The End of Illusions, Part 2
by Ryan Miller
Read Part One
Early one Saturday morning before Christmas in 1961, my mother had sent me out to pick up a few things we needed. For days a cold and bleak rain had been falling without cease. At the pâtisserie on the Rue Saint Augustin, I waited by the glass display case while Madame Planche boxed the vanilla éclairs my mother and I both fancied, and available only on that one day of the week. I stood next to a woman and her son, a boy maybe twelve on crutches, his left leg amputated above the knee.
Outside, a black Citroën DS skidded to a quick halt. Two men, both with a military bearing though dressed in civilian clothes, jumped out of the toad-like car and approached a man hunched beneath an umbrella and scurrying down the puddled sidewalk with sloshing steps. A curt discussion ensued, then the shorter of the men from the Citroën raised a pistol. A single shot to the head and the man slumped slowly to the ground, blocking the alcove that gave entry to the pâtisserie. His umbrella was caught by a sudden gust and scudded into the street.
It was necessary to step over him to leave.
I was then seventeen and I had become accustomed to death and mutilation in its most gruesome forms. I was indifferent to the cadavers left for hours on the sidewalk. On some, the faces were covered with a creased newspaper. On others, flies brawled about the startled, open eyes. I had long stopped noticing the large, brownish stains on the sidewalks as anything out of the ordinary.
Death was an everyday event, something that occurred between an errand to the bakery for a baguette and a stop to buy meat for the evening meal.
My life too had changed. The previous five years had been eventful, savage and unrelenting. The Algerian war was a somber episode, marked by continuing and escalating bloodshed, terrorism and torture, betrayal, abandonment, and confusion. Algiers was mired in an atmosphere of civil war and fear with the spiral of random violence ever widening.
The OAS (Organisation Armée Secrète) emerged in 1961 as a clandestine and radical splinter group of the French military opposed to the independence of Algeria, a notion that France had already long conceded as inevitable. Its members were united in a vehement refusal to negotiate with the FLN and a hatred for de Gaulle. They viewed him as a coward and a liar who had betrayed the French in Algeria -- Algeria, not just a colony, but a département of France, a very part of France itself. In response to the actions of the FLN, the OAS initiated its own strategy of aggression directed against anyone, Muslim or European, who opposed its purpose and methods.
At first, the pieds-noirs -- those born in North Africa of French ancestry -- regarded the OAS as a savior. We welcomed an armed movement that would preserve the culture and the lives we had made for ourselves here. I too had put my trust in this dream. Initial approval was widespread throughout the French community in Algeria. Their tactics, though reprehensibly cruel, were seen as necessary. We reserved our pity for our own victims and maintained a blind faith in the OAS.
They drew on an arsenal of terror including knife attacks and drive-by shootings, and of course bombings. They targeted public buildings, train stations, and any facility associated with the French forces of order. Less lethal methods used to capture popular opinion were propaganda in the form of newspapers and posters, radio and television broadcasts; also blackmail and the infiltration of political organizations. The OAS was funded in large part through bank robberies and protection rackets, and they enjoyed a dominant presence in the police department of Algiers.
- - -
In the spring of 1962, the situation reached a critical point. Since the beginning of that year, the last of French rule, we rarely left the apartment -- my mother going out only very early in the morning to shop for food and whatever necessities daily life demanded. Her task was not an easy one. Many stores had closed -- their owners had fled to France -- and those still open frequently ran out of food. Shortages of all kinds were commonplace.
I had stopped attending my classes shortly after the New Year.
My father continued to go to work each morning, and my mother and I were plagued by the fear that he would not return. At night I lay in my narrow bed, unable to sleep, and counted the explosions, then listened for the sirens that followed. I was able to distinguish mortar fire from a detonation of plastic explosive or that of a grenade. I listened carefully to the explosions in an attempt to pinpoint both their type and their location; how close, how far away, gauging my relative safety. This had become habitual.
On March 19th, the cease-fire declared between France and the FLN did nothing to reassure the pieds-noirs. Along with the report of the cease-fire, a referendum on granting independence was announced for July 1st. The referendum foretold the end of French Algeria, for no one doubted the outcome of the vote.
The OAS went berserk, reacting with a vengeance against the accord. They embarked on an intensified offensive of terror that eclipsed all earlier efforts.
The insanity culminated a week later. The OAS had disingenuously called for a general strike and a peaceful march on Bab-el-Oued for Monday, March 26th. French authorities announced repeatedly over the radio that the demonstration was forbidden. Trucks equipped with loudspeakers roamed the streets and reiterated the proscription.
Thousands made up the human tide that turned out at the Plateau des Glières near the main post office to march in a manifestation of support to keep Algeria in French hands. Shots rang out as the front rank of demonstrators, carrying French flags and singing "La Marseillaise," forced their way past a single line of nervous, young conscripts at the entrance to the Rue d'Isly. It was not clear who fired first, but the French military responded with machine guns and automatic rifles. Some reports claimed that soldiers were seen shooting at point blank range, and that many of the victims had been shot in the back. The full truth of what happened has never been discovered. The sole indisputable fact was that it was a massacre -- eighty-two killed and over two hundred wounded.
It was simpler then to believe the unbelievable, that those wearing the uniform of the French army had fired without provocation on a group of unarmed civilians of French origin. Only much later did the idea occur to me that the crowd, carefully manipulated by the OAS, had fallen into a Machiavellian trap, intended to muster support for the OAS and to erode that for France.
The plan backfired. Confidence in the invincibility and the infallibility of the OAS dwindled greatly following the events on the Rue d'Isly. Few seriously continued to believe that the OAS could still accomplish its objectives. March 26th signified for us the end of all illusions, yet, it did not represent the end of violence.
The OAS would multiply its efforts to demonstrate that it could still destroy -- it could no longer do anything else. April was deadlier than March, and May even more so. The month of June was a spasm of uncontrolled havoc and disintegration.
In late May, the OAS had set fire to 40 schools, part of its terre brûlée tactic. On June 7th, a particularly ruthless day, the national library was set ablaze -- 600,000 books were lost -- another ten schools were bombed, as were the market at Bab-el-Oued, the Hôpital Mustapha, and the central laboratory of the Ministry of Health.
- - -
At dinner one night my mother said, "We must leave."
My father nodded solemnly. "Yes, I know."
At the beginning of May the OAS had issued an interdiction against the European population leaving Algeria. Those caught attempting to flee the country would be killed.
In silence I glanced from one sad parent to the other. To leave, to get out of this country devastated by violence and hatred had become, I realized, an unspoken obsession. For too long we had looked forward, somewhat stubbornly, to a conclusion of the war that would have been favorable to the French. My parents had at last given voice to their fears and to the unmitigated loss of their desperate optimism.
"It's not enough just to want to leave," he said. "It's a question of knowing how."
An explosion nearby shook the building; windows rattled in their sashes and dust fell from cracks in the plaster ceiling. The lights flickered once, again, then went out.
- - -
Late one afternoon in the middle of June, my father came home and said, "We're going tomorrow."
The news was both a sudden surprise and long-anticipated. He had done like everyone else, fearing betrayal and the long hand of the OAS, he had spoken to no one. Like our neighbors and friends, who had also dreamed that they would be able to remain in their homes, we would quit Algiers without a word.
Four years earlier, on June 4, 1958, my parents had taken me to see de Gaulle speak. We stood among an uncountable number in the Place du Forum. It was early evening, still warm and humid and bright. He stepped onto the balcony of the Gouvernement général, and was greeted by the cheers of the crowd. At this time de Gaulle had only friends in Algeria. He stood for a long time, listening to the uproar. Finally, he raised his arms in a V, calling for silence. He began with four words, "Je vous ai compris." A rousing ovation followed, and de Gaulle again had to wait. It was a brief speech, carefully crafted and seeming to say all the right things. When he had finished, we joined in screaming an enthusiastic, a rousing, "De Gaulle." Our cries of approval and our applause lasted a very long time.
It was a heady, euphoric moment that had given us reason to believe that our expectations were not unwarranted. Yet, from that day, de Gaulle began to shift the orientation of his policies toward Algeria by nuances that were at first barely perceptible.
The pieds-noirs were now an abandoned population. Having lost hope, we, my family, joined the massive exodus. We each left with only a single suitcase, preoccupied with fear, fear of the OAS, the fear for our very lives. The fear of losing everything we had and that of not knowing what would come after tomorrow.
We rose the next morning and ate our breakfast in silence. During the night, in darkness, I had carried our bags down to our car, a Simca Aronde, and put them into the trunk. At noon we began the trip down to the airport at Maison Blanche in a state of extreme anguish. All of us in the car knew that the very real possibility existed that we might not make it to the airport alive.
We drove across town, past the sandbag emplacements topped with barbed wire, past the jeeps stationed at intersections, the soldiers behind their machine guns alert to any stimulus. Tanks were parked near government buildings and the university. Deserted stores had their grilles down, lowered for good. Business offices were ignominiously shuttered. Windows, some broken, others covered over with cardboard and plywood. Many buildings bore the ugly scars of warfare, façades pocked by the fire of automatic weapons, some structures more severely damaged by heavier armament, and others very badly gutted and calcined by flame. Slogans and symbols painted on masonry, those backing the OAS were answered by others in support of the FLN. Patrols of soldiers on foot were everywhere. There were few pedestrians and little traffic. Algiers, la deuxième ville de France, gave all the signs of a city in a state a siege, an exhausted, defeated city on the verge of collapse.
The morning that Monsieur Lurçat had written that doleful sentence announcing the fate of Dien Bien Phu came to mind. Until that moment, I had shared the conviction that France would someday regain the glory of its past. That moment was when I recognized for the first time that the pretty picture of the world that I had held -- the beautiful, benign world and all its marvelous possibilities -- was defective. It was also the moment that the seed of doubt had been planted. I had seen that France had been unable to hold onto Indochina, and I feared that someday Algeria might indeed follow the same path. This notion was in such opposition to my natural propensities as a French citizen that, at that young age, I could not even begin to comprehend it.
The road leading to the airport, the Route Moutonnière, was jammed bumper-to-bumper. We advanced slowly. Along the side of the road I saw the burnt out hulls of scuttled cars, some still smoldering, grayish-black smoke rising in thick plumes. I leaned my head out the window and peered ahead. As far as I could see, the highway was lined with blackened automobiles. Unable to get them out of the country, their owners had burned them in a final act of defiance. Nearer the airport, an untold number of them had been pushed into heaps in the surrounding fields.
My father pulled into an opening on the shoulder and drove as far away from the roadway as he could and turned off the ignition. He removed our luggage from the car, then a red can of gasoline. My mother and I stood aside. He poured the fuel onto the engine and into the trunk. He splashed a generous amount into the interior, onto the tires, and onto the paint he had always so faithfully kept polished. When the can was empty, he spread the contents of two boxes of matches all around. He stared at his car, shaking his head glumly. After a long moment, he came to me and handed me the third box.
"I can't do it," he said.
I had never known my father to exhibit a sense of incapacity.
I lit three matches at once and tossed them onto the neat plaid seats. I threw some more onto the engine and into the trunk. I felt the heat of the fire on my face as the gasoline ignited with a deep-throated clap, pulling the air away from me. I stepped back and stood near my mother and father. The three columns of flame became one and jumped high above the car. Very dense smoke rose in thick waves out of the interior. The bright red paint puckered, then quickly carbonized. The rear windshield shattered with a little explosive sound.
My mother appeared stricken and she held my father's hand. I glanced at him, his cheerless face had drained of all color. I placed my hand on his shoulder and held it there for a moment, the only gesture I knew to make to comfort him.
We picked up our bags and walked toward the airport.
- - -
We spent two sleepless nights on the floor of the terminal building, amid three thousand others -- perhaps more -- waiting to get a flight. We passed our days sitting on our suitcases.
We at last boarded the Air France Constellation that would take us to Marseilles. The gleaming, silvery plane taxied out and, my heart drumming furiously, I feared a mortar attack as we waited and waited at the end of the runway to be given clearance to take off. The plane accelerated noisily and lifted into the radiant North African light of late afternoon. In vain I searched for our car among the hundreds in an endless parade leading away from Maison Blanche. As the plane rose, the city came into view. The airliner banked to the north and ran along the coast. A feathery plume of wispy smoke rose from the area near the government buildings, from the forum where de Gaulle had once spoken. Another could be seen in the hills not far from the church at El Biar, still another on the quay next to where a dark-hulled passenger vessel was docked.
I watched for a very long while, seeing Algiers for the first time from the air and I realized how small it was, how vulnerable its beauty. Even before the dazzling white city of my birth vanished behind the triple-ruddered tail of the plane, I understood that I was seeing it for the last time.
The fabric of my past was interwoven with that of Algiers; they were inseparable. And at eighteen, I had the sentiment that my youth was already far behind me. What did I remember of the distant age of untroubled laughter and the spontaneous desire to smile, the fugitive days of irresponsibility and the untrammeled happiness of childhood? My memories were of friends murdered and maimed, and of those who had simply disappeared without saying goodbye. Memories of annihilation and pain, war and madness, and of a city I once thought of as my own, now thoroughly eviscerated.
My memories were of loss -- unequivocal and harsh and full of remorse. They were the memories of an old man.
About the author:
Ryan Miller has lived in New York, New Orleans, Fort Worth, and Paris. He lives now in Los Angeles. His work has appeared or is forthcoming online at, among others, Carve Magazine, The Paumanok Review, Cyber Oasis, Opium Magazine, 3 AM Magazine, The Dana Online Journal, Pig Iron Malt, Facets Magazine, The Starry Night Review, ken*again, and American Feed Magazine. In print his work can be found at The Raven Chronicles, Steam Ticket, The Wilshire Review, New Rag Rising, Shades of December, Indigenous Fiction, The Dallas Observer, and others.