Spanish Anarchists in Exile in Algeria

On 19 March 1939, my father was forced to flee Spain due to the victory of Franco’s troops. With him went his partner and two children, which was unusual, for the vast majority of fugitives had been forced to set off alone as per instructions from their trade unions or, more rarely, for personal reasons.

I was seven years old at the time. The war that ended in defeat for the anti-Francoists lingered as the backdrop to my childhood. All I can remember of it are a few striking eruptions. On the other hand, I spent the long period of exile that followed surrounded throughout my childhood and early youth by comrades who had themselves also been landed in Oran, then a French colonial port, from a trawler in March 1939.

Our exile started once we were ashore. The French police were waiting for us on the dockside. We found ourselves being treated, not as fighters against fascist rule, but as common criminals. We were lashed and scattered through concentration camps, some of us never to return. The camps in Colomb-Bechar, Boghari and Djelfa were nothing better than punishment centres. My father spent six months in Boghari, at the end of which he was transferred to Carnot where his wife and two children had been waiting for him to be released from prison. Carnot was a family reunification camp which I have to admit could not be compared with the sinister prisons named earlier. My father eventually secured a certificate allowing him to take up a job at a hairdressers’ in Orleansville and we were allowed to leave Carnot after an enforced stay of over a year. Fleeing the malaria raging on the Cheliff plains, we moved on to the capital, Algiers where a number of other comrades had also sought refuge.

It was in Algiers that I grew up. I shared the life of my exiled elders, targeted for all manner of problems reserved for outsiders and driven by just one hope: of returning to Spain once Franco had been overthrown. Of itself, this obsession of theirs explains their stand-offishness as a cultural group; they kept out of the events that were to shape Algerian history. But there were ideological grounds to for this undeniable remoteness (on the part of the libertarians at any rate) from a land that they regarded, right up until the end, as simply a place of transit, and from its inhabitants.

In fact, when the colonized rose in violent revolt against their colonizers in November 1954, a ferocious seven year war ensued. During which terrorism and a trail of bereavement, hatred and thirst for vengeance would become standard practice. The libertarian “Spanish refugees” would take no part in the conflict, although right from the start they were sympathetic to the fact that the oppressed had finally rebelled against their colonial masters. But they could not see how their own struggle could be squared with a fight for national independence and the creation of an Algerian state. During rare contacts with the local leadership of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the comrades tried to persuade them that all their people would be doing would be exchanging one master for another, an Algerian exploiter for a French one. They also criticized the complacency with which the Movement played along with the Muslim religion. And they disapproved of the rebels’ tactics of using terrorist outrages as a fighting method, something that was to lead to their murdering more than one of our comrades on the grounds that he was a “roumi”, a European like all the rest. This reflected a sordidly racist, inhuman behaviour like the one that drove their colonialist opponents. In short, the Spanish libertarians could not see anything in that struggle around which to mobilize. In Spain, they had fought for an end to capitalist society and to install a regime of exemplary justice for all the peoples of the earth.

Besides, had they, in spite of everything, thrown their weight somehow behind the uprising, they were still Spaniards, ie. foreigners, utterly forbidden to interfere with French government domestic policy. Breaching that ban amounted to illegal interference and that would have jeopardized their special residency status which entitled them to go on living in Algeria, or in France.

Finally, the last but undeniable factor preventing engagement with the insurgent movement was the aforementioned obsession they had with some day returning to Spain. After twenty years in exile, this still-vivid dream impelled them to devote all of their efforts to making a reality of that dream.

All of which explains of course why no history of the Algerian war, so far as I am aware, ever mentions the presence of Spanish refugees or tackles their stance on events in Algeria. Does that not mean that they should be lumped together with the masses of “Algerian French”? That is hard to say, they being “refugee Spaniards”. Nor can they be lumped with the pieds noirs. For the reasons set out, the libertarians never backed the cause of an Algerian Algeria, but it is equally true that they did actively oppose the criminal activity of the OAS, some at the risk of their lives, as in the case of comrade Suria who used to sell anarchist newspapers in a bars in Bab-el-Oued; he was murdered by OAS thugs and his remains dumped in a sack labelled “So perish all traitors”. But then again, as far as the libertarians were concerned, opposing the OAS which had secured support from Spain, boiled down to fighting Francoism rather than participating in the Algerian people’s national liberation struggle. Even though it is a fact that on the whole they had always been openly hostile to the colonial population which they held to be reactionary in political terms, their stance was a non-interventionist one. This fight was not their fight. They were neither for a French Algeria nor for an Algerian Algeria.

After the declaration of independence (and the Evian Treaty of 1962) the vast majority of the “Spanish refugees in Algeria” opted for exile in metropolitan France.

In my own case, having taken French nationality and become a teacher, I stayed on in Algeria to help out. This enabled me to witness the birth of the Algerian state and to see confirmation of the analysis earlier offered by libertarian comrades. The fellagha populace of the Mitidja, workers from Belcourt or Bab-el-Oued still worshipped Allah and found themselves under new masters. The only change was that they and the masters were now citizens of a now Algerian Algeria.

From: Translated by: Paul Sharkey.