How Two Young Female Freedom Fighters Joined Algeria's Anti-Colonial Revolt

The following is an exclusive excerpt from Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter by Zohra Drif (Just World Books, September 2017).

Drif recently retired from her service as Vice-President of Algeria’s Senate. Back in 1956-57, she and her friend Samia Lakhdari had both been militants in the armed struggle the Algerian nationalists of the FLN waged against France brutal colonial rule in Algeria, taking a key part in the real-life “Battle of Algiers” later memorialized in the iconic film of that name.

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In November 1954, Algeria’s pro-independence “National Liberation Front” (in French: FLN) launched a war of liberation against the French who had occupied and violently colonized their country since the mid-19th century. Among those happiest to hear of the war of liberation were Zohra Drif and Samia Lakhdari, two young Algerian students at the (French) undergraduate Faculty of Law in the capital, Algiers. Samia and Zohra soon tried to contact the FLN so they could join the movement. But given the weight of French repression, the independence activists had to work with tight operational security, so making even the initial contact with them was risky and difficult. The young women’s challenge was compounded by the norms of gender segregation that were strictly upheld by indigenous Algerians in that era, which made contacting the FLN activists—nearly all of them still male—even more fraught for Zohra and Samia. During their first year of studies they tried to make contact via a librarian they had met at the National Library, whom they suspected of FLN involvement. That attempt led nowhere, but they were determined to continue trying. 

The following year, the confrontations between the nationalist activists and the French forces, and between the nationalists and the settler-based “ultra” vigilante networks became even sharper, enveloping the university campus as well as many parts of the country. On the campus, as Mme. Drif notes in her memoir, “Besides fighting us, the ultras struggled with perhaps even more hatred against the progressive European students’ associations, among them Communists and Pierre Chaulet’s leftist Catholics.”

This excerpt starts as the atmosphere on campus became increasingly tense in November 1955:

The clashes with the ultras continued unabated and with increasing violence. Then, one day, the ultras launched a general strike to protest a measure announced by French Governor Jacques Soustelle that they felt was too favorable to Muslims… They organized what they called a “university blockade”: a human chain to wall off the campus and prevent all access. 

In response, the UGEMA [the Muslim Students Union] called on students to break the blockade, and the inevitable happened. We overtook their cordon by force, reaching the classrooms amid a confused melee of blows and insults in all directions. As usual, Samia and I used our big backpacks as shields, wrapped our heads with scarves to cushion any blows, and plowed into the fray like bulls. My brother Kader had already taught me all the best techniques for self-defense and breaking human chains, just in case. It was doubtlessly during one of these fights that some student had noticed Samia and me. Several days after the clash with the ultras, at the end of morning classes, a young man approached me and asked if I was Mademoiselle Drif. Of medium height, thin and well groomed, with the complexion and accent of a European, I figured him for a Spaniard. I immediately replied yes, and before I could even ask what he wanted of me, he introduced himself: “I am Boualem, the brother of your friend Saléha Oussedik.” 

Saléha Oussedik had been a fellow student, one year behind us at the Lycée Fromentin [a French residential high school in Algiers.] We knew her well and thought highly of her, since we had shared seats at the “pork-free table” for several years. She was an excellent student. Of course, I wondered what had become of Saléha after the baccalauréat, which she must have passed with flying colors the year after me. I asked in what university she was enrolled. Her brother Boualem, embarrassed, explained that their father had refused to allow Saléha to attend university, since it could not guarantee gender segregation as the Lycée Fromentin could. But he had conceded to her studying at the teachers’ training college in Bouzaréah, which offered girls-only boarding. Saléha had suffered greatly from her sentence, which she viewed as an enormous injustice, but it was unthinkable to oppose the pater familia; being a teacher, he said, was still better than being a housewife! I told him he had a lot of nerve to accept Saléha’s fate and then to come and speak to me, a young woman free to pursue higher studies as he was, at the university that was so “dangerous” for his sister. I turned my back on him and asked that he not speak to me again. 

I recounted the incident to Samia, proud of my reaction, which left me feeling like I had avenged our friend. But Samia reminded me that Saléha had talked often of Boualem, who was very close to her, very nationalistic, and full of ideas that their father considered dangerous for his son and his family. She reminded me of Saléha’s love and admiration for her brother, more specifically his courage and total commitment. Samia proposed that I resume contact with him; neither he nor our parents would find fault if we were to befriend him, since he was Saléha’s brother and she would surely have talked of us to him before. “I’m sure this time is it. He’ll be the one to put us in contact with ‘the organization.’ Zohra, you dream too much to observe closely, but I already knew what he looked like and recognized him among the shock troops in our battles with the ultras.” 

Thus it was decided to reestablish contact with Boualem Oussedik, and it was up to me, once again, to do it. I accepted without complaint, as the desire to do battle with our colonizers burned more strongly in me than any other consideration. A few days later, sitting in the same spot as the last time, I saw him climb the stairs. I rose, determined to finally broach the subject. It was disconcertingly simple. He explained that he fully shared and understood my reaction to the fate imposed on his sister, but that he had been unable to do anything to help her. Our conversation flowed from one subject to the next, and very soon we were chatting like old friends. We spoke of UGEMA and the AEMAN women’s group. I explained that, without doubting the sincerity of their nationalist convictions, I found their tactics out of sync with what was required. As students, favored by chance at birth, we owed it to ourselves to engage in the armed struggle, participate fully, and invest ourselves completely. I spoke at length, with passion but with composure, and Boualem Oussedik listened with unconcealed interest. When I had finished, I expected him to challenge me by defending the validity of the circles, articles, and UGEMA meetings, but to my surprise, he asked me on whose side I hoped to fight: The Mouvement National Algérien (MNA), the FLN, or the Parti Communiste Algérien (PCA)? I turned his question back on him: “If I told you the FLN, could you put me in touch with them?” He responded, calmly and ever confident, “I’ll try.” 

I couldn’t believe it. I stared at him, incredulous, searching for something to reassure me he was serious or, if not, a sign that I should melt into the ground from shame and fear. 

Boualem Oussedik did not flinch. His face, so cheerful at the beginning of our conversation, was now as stiff as marble. We parted, me mute and him repeating “I’ll try” in place of goodbye. We had spoken for two hours, like brother and sister. We shared the same identity, the same painful memory of the horrors and injustices our people had suffered for so long, and, most remarkable of all, the same desire to confront our colonizers. This feeling of fraternal solidarity and tacit collusion is not something one decides on, nor is it something one proclaims aloud. You just live it. We were about to live it as fellow combatants, all throughout the Battle of Algiers and our time in prison. But we would also live it with the majority of the population, whatever their social standing. 

When Samia joined me for class, she found me stunned and troubled. I fell into her arms and begged her to skip class so I could recount everything. Shocked but happy, she nodded and we skipped our classes for the first time. I recounted everything to her, down to the last detail—the discussion, questions, responses, the atmosphere, Boualem’s expressions, and his attitude, alternately playful and grave. I gave special attention to the last part of our exchange: his questions, my own in response, and his enigmatic final phrase, “I’ll try.” I concluded my account by telling Samia: “You know, Boualem Oussedik is just like you and me, or our brothers.” Samia gazed at me silently for a moment, then said, “If you feel this way, then it’s true! But we must not repeat our mistake at the National Library.” Why had Boualem spoken so frankly, listened so patiently, and left open the door to some future collusion? Samia put it down to our long friendship with Saléha. 

But we still couldn’t say with certainty whether we should rejoice. We concluded that from now on we would never again miss any classes at the university and that we would be there every day, even during our free time, in hopes of hearing his answer. We spent a week waiting in torment and were finally preparing to abandon hope when destiny came knocking. 

It was one of those beautifully sunny Algiers winter days. We were leaving the Morand Lecture Hall when we stumbled into Boualem Oussedik, who seemed to be holding the door an extra long time, perhaps looking for us. In a fun, playful mood, he spoke first, asking Samia, “If I’m not mistaken, you must be Samia Lakhdari!” Without hesitation and as naturally as can be, my friend extended her hand and said, “Yes, and you must be Boualem Oussedik, Saléha’s brother.” We exchanged some small talk before deciding to head out for a walk along Rue Michelet, which was packed with people. Without warning, the moment we had dreamed of for over a year was announced as if it were the most banal thing ever, by a grinning Boualem: “The two of you have an appointment at Laférièrre Square tomorrow afternoon at four o’clock sharp. You will go and sit on one of the benches, with the newspaper Le Monde resting visibly on your lap. A man will meet you.” 

Samia responded, “Laférièrre Square? That’s just a short walk from the university, across from the Grande Poste!” 

“Exactly,” he replied. 

Samia and I looked at each other, dumbfounded. I knew she was thinking the same thing as me: “An appointment at four o’clock, right in the heart of the European city, with an underground fighter?” Boualem wished us good luck, a smile pasted on his face, his left hand running through his tousled hair and his right outstretched to wish us farewell. Once we had reflected further on the message, we felt calm but somewhat skeptical. In fact, we were groggy, as if stunned by a punch. Before I had even expressed it, Samia responded to my wish: “Tonight, why don’t you just sleep over at our family’s house in Saint-Eugène, instead of in the dorm?” We needed to stay together. It was our first mission and we wanted so desperately to live up to the confidence placed in us. From that moment on, we were inseparable. We gave no sign to anyone of our meeting the next day, of course. We passed an almost sleepless night, before attending classes the next day as if everything were as natural, normal, and usual as could be. And then the moment of the fateful appointment arrived! 

Our Meeting

The next day was another beautiful day in Algiers. The late afternoon sun splashed across the treetops that shaded the small Laférièrre Square, where men and women with obvious European features crisscrossed incessantly. Le Monde in hand, we hadn’t yet sat down at one of the green wooden benches when a man, not too old but older than Boualem, strode up to us. “My God! It’s Georges Brassens!” I thought, referring to the famous French singer-songwriter. The resemblance was uncanny: this man had the same bald head, the same eyes, the same broad mustache hiding his mouth and square chin as the famous poet and singer. 

He addressed us simply: “Hello! You’re right on time. Shall we take a walk? It would be better this way.” We flanked him as we walked past the Grande Poste, then along the Rue d’Isly. It seemed as if he had known us forever. He asked us about our schedules, clearly already knowing everything about us and our studies. He asked us to tell him the days when we didn’t have classes, and afterward addressed Samia: “What is the latest time by which you absolutely must be back home in Saint-Eugène?” 

Our contact seemed perfectly aware of our state of total bewilderment. When he finally slowed to a stop and announced he was leaving us, he told us to call him Kamel, and to meet him three days later at the entrance to the law faculty, on the left. “Amid all the students, we won’t draw any attention.” And with that, Kamel left us, silent as statues. We headed for Samia’s house. We didn’t exchange a word the whole way. I had a heavy heart, conscious of the gravity of the decision we had made, of the decisive and significant turn our commitment—which until then was purely intellectual—had taken, and searched the depths of my soul for the strength and energy to meet the expectations of those who were placing such immense confidence in us. 

It was at that moment that I remembered my much-loved teacher at the lycée, Madame Czarnecki, speaking to me of the Warsaw Ghetto: “They did not resist with weapons, for they had so few. They fought with the strength provided by the conviction not to die for nothing, and the energy given by the hope that their certain death would save at least one, maybe two others.” Then Malraux came back to me.

Samia, who was in the same state I was, shook me from my memories, pushing me to hurry up because she was impatient to see her very supportive mother, Mama Zhor, and announce that the long-awaited miracle had finally occurred. In truth, we felt an irrepressible need to be reassured. And Mama Zhor, more than anyone else, had the ability to do so. We shut ourselves in her room and recounted what had happened, from yesterday’s meeting to this afternoon with “Brassens,” which is what Samia and I called our contact, Kamel. Before we even told her of our doubts and our need for reassurance, she let out a shrieking you-you-you-you in a traditional sign of celebration, and explained that we had been chosen by God to help bring justice for the umma of Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). Samia and I went rigid with fear that the neighbors would hear her you-you-you-you’s and come to inquire about the occasion, but she reassured us: “All the ladies nearby know that you study hard and hold your own against the French even in their own university. I will let everyone know that you just beat them in an exam.” 

A few ladies from the neighborhood knocked at the door as we had feared; Mama Zhor, undaunted, did exactly as she had said. Once back with us, she explained that she was not lying, because what we experienced was for her the greatest success in the hardest exam in the most difficult university: the university of our struggle against French colonization, begun way back in 1830 by her great-grandfather, the Emir Abdelkader! Mama Zhor succeeded not only in reassuring us of our strengths and abilities, but also in sweeping away all our doubts. She swore on the Quran that our secret would be forever safe with her. She assured us of her unwavering and unconditional support and urged us never to trust anyone but the brothers, Allah, and his Prophet. “Hold fast to Allah and this land that He has blessed: He will help you and protect you.” She spent the evening spoiling us with sweets and reassuring us. It was a very good, very long night. 

This excerpt is published here under a Creative Commons license by kind permission of Mme. Drif and Just World Books. Please reuse this material only with explicit acknowledgment of the foregoing publication details and in a not-for-profit context.

Excerpted from Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom Fighter by Zohra Drif (Just World Books, September 2017).

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