Rabah Sahili had just turned 19 when he arrived in central Paris for a peaceful protest by Algerians 60 years ago.
What he witnessed, he told AFP in an interview, was police savagery in a crackdown that has left dozens and possibly up to 200 dead, historians estimate. The official death toll at the time was three.
President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday condemned as “inexcusable” the crimes committed on October 17, 1961.
“The police and gendarmes displayed excruciating brutality. They were raging to do harm, ”Sahili said, his voice broken.
More than 30,000 Algerians had gathered to protest in Paris against the decision to impose a curfew only on the French Algerian minority in the country.
The rally was called in the last year of France’s increasingly violent campaign to retain Algeria as a North African colony. This coincided with a bombing campaign targeting mainland France by pro-independence activists.
On Saturday, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced that a minute of silence would be observed the next day – and every October 17 to commemorate the “martyrs” of the events of 1961.
Some have been shot. Others saw their bodies thrown into the Seine.
The separatist National Liberation Front (FLN) called on Algerian migrants from the western suburbs of the capital to gather in an emblematic square in Paris.
Other demonstrations were planned elsewhere in the city, and 10,000 police and gendarmes were deployed.
Sahili was arrested as he got off a train arriving in Paris from Hautmont in the north, where he and his parents had lived for years.
“We had to meet at Place de l’Etoile to start our peaceful demonstration. We had only one task: to make sure that none of the protesters had blunt instruments, ”he said.
– ‘It was wild’ –
“I was with a cousin when the police came across us. Because he was stronger, he tried to protect me, but he received an avalanche of blows with a stick and a baton which broke his leg, ”recalls Sahili.
He said people were being detained solely on the basis that they appeared to be Algerians.
“All Algerians leaving the metro were arrested … even some Italians, Spaniards and South Americans” were detained, he continued.
He noted that the police and gendarmes were acting on firm instructions to target French Algerians.
Sahili said they were all driven “with batons” to a nearby parking lot, while trying to avoid being hit on the head.
“They had such ferocity… It was savage, no more, no less,” said the former FLN member.
“At midnight, we were transferred to the Sports Palace, where we stayed for three days, under the surveillance of the police and the harkis (auxiliary forces),” he said.
The 9,000 people who Sahili said were being held in the sports dome were only offered a bottle of water and a snack.
Then they were taken to a “sorting center” in the suburbs.
– ‘Glacial cold’ –
“The camp was devoid of absolutely all services: no beds, no toilets. We were sleeping on the floor in freezing cold, ”Sahili said.
“I stayed there for a fortnight before I was allowed to go home.
“During the arrests, I saw about twenty people lying on the ground bleeding near the Place de l’Etoile. There were a lot of police and they were behaving like ferocious beasts, ”he said.
“Algerians were also thrown, some alive, into the Seine by the police, but we will never know the exact number of bodies carried away by this river,” Sahili recalled.
According to him, even before the events of October 17, a good number of Algerian activists “found themselves in the waters of the Seine” during police raids.
He recalled having participated in the rescue of a young activist thrown into the Seine, affirming that he had been found “at the last minute” and would have died without his youth and his health.
After Algerian independence in 1962, Sahili stayed in France for another two years before returning to his home country, where he made a career with the national airline Air Algeria.
For decades, French authorities covered the events of 1961, but Macron was the first president to attend a memorial for those who died on the day Sahili cannot forget.
© 2021 AFP