Djamila Bouhired is considered by many as the most powerful female freedom fighter of the twentieth century, but still for vague reasons, very little is known about this national cum international heroine. In fact, it seems as if a veil is thrown over and around Djamila in an attempt to obscure her name and force her into oblivion.
Information about her part - which was quite significant - in the Algerian Liberation Revolution consists mostly of very irrelevant hints here and there. One could find detailed sources of information about many less important and less famous freedom fighters. This rises actually more than a question about the reasons and motives, since there is barely an Arab town that does not have a street or a school named after this great Algerian Woman.
Taking into consideration that she played a vital role, even after her capture, during her trial and later on throughout her imprisonment, in the success of the Algerian Revolution and later on, in promoting the idea of armed struggle against colonialism, the attempts to ignore her are well understood. But one feels sad that even the official departments of the country she fought for apologize politely for the lack of any information about Djamila, offering instead information about other personalities. I felt so bad when an official of an Algerian Embassy told me that the only thing they have about this lady is that her name comes in the list of martyrs!
The story of Djamila starts in fact in the year 1830, when France conquered Algeria as a result of a slight, committed by its ruler against a French envoy. The Algerians fought bravely, but they were unarmed and outnumbered. In the next five decades, most of their fertile lands were confiscated and granted to French settlers whose number reached quarter a million, while the number of the Algerian People diminished gradually.
A few years before the break of the World War II, France officially annexed Algeria as an African French Province. In spite of the Algerian people refusal of the French step, their youth were forced into military service to fight for France during the Second World War, the end of this war proved very bloody for the Algerians.
Peaceful demonstrations had been taking place for some months against the unfair treatment of Algerians (an oft-mentioned example was the reservation of bread for Europeans, the others only having the right to barley) and 15,000 people had protested in the streets of Mostaganem earlier without any incidents. But this was to change very soon, as in response to street protests the French Army committed a genocidal massacre at Setif.
On May 8, 1945, a day chosen by the allies to celebrate their victory over Nazi Germany, thousands of Algerians gathered near a mosque in Setif for a peaceful march - for which the Authorities had given permission. It was a market day. A few minutes later the crowd, chanting nationalist slogans, came under fire from troops brought in from Constantine.
The scene soon turned into a massacre - the streets and houses being littered with dead bodies. Witnesses claim terrible scenes, that legionnaires seized babies by their feet and dashed their heads against rocks, that pregnant mothers were disemboweled, that soldiers dropped grenades down chimneys to kill the occupants of homes, that mourners were machine gunned while taking the dead to the cemetery.
A public record states that the European inhabitants were so frightened by the events that they asked that all those responsible for the protest movement should be shot.
The carnage spread and, during the days that followed, some 45,000 Algerians were killed. Villages were shelled by artillery and remote hamlets were bombed with aircraft.
A Colonel in charge of burials being criticized for slowness told another officer: “You are killing them faster than I can bury them.”
The Setif incident and many similar ones taught the Algerians a very important lesson: The French would never give them their freedom if they do not fight for it.
Against this background, Djamila was born and raised into a middle-class family. She was educated in a French school but became drawn into the underground nationalist struggle by her brother. She was at that time a very dashing young girl with a lot of brains and rare beauty.
During the Revolution she worked as a liaison agent for the commander Saadi Yacef.
There are also unconfirmed reports that she was at some time in charge of armed operations in the capital, Algeria.
The Algerian Revolution of 1954-65 was one of the most powerful of the post-World War II anti-colonial struggles that swept Asia and Africa. The first action of the FLN (National Liberation Front) was a Nov. 1, 1954, guerrilla attack against French forces in the Aurès mountains of eastern Algeria. This took place just six months after the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in Vietnam - an event that spelled the end of French domination of Indochina and accelerated the disintegration of the French colonial empire.
The liberation struggle, which included armed attacks against all aspects of the colonial regime, won widespread support among villagers. In the cities, the FLN quickly won solid backing. The Casbah, a working-class district in the capital city of Algiers, where support for the FLN ran high, became famous as a no-go zone for the imperialist forces. Massive pro-independence demonstrations swept Algerian cities in 1960, making clear to the French government the determination of the Algerian people.
France threw the full weight of its modern army, supplied with the latest weapons from NATO against this liberation struggle. In the seven-and-a-half-year war more than 400,000 French troops-including almost two-thirds of the air force and half the navy- were engaged in the war. The French also used the most refined counterinsurgency methods. In addition to planes, tanks, and a naval blockade, they used electrified barriers to seal off the borders of Tunisia and Morocco, operated dragnets to isolate the rebels, and wiped out more than 8,000 villages in a scorched-earth policy. They employed the most sophisticated and diabolic methods of terror, espionage, and torture in the attempt to smash the liberation movement.
Casualties were extremely high. Two and a half million people were displaced as a result of the war, and more than a million deaths were directly attributed to it. More than 300,000 orphaned children flooded the cities, while 300,000 other Algerians were driven into Tunisia and Morocco, where they became an additional base of the liberation struggle.
Djamila Bouhired was destined to be one of those casualties. She was captured in a raid and accused of planting bombs responsible for many deaths in French restaurants in Algiers. After considerable torture she was tried, convicted and sentenced to death in July 1957.
But her French lawyer, a strong believer in the right of self-determination of peoples, was not ready to concede defeat in the comic trial. Jacque Verges, the lawyer, who later on won international fame for his role in Djamila’s and other cases, waged a public relation campaign that reached even the remotest village all over the world. Under the overwhelming pressure of world public opinion, the execution was postponed, and in 1958 she was sent to the prison in Rheims.
After many defeats and following huge losses of life for both sides, the Evian Agreements were signed in May 1962, proclaiming the independence of Algeria. However, a few months earlier, while negotiating the agreements, France began gradually releasing the thousands of Algerian prisoners. When Djamila was released, and within a short period, she has married her lawyer who embraced Islam and took the name of Mansoor.
After the independence, Djamila became the Chairwoman of the Algerian Women Association, but she had to fight an uphill battle for every single resolution with the then president, Bin Bella. It took her a couple of years to decide that enough was enough, and to leave the political arena. She continues to live in Paris as a devoted housewife, but at the same time, her very rare public appearances have proved that the world still regards her as the symbol of national liberation.