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Algerians celebrate their country’s independence in the centre of Algiers in July 1962. Photograph: AFP

The skulls of 24 Algerian freedom fighters, who resisted French colonialism in the middle of the 19th century, arrived in Algiers on Sunday. An emotional official and popular reception was organised for their arrival, which coincided with the 58th anniversary of Algeria’s independence. They were laid to rest at El Alia cemetery.

These skulls belong to fighters who were martyred during battles fought against the French occupation. Some were killed after they were arrested and their heads were decapitated and sent to Paris as war trophies.

Algerians know about the stories of these brave fighters, but know very little about what happened to them when their heads arrived in Paris, where they kept and how they ended up in the vaults of the French National Museum of Natural History.

It had been known that there are bodies of hundreds of Algerian fighters in France, according to the history Professor at the University of Algiers, Mohamed Arezki Ferrad, but information about these fighters emerged when the Algerian historian Ali Farid Belkadi found their skulls in 2011 and started to raise awareness about them, calling for them to be repatriated to the land they fought and died for.

Belkadi, who said that the remains of at least 536 Algerian fighters are still being held in the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris, launched a campaign in 2016 for the their return. Little changed. In 2017, another petition signed by several French and Algerian intellectuals made its way to Algerian and French officials.

Commenting on this, the Algerian-French historian Ibrahim Snoussi, who launched a petition calling on France to repatriate the skulls of the Algerian fighters in 2016, reiterated to Al Araby TV that Algerian state was not interested in bringing this issue to the light. He said that Algerian did not pay attention to the petition published by Belkadi in 2011. Regarding the petition he launched in 2016, he said that the Algerian government’s reaction did not give the issue the importance it warranted.

He said there were several reasons for this, including the common interests of France – as a former occupier of Algeria – and Algeria’s rulers – who are the remnants of the occupation.

The skulls belong to “great” fighters who stood up for the French atrocities in Algeria, today’s rulers “want them to remain forgotten”, Snoussi said. Of course, current rulers are authoritarians and those fighters fought authoritarianism. There is no difference between authoritarianism whether it is applied by foreign or domestic ruler.

 

I mean, if those fighters were resurrected today, they would fight the current Algerian rulers the same way they fought the French occupation. The French occupation killed more than 1.5 million Algerians and the domestic rulers killed tens of thousands over a couple of years in an effort to topple an Islamic party which was freely elected in 1991. They have been practicing oppression and suppression against Algerians until today. Stealing the recent popular revolution is a clear example for this.

 

Despite all of this, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune paid tribute to them as “heroes who confronted the brutal French occupation between 1838 and 1865.” He recognised their effective resistance against the occupier. “The savage enemy decapitated them in reprisals before transferring their skulls overseas so that their graves would not become a symbol of the resistance,” Tebboune said.

Algerian historian Ferrad explained why Tebboune celebrated them as heroes, noting that it was a national event which was imposed on him. Then, he told Algerian newspaper Al Khabar, the event was “exploited” to the serve the authority in the country. “The authority attempted to stabilise its shaky image before the public who had been awaiting a profound political change,” he said, noting that the skulls of the fighters were returned thanks to Belkadi, Snoussi and others academics, researchers and activists, not politicians like Tebboune. “I wish that Tebboune had mentioned Belkadi’s efforts,” he said.

Marking the 58th anniversary of Algerian independence, Ferrad, who was an MP between 1997 and 2002, revealed a draft law which was fought by the state in order not to be discussed by the parliament. The draft law, which should have been discussed by parliament in 2001, requested parliament criminalise the French occupation.

Nixing this draft proves that Algeria was handed over to French mercenaries, not independent fighters, who have been protecting French interests in the country. “Sovereignty of Algerian state will remain incomplete as long as the French occupation is not criminalised,” Ferrad said, adding: “It is the right of Algerians to connect between nixing this draft law and the retention of the French domination over the land of martyrs, whom everyone glorifies their legacy.”

Changing the ruling regime in Algeria and criminalising the French occupation will surely reconnect Algeria with its brilliant past when the Algerians fought the occupiers for the sake of their freedoms. Reviving the history of the freedom fighters through returning their skulls to their homeland revived self-confidence among Algerians.

This is the real and long-awaited reconnection between the current Algeria and its past. Such reconnection is not desired by the ruling regime because it would move them to the bin of history and bring greatness and glory to the Algerian people.