. Mohammed (centre) is cutting a melon with a knife.

My father visiting his aunt and cousins. The house in the background is similar to his grandparents’ house that was burned down. This is the only photo of my father as a child.

After that, my dad and the rest of the family were pretty much on their own. They were among the 1.2 million civilians internally displaced by the conflict and lived in a refugee camp. As the eldest sister, my dad’s mother had to work to support the family, so he grew closer to his grandmother Aïsha. “She was the one who mainly took care of me,” my dad said. “I would always sleep with her, until the night she died in her sleep, right next to me. I must have been about six at the time.” Eventually, his dad was also killed during an ambush by the French.

“What else do you know about your father?” I asked. “Nothing at all – I never knew him,” dad replied. Fellow fighters told my father that his father was smart and very brave. Once, they said, he managed to fix their only watch with a stick.

As was common at the time, the French buried my grandfather in a communal pit. I asked dad about the photo of his corpse, which hangs in the living room of our family home. He said his mother had somehow managed to get hold of it. She told him the French army would always photograph the fighters’ bodies and display them in front of the town hall in Azzaba, “to discourage people from joining the resistance”.

After independence, their bodies were brought back to the Cemetery of Unknown Martyrs in Azzaba. “There are no names, because nobody really knows who anybody is,” my father said.

Black and white photo of the face and upper torso of a man with a moustache, his eyes and mouth semi opened. The photo is crumpled and turned yellow by time.

My grandfather.

After independence, his family’s hardship continued. “My mother had to work and my grandparents were dead, so I had to take care of myself,” dad said. At some point, his mum moved to France to re-marry, and he was left with his paternal aunts. “At that time we were living off charity donations,” dad said. “I was a bit lost. I wasn’t going to school, nobody made me.” 

At eight years old, he got a job washing carrots and turnips in the river with other kids his age. “We would get paid in carrots and turnips, too,” he said. He remembers taking pride in his work and being happy. But then he got scabies, a skin infestation caused by mites, and was picked up by his mum, whose marriage had been called off.

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His mother couldn’t care for him – she had four little sisters who depended on her, too. So she enrolled him in a government centre for poor kids and orphans, a sort of boarding school where he’d get a free education. After two or three months, the government moved him to another centre in Constantine, about 80km southwest of Azzaba. “My mother didn’t know I had been transferred – she didn't find me until two years later,” he said.

Dad had mixed feelings about the centre. “On the one hand, we were fed and clothed,” he said. “But they were so strict, it felt like prison.” When his mum finally came to see him, he wanted to leave with her, but she couldn’t take him: “Ultimately, I ended up staying there until I was 21.” He worked hard and went on to study interior architecture, first in Constantine and then in Algiers. “Then I got a scholarship to come to Belgium – and well, you know the rest,” he said.

Mohammed Cheurfi – Group of young men sitting on chairs, smoking and talking. Black and white picture.

My father (bottom left) and his friends in Algiers.

Knowing the dark times Algeria has been through since the war, I was curious to hear if people were nostalgic for the French rule. “No,” my dad said. “The French saw us as subhuman.” He said people fought for their liberty and were happy to be independent. “What we regret is how badly the country was managed afterwards.”

In the aftermath of the armistice, the National Liberation Front (FNL), the party that had led the charge for independence, took power but was soon replaced by a military dictatorship. My dad was on the FNL’s side, too – it was the country’s only party. “We were all nationalists,” he said. “We’d all been sort of brainwashed.” 

After independence, Algeria began an effort to regain its Arab and Islamic heritage. At the same time, new natural gas and oil deposits were discovered, bringing in new wealth that ended up only enriching the elites. All the democratic ideas for the future of the country vanished. “The system was corrupted and ended up working against its people, instead of for them,” my dad said. The result was a brain drain – many graduates and intellectuals either left the country or were killed by the regime.

Mohammed Cheurfi – Black and white photo of a young man in a suit posing next to a bust propped up on a wooden stool.

My father at the Academy of Fine Arts in Constantine.

In early March of 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron finally acknowledged for the first time that France had tortured and assassinated Algerian revolutionary and lawyer Ali Boumendjel. He is just one of the thousands France stands accused of torturing. This was a historic move, but according to my dad, “France will never recognise what it did in Algeria”.

My dad doesn’t know exactly when he was born – his ID has no birth date. His family’s name is also misspelt on it, thanks to what he calls the “administrative chaos” of those years. These are just a few of the ways he still carries his family’s history with him.