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Abandoned Cemetery Highlights France's Colonial History

Family groups have been calling for the excavation of land believed to hold the bodies of at least 50 children — the sons and daughters of Algerians who fought for France — who died in internment camps.

Toys and flowers mark the field where Algerian Harkis children are believed to have been buried near the former St.-Maurice-l’Ardoise military camp. [Credit: Mauricio Lima]


Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle

December 24, 2023


Nestled amid the vineyards in a picturesque region of southwestern France known for its sweet wines and goat cheeses is a fenced-off parcel of thorny, empty land, mostly avoided by nearby villagers other than the few who walk their dogs there.


The nondescript patch has become part of a national effort to address a painful episode in France’s colonial history: the treatment of the predominately Muslim Algerians known as Harkis who fought for the French during Algeria’s war of independence.


After the war ended in 1962, some of the Harkis and their families were placed in several internment and transit camps across France. They stayed for years in those camps, treated more as unwanted refugees in France than former soldiers, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, while the French government organized their relocations across the country.


In the early years, many of the children in these families, historians say, died in the camps, including one known as Rivesaltes, where about 21,000 Harkis passed through. Historians say they believe that the bodies of at least 50 of these children are buried under the dry soil of Rivesaltes, which is close to the Mediterranean and about half an hour’s drive from Avignon.


A much smaller number of adults also died in the camps; a few are also believed to be buried near Rivesaltes.


A stone memorial opposite the field near Rivesaltes lists the names of children who died there, without saying where they were buried. A nearby museum honors the memories of various groups of people interned in Rivesaltes at different periods — including Spanish Republicans and Jews during World War II, and then the Harkis — but there is no mention of the nearby burial site.


“It is absolutely vile,” said Hacène Arfi, 68, who lived in the camp as a child and has led an organization to assist Harkis. Walking through the field where he believes the remains of his stillborn brother lie, he said: “They didn’t do a serious job here. They just chucked a stone slab somewhere and decided it was enough.”


After pressure from families of people interned in Rivesaltes, the French government promised in October to excavate the land where the children’s bodies are believed to be buried. That pledge is part of a broader effort by the government to address how the Harkis were treated after the war, a conflict that remains a raw wound in France.


More than 200,000 Harkis were left to their fate in Algeria after the war and many were tortured and killed by the Algerian authorities, who saw them as traitors. About 84,000 Harkis fled to France — as did about 800,000 French Algerians of European descent — and met with a hostile reception.


The French Algerians of European descent were able to rent subsidized housing in modern buildings. Only the Harkis ended up in the camps.


President Charles de Gaulle promised the Harkis during the war that they would be incorporated into the French Army, but he later broke that pledge, saying he did not want his beloved town of Colombey-les-Deux-Églises (literally Colombey-the-Two-Churches) to turn into “Colombey-the-two-Mosques.”


Amid growing awareness in France in recent years about the plight of the Harkis, President Emmanuel Macron has made efforts to address their treatment, asking them for forgiveness and passing a law to provide reparations for the time they spent in the camps.


But the issue of unmarked cemeteries near camps where Harkis lived has never been fully addressed.


Historians estimate that from 300 to 400 Harki children died in the camps in the three years after the war. Most died as infants, said Fatima Besnaci-Lancou, a historian who has written several books on the Harki experience in France and who herself is a daughter of Harkis who spent years in the camps.


“What killed most was the cold,” Ms. Besnaci-Lancou said. “And the mothers were weak, they were in distress, having lived through war and then finding themselves in a camp.”


The last of the camps closed in 1975, and any cemeteries were abandoned.


After years of requests from Harki families, Patricia Mirallès, the minister for veteran’s affairs, announced in October that the cemetery near Rivesaltes would be excavated.


“There is hope that families will finally be able to recover the bodies of their loved ones,” she said in a statement.


Another cemetery in the area sits on the edge of St.-Maurice-l’Ardoise, another camp where Harkis and their families were interned. That cemetery was excavated in March. Archaeologists found the outline of 27 makeshift tombs there and opened two graves; infant remains were inside.


“We’d now like to run DNA tests to be able to put a name to each grave,” Ms. Mirallès said, a process that would require further excavation.


“They were buried like dogs,” said Nadia Ghouafria, 52, a descendant of Harkis, depositing teddy bears and flowers on graves at the cemetery, which is a two-hour drive east from Rivesaltes. “Now they are treated like humans again.”


In Rivesaltes, there has been no excavation yet.


The long wait for an excavation in Rivesaltes has been painful for people like Mr. Arfi, who also spent time growing up in St.-Maurice-l’Ardoise.


When he was 6, Mr. Arfi said, he watched his father bury his stillborn brother at the edge of the Rivesaltes camp after his mother gave birth in their unheated tent.


“We had nothing, only a bath towel to wrap him in,” Mr. Arfi said during an interview at a cafe in St.-Laurent-des-Arbres, the town where he now lives, a short drive from the two camps.


Mr. Arfi and others who grew up in St.-Maurice-l’Ardoise said the camp had no running water. The local prefect threatened to send misbehaving school students back to Algeria, despite their French citizenship.


During school vacations, they said, the children sometimes harvested string beans, cherries, tomatoes or grapes for local farmers, to earn money for their families. They spoke Arabic in the camp, living fenced off from the rest of France.


The closure of the camps was another traumatic moment for the Harkis and their families, thrusting them into a French society of which they had little knowledge, still deeply traumatized by the war and the isolation of the camp, with no psychological support.


In Rivesaltes, in the early 2000s, the gravestone of Abdelkader Attout, a 21-year-old Harki who died in 1963 after being hit by a bus, was shifted to the town’s official cemetery with no warning, his family said. The family also said local authorities would not confirm whether his remains had also been moved.


Local officials did not respond to an email seeking comment, but in a recent statement, Ms. Mirallès, the minister for veteran’s affairs, said that the government’s own archival research had not determined the whereabouts of Mr. Attout’s body, and that officials would “seek to accompany the family” on its “legitimate quest for truth.”


No date has yet been set for the excavation at Rivesaltes, and Harki families are waiting impatiently. They say, though, that even this will not be enough to completely heal their scars.


“Us Harkis, we are psychologically unwell, to this day,” said Rachid Guemrirene, who grew up in the same camps as Mr. Arfi. “It is impossible to heal.”


© 2023 The New York Times Company

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