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Terror and Torture in French Algeria

by Lisa Lieberman

Dirty War


“All night long for an entire month, I heard the howling of tortured men, and their screams will forever resonate in my memory,” Henri Alleg wrote in 1958 in La Question (The Question),1 an unsettling account of the treatment he endured while in French custody during the Algerian war for independence, 1954–1962. “I saw prisoners clubbed down one flight of stairs to the next who, stupefied by the blows, knew nothing else than to murmur in Arabic the first words of an ancient prayer.”2

At the time Alleg’s claims were hardly new. French soldiers sent to “maintain order” in the wake of the terrorist campaign initiated by the FLN (National Liberation Front) in Algeria in 1954 brought back stories of atrocities. They took part in sweeping roundups of insurgents in the countryside—ratissages (rat hunts), as they were called—raids on Algerian villages to root out guerrillas, which entailed hostage-taking and indiscriminate reprisals against civilians. Brutal tactics were employed to make the Algerians talk: beatings, rapes, sexual humiliation, sleep deprivation, waterboarding. Several accounts mentioned “the telephone,” a form of torture widely practiced by French paratroopers and the colonial police. Leads connected to a hand-cranked generator were wound around the suspect’s finger, looped behind his ear, placed in his mouth, or attached to his genitals. The interrogator would administer a series of high-voltage shocks, enough to cause excruciating pain and in some instances trigger convulsions but rarely to kill the suspect. Allegations of torture were difficult to prove since the procedure left only the barest trace of a burn on the victim’s skin.

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