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Skulls of Algerian anti-colonial fighters repatriated from Paris museum

Remains of resistance fighters decapitated by French and taken as “war trophies”, have been in France since the 19th century
The repatriation move comes after years of campaigning by Algerian historians and politicians to have the remains of anti-colonial fighters returned (AFP)

Algeria will mark its 58th independence anniversary this week with the repatriation from France of the skulls of 24 Algerian resistance fighters. 

Placed in coffins draped with Algeria’s flag, the remains were carried by soldiers on Friday from Algiers airport, while a military band played a funeral march. A Muslim cleric recited a prayer for the dead.

The skulls of anti-colonial fighters, decapitated by the French and taken back to France as “war trophies”, have been kept since the 19th century in the Musee de l'Homme, an anthropology museum in Paris. 

Seven of those in the collection are remains of resistance figures dating back to the famous Battle of Zaatcha in 1849, in which over 1,000 people were massacred. The skulls include those of Sheikh Bouziane, who led the resistance during the Zaatcha siege, and Mohamed Ben Allel Ben Mbarek, the lieutenant of the national resistance figure Emir Abdelkader.

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"In a few hours, at the start of the blessed day on Friday, an air force aircraft will land at the Algiers Houari Boumedienne international airport transporting the mortuary remains of 24 leaders of the popular resistance and their companions," Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced Thursday.

Tebboune described how the resistance fighters "had been deprived of their natural and human right to be buried for more than 170 years."

The return of the remains to their homeland will be celebrated by an airshow over the capital Algiers by the Algerian air force, and then exhibited at the Palace of Culture before being buried at the El Alia cemetery on the country's independence day on 5 July. 

The repatriation move comes following years of campaigning by Algerian historians and politicians to have the remains of anti-colonial fighters returned. France has previously been accused of “procrastination” on the repatriation efforts after making a number of promises to do so over the last few years. 

In 2011, Algerian historian Ali Farid Belkadi launched a campaign for the return of the remains. It was followed in 2017 by another petition signed by several French and Algerian intellectuals - including historians Benjamin Stora, Mohammed Harbi and Malika Rahal. 

The same year, on a visit to Algiers, French President Emmanuel Macron, the country’s first president to be born after Algeria’s independence, announced his readiness to approve the repatriation of the skulls in an attempt to improve France’s relations with its former colony. 

In the same year, then prime minister Ahmed Ouyahia, who has just been handed a 12-year prison sentence on corruption charges, said France was also ready to hand over copies of its national archives of the colonial period between 1830 and 1962, but that has yet to come to fruition.

The different narratives of the war and the colonial period has remained a sensitive issue between France and Algeria since independence. Macron made waves in 2017 when he described France's colonisation as a "crime against humanity" and “genuinely barbaric".

An estimated 1.5 million Algerians were killed in the bloody battle for independence, which was eventually won in 1962. It was only in 2018 that France officially acknowledged its rife use of torture in Algeria. 

"We must face this common, complex past if we want to move on and get along," Macron said, alluding to historical links between Algeria and France.

Independence anniversary pardon

In addition to the release of the fighters’ remains, this week also saw over a dozen political detainees released as part of a presidential pardon.

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Among those released are leading Hirak and opposition figures, Karim Tabbou and Samir Belarbi, both of whom were rearrested shortly after being freed earlier this year, and activist Amira Bouraoui, who was given a year’s sentence last week. 

Journalist Khaled Drareni, former presidential candidate Rachid Nekkaz and the creator of a satirical meme page, Walid Kechida, remain incarcerated.

According to the National Committee for the Release of Detainees, almost 70 people are currently detained on charges linked to the protest movement against corruption. 

Alongside Ahmed Ouyahia, fellow former prime minister Abdelmalek Sellal was this week handed a 12-year prison sentence for corruption. Also sentenced was businessman Ali Haddad, once part of deposed president Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s powerful oligarch circle, who is set to serve 18 years in prison. 

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