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Saadi Yacef’s life was centered in the maze of narrow streets that form the Kasbah of the Algerian capital. It was here that he led a guerrilla uprising against colonial France, a key episode in the long and savage war that ended with independence in 1962.
Yacef, who died earlier this month at the age of 93, was the Algerian military leader of the National Liberation Front, or FLN, the organization that led Algeria’s struggle for freedom. He then transformed his memoirs of the 1956-57 battle of the Kasbah, written in prison after his capture and death sentence by the French, into the 1966 film. The battle of Algiers.
Yacef not only produced the film, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, he also played himself (under the name Djafar) and gained international recognition. The production’s widely acclaimed ideas about urban uprisings also led to its dissemination by the Pentagon, as well as by Palestinian groups and the Black Panthers.
Born in the Casbah in 1928, Yacef left school at the age of 14 to work in his father’s bakery, which was already a point of contact for activists from the Algerian People’s Party, the precursor of the FLN. In 1947, Yacef joined the Special Organization, an armed revolutionary group where he first established his reputation as an Algiers-based fighter. In 1949, he moved briefly to France, but on his return to Algeria, he resumed contacts with the anti-colonial militants of the Casbah. In 1954, when the FLN launched an appeal to the Algerian people to unite behind their fight for independence, Yacef was invited to form a commando.
“He was a simple guy from a working-class background,” says Nacer Djabi, an Algerian sociologist. “The revolution changed his life and gave him an important role. It was a time when the great leaders of the FLN were welcome in the Casbah.
In June 1956, after the French guillotined two FLN prisoners, Yacef fighters carried out a series of assassinations against French targets. Dozens of people, including police officers, were killed. In response, a group of extremist French settlers, acting in collusion with the police, planted a bomb in the Casbah that killed some 75 Arabs. The FLN responded with a bombing campaign, launched by Yacef. He recruited a trio of young FLN activists who managed to sneak through French checkpoints with explosive devices in their handbags, which they dropped off in European cafes and at the Air France office.
“At the first bomb I felt no mercy, absolutely nothing,” Yacef said. in an interview in 2004. “I did it because I was there when the Casbah bomb exploded. I felt it was revenge, part of the rules of the game. He later said he felt remorse after a bombing at a nightclub frequented by French soldiers, but admitted that when the French executed five other Algerians, “I did it again. . . I forgot my tears and made 13 bombs that day ”.
With the French police unable to control the uprising, Paris deployed thousands of paratroopers in January 1957, who crushed it within months. Yacef was arrested in September and in October the Battle of Algiers ended when the French surrounded and blew up a house in the Casbah where militants were hiding. Among those killed was Ali La Pointe, a central figure in the uprising.
The Battle of Algiers may have been lost, but news of the brutality of the army and the systematic use of torture has deepened unease over the occupation in France. “The liberal French intelligentsia has become an actor in the drama, and all of France’s Algerian policy has begun to be discredited,” explains Hugh Roberts, historian of Algeria and professor at Tufts University.
Yacef had also helped to draw the attention of the international community to the plight of the Algerians by helping to organize a general strike called by the FLN in January 1957. “It proved that when the FLN spoke, it had the support of the people” , says William Quandt, author of two books on Algeria.
After his arrest, Yacef was sentenced to death but was eventually released after the ceasefire with the French in 1962. Although he recognized his role during the struggle for independence, over the years, some of his former comrades questioned whether the information he gave the French after his capture may have led to the murder of La Pointe, who is still an iconic hero in Algeria – accusations Yacef has always denied.
“The Battle of Algiers contributed a lot by relieving the fighters in the mountains and bringing armed operations to the cities and helping to internationalize the struggle,” Djabi said. “There have always been questions as to why he was not executed, but no answers.”