assia - Women, Children, Oxen Dying in Caves In the spring...

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Unformatted text preview: Women, Children, Oxen Dying in Caves In the spring of 1845 insurrection begins to flare up again among all the Berber tribes in the western regions of the hinterland. The Amir Abd al-Qadir regroups his forces on the Moroccan frontier. After five years of hot pursuit, his enemies — Lamoriciere and Cavaignac to the west, Saint-Arnaud and Yusuf in the centre and Bugeaud in Algiers — think he has been finally routed. They begin to hope: could this be the end of the Algerian resistance? On the contrary, the fuse is being laid for a new explosion. A new young leader now makes his appearance: Bu Maza, ‘the Man-with—the—goat’, to whom an aura of prophecy and miraculous legends clings. Inspired by his preaching the tribes from the mountains and the plains rise up in answer to his call. War resumes in the region of the Dahra from Tenes to Mostaganem on the coast, from Miliana to Orleansville in the interior. In April, the Shaiif Bu Maza scores victories over both the armies that advanced from Mostaganem and Orleansville respectively. When they try to surround him in the centre of the massif, he despatches one of his lieutenants to attack Tenes. Saint-Armand no sooner hurries to save Tenes, than Bu Maza suddenly appears and seems about to capture Orleansville. Help is urgently summoned to protect this city. The Sharif then threatens Mostaganem. The Amir himself has never demonstrated such promptness in attack . . . Will this new prophet, Bu Maza, turn out to be merely Abd al-Qadir’s lieutenant or, surrounded as he is by a hierarchy of disciples, will he set himself up as an independent leader, owing allegiance to no-one? Nothing is certain, except for his style of attack, swift as lightning. As he travels through the Dahra, with his banners waving, bands playing before him, the people acclaim him as ‘the master of the hour’. 64 _._.§,.;,,.__.,1. 21.11“). _ f. .1? 15. p.13“..- ..—:-- :{M -'l‘-' Ffw—é—y- 1"» ~fi- ‘- 1, a _.$-;._p....-1i 4—H;—;§~i—n§-fi._ .A a. .1. a," pr a» ~£'=9--“':=1-o—--7 n—i “Hr—wi- swan: ” r :14"; "4+ {mm-«a —:1-r='-f-fi- 4?- .3: ’9! twin-— v"? ,§ 1k} e._..}:.«_. :1 “ _-f 1; He takes every opportunity of wreaking ruthless retribution on those Caids and Agas appointed by the French. In May, three French armies scour the countryside; they put down every insurrection, burn the rebels’ villages and property, force tribe after tribe to beg for mercy. Saint-Arnaud goes one better — as he boasts in his correspondence: he compels the BenisHindjes tribesmen to hand over their rifles. Never, in fifteen years, has anyone achieved . such a result. Bosquet, promoted head of the Arab bureau in Mostaganem, has an inventory drawn up. Saint—Arnaud’s seconds in command, Canrobert and Richard, supervise operations; even very ancient weapons are recovered, dating from the Andalusian exodus in the sixteenth century . . . More and more Irredentists are taken hostage and stagnate in the prison in Mostaganem, known as ‘The Storks’ Tower’, as well as in the Roman reservoirs in Tenes which have been transformed into jails. It is now the beginning of June. Field-Marshal Bugeaud (cnnobled with the title of Duke of Isly in honour of his victory the previous year) inspects the results of the repression: leaving Miliana with more than five thousand infantrymen, five hundred cavalry and a thousand pack-mules, he criss-crosses the Dahra. On 12 June he sails from Tenes for Algiers. He leaves his chief of staff, Colonel Pélissier, to complete the task: the tribes of the interior who have not yet surrendered must be forced into submission. Columns set out again from Mostaganem and Orleansville in a pincer movement; in spite of their co-ordinated efforts, they do not succeed in surrounding the elusive Sharif. They leave only scorched earth behind them, hoping to force the rebel leader to quit or dig himself in. On 11 June, before embarking, Bugeaud sends a written order to Pélissier, who is advancing towards the Ouled Riah territory. Cassaigne, the Colonel’s ADC, is later to remember the exact wording: ‘If the scoundrels retreat into their caves,’ Bugeaud orders, ‘do what Cavaignac did to the Sbeah, smoke them out mercilessly, like foxes!’ Pélissier’s army consists of half the Marshal’s strength: four infantry battalions, including one of foot chasseurs, to which are added the cavalry, one artillery section and one Arab goum from 65 the Makhzen tribe who have thrown in their lot with the French. During the first four days Pélissier concentrates his action against the Beni-Zeroual and Ouled Kelouf tribes, and rapidly forces them to surrender. There remain the Ouled. Riah tribesmen from the highlands, who retreat along the banks of the River Shaliff, so enabling the French column, two thousand five hundred men strong, to continue its advance. On 16 June Pélissier pitches camp at the place known as Ouled eIhArnria, where one of the ShariFs lieutenants holds sway. Orchards and homes are totally destroyed, houses belonging to the militant leaders are razed to the ground and their flocks raided. The next day the Ouled Riah on the right bank of the river initiate negotiations. They might be prepared to surrender. Pélissicr makes known the exact figure of the reparations exacted: the number of horses and rifles to be handed over. that are reckoned to be impossible to storm. These are situated on an abutment on the Nacmaria Jebel, in a promontory between two valleys, at an altitude of over 1,200 feet. Since the time ofthe Turkish rulers tribes have taken refuge with their women and children, flocks and munitions in these subterranean depths which run for more than 600 feet and open out on to almost inaccessible gorges. Their silos permit them to hold out for long periods and so defy the enemy. The night of 17 to lBJune is far from peaceful. Although Pélissier has had the orchards cut down around the encampment, native warriors crawl very close; there are many nocturnal alarms. The Orleans charisma are on the alert and beat off the intruders every time. At daybreak on 18june, Pelissier decides to make a move: he leaves part of the camp under the command of Colonel Renaud and despatchcs two battalions of infantry up the mountainside without their knapsacks; they are accompanied by the cavalry and the Makhzen gmmz, together with one piece of artillery and some mule~litters for bringing back any wounded. Ell—Hajj cl-Kaim’s Arab horsemen caracole in the forefront of this final march: they cannot resist performing their Fantasia. Is this not perhaps to disguise their anxiety in the face of these menacing heights 66 which they know to be inhabited? Some of the Arab troops have deserted during the hours of darkness (may they not have had some foreboding of the tragedy that is about to ensue?). Pélissier is determined to act swiftly. The leader of the Arab goum remains impassive. These last few days he has faithfully performed his role as guide, untiringly indicating every location and property. ‘There are the El—Frachich cavesl’ he cries to Pélissier, who is accompanied by young Cassaign and Goetz, the interpreter; he points to an overhanging plateau in the foreground of the barren countryside. ‘If they’ve gone to earth in their caves, we’ll soon be walking over their heads!’ he acids with a sudden burst of humour. For Colonel Pélissier the approaching dawn makes a solemn backdrop, befitting the overture to a drama. The curtain is about to go up on the tragic action; Fate has decreed that he, as the leader, must make the first entrance on the stage set out before them in this austere chalk landscape. ‘Everything fled at my approach,’ he writes in his detailed report. ‘The direction taken by a part of the native population was sufficient to indicate the site of the caves to which El—I-Iajj el—Kaim was guiding me.’ Pélissier is a master of strategy. After taking part in the Algiers landing he had published a text-book of military theory based on the observations he had made there. He then left Algeria, only returning in 1841, when he is stationed first in Oran. I-Iis reputation has preceded him; now he must live up to it. As soon as he reaches the EluKantara plateau overlooking the caves, Pélissier sends a reconnoitring party of officers to try to find an entrance opening on to the ravine: the main one is uphill. A howitzer is set up in front of it. A smaller entrance is discovered lower down. Each one is placed under the guard of a captain and a few carbineers; the cavalry is disposed under cover to charge any possible fugitives, the 6th Light Horse in the van, the Orleans chasseurs close to the colonel. These manoeuvres are not carried out without difficulty: some of the Ouled Riah are posted in the trees and hidden among the rocks to cover the entrance to the caves or take diversionary action. Their shots cost the French six wounded, including three non-commissioned officers; the seventh man to be hit dies 67 instantly: he is one of the Makhzen horsemen who dismounted to try to get nearer to the ravine ready to issue the challenge. Pélissier replies with a few shells. The men on the lookout vanish. The vice is closing on the refugees. The colonel orders faggots of dry brushwood and bundles of grass to be rolled down from the escarpment and set alight outside the upper entrance. But the cave slopes away inside, so that the task at which the soldiers labour all day turns out to be ineffectual. As soon as the heat of the burning mass lessens, the defenders nearest to the entrance open fire, shooting at random. By nightfall the besiegers are joined by those who had been left behind in the camp . . . Pélissier’s position may well become critical: the Ouled Riah, with cattle and provisions, can hold out for a long time; the French, on the other hand, have only enough supplies for three or four days . . . If the neighbouring tribes, which have already been subdued, get wind of Pélissier’s increasing impotence, may they not suddenly resume hostilities? How will they manage to retreat in this precipitous terrain? Already some of the Arab auxiliaries are smiling and whispering among themselves that they must be the laughing-stock of the Ouled Riah, who they imagine making themselves quite at home in the vast interior chambers. During the night - a bright moonlit night — ‘an .Arab carrying a guerba emerged from an exit which up till then had been hidden from us by a clump of thuyas; he was wounded as he tried to reach the water supply . . .’ They conclude that the refugees are short of water. Pélissier takes heart: on the morning of 19june he opens negotiations in the hope of reaching a settlement. At the same time he makes it quite clear that he is prepared to adopt strong measures if that is the only solution. Another exit has been discovered: it leads to the cave which opens on to the lower entrance. So this can be used for another fire. Bigger fires will be lit in both openings and this time the smoke will penetrate into the caves. Pélissier puts more and more men to cutting wood, felling the trees around about and collecting brushwood and straw, but he still does not ignite the fires; he prefers to get the final phase of the negotiations going. The refugees seem diSposed to surrender: at nine o’clock they send a first emissary; after they have held a council of notables, a second ()8 messenger arrives; a third finally asks for aman. They agree to pay the reparations demanded and to leave the caves; their only fear is that they will be taken hostage and kept in the infamous ‘Storks’ Prison’ in Mostaganem. Pélissier is surprised (coming from the general com- mand in Algiers, he is unaware of the wretched reputation of these jails); he promises to see that this fate does not befall them; in vain. The Ouled Riah are resolved to pay up to 75,000 francs indemnity but are reluctant to trust him on this last score. Goetz, the interpreter, is sent to translate Pélissier’s message. He again assures them they wili be allowed to go free. The deliberations last another three hours. The besieged are unwilling to surrender unarmed; they insist on the French withdrawing some distance away from the eaves. Pélissier, concerned about his prestige, will not accede to this condition. Goetz now delivers the ultimatum: ‘You have just a quarter of an hour to leave! No man, woman or child will be taken prisoner to Mostaganem! . . . In a quarter of an hour, we shall resume the work that was going on above your heads; then it will be too late!1 In his report, Pélissier stresses the fact that the period of respite was extended; he emphasizes the shilly~shallying on the part of the besieged; he writes, ‘I had reached the limit of my forebearance.’ It is one o’clock. Throughout the morning, while the negotiations were continuing, wood was still being collected. Pelissier also has the foresight to have platforms erected at the top of the El-Kantara spur, so that the brushwood can be thrown down more easily. So the fire is rekindled and the blaze fed throughout this day and the following night. To begin with, the fire burns up slowly, as on the previous day; the inflammable material had been thrown down in the wrong place. An hour after the resumption of operations, the soldiers hurl the faggots ‘correctly’. What is more, the wind rises and fans the flames; almost all the smoke enters the caves. The men are happy, they have plenty to occupy themselves with. They continue to stoke the fire until six o’clock on the morning of 20 june, that is for eighteen hours non-step. To quote the words of a French witness: ‘Words cannot describe the violence of the blaze. At the summit of El— Kantara the flames rose to a height of more than two hundred feet and dense columns of smoke billowed up in front of the entrance to the cave.‘ 69 On his return to Algiers, political considerations. T st grant them a quarter ofan ‘five times a quarter of an hour’ . . . Those wily, suspicious, hard-bargaining Muslims didn’t trust a F renc hman’s word. They preferred to rely on the security of their subte rranean second, an anonymous member of the company, describes the tragedy in a letter to his family that Dr Christian publishes. The Spaniard describes the flames —— two hundred feet high — enveloping the El-Kantara promontory. The soldiers, he states, shove wood into the cave —- ‘like into an oven’ — to keep the furnaces stoked throughout the night. The nameless soldier shares his vision with us, writing with even more violent emotion: ‘What pen could do justice to this scene? To see, in the middle of the night, by moonlight, a body of French soldiers, busy keeping that hellfire alight! To hear the muffled groans of men, women, children, beasts, and the cracking of burnt rocks as they crumbled, and the continual gunfire!’ The silence had in fact been broken from time to time by the sound of shots; Pélissier and his entourage had interpreted these as signs of internal dissension. But this inferno, which the French army gazes at in admiration as if it were a living, necrophagous sculpture, cuts off fifteen hundred people and their cattle. Is this Spanish witness the only one to put his ear against the rock, and overhear the paroxysms of death on the march? . . . I imagine the details of this nocturnal tableau: 2,500 soldiers keeping vigil, watching the progress of their victory over the mountain-dwellers . . . Some of these spectators no doubt feel avenged for so many other vigils! Oh, those African nights! The cold, the landscape congealed by the darkness, the sudden shrill yelp of a jackal! The invisible enemy never seems to sleep; horse—thieves daub their bodies with oil and slip into the camp, unhobble the animals, sow sudden panic, in the course of which sleepers and sentinels of the same camp kill each other. The alarm is sounded so many times in the night! In the local language, the alarm is called ‘the lion lashing its tail’ - and in this way the natives admit their fear of the royal beast, ‘The Nameless One’. The flames are still licking the side of the Eleantara promontory. The gunshots are followed by silence; a ripple of sound, then a distant hammering that eats into the heart of the mountain. The soldiers gaze upwards, waiting for the mountain to divulge the violent secret hidden in the rocks. Nacmaria, on the morning of 20 June, 1845. in the light of dawn, an unsteady figure — man or woman —— emerges 71 from the last glowing embers of the fire. It totters forward, pauses after a few steps, then collapses to die in the sun. Over the next few hours, three or four survivors stagger out to gulp down a mouthful of fresh air, before they too succumb . . . During the whole morning it is impossible to get near the caves which are surrounded by smoke and a quasi-religious silence. Each man wonders what drama was enacted behind these chalk cliff-faces which have been barely blackened by the lingering smoke: ‘The problem,’ the Spaniard adds in his account, ‘was solved.’ Pélissier orders an emissary to be despatched; according to his report, ‘he returns with several breathless men who give us some indication of the extent of the damage’. These messengers inform Pélissier as to the situation: the fumigation has wiped out the entire Ouled Riah tribe — 1,500 men, some of them elderly, women, children, flocks by the hundred and all their horses . . . The day after the fatal outcome, before he enters the caves himself, Pélissier sends in a detachment of about fifty sappers and an equal number from the artillery with their equipment, accompanied by two officers from the Engineers and two from the artillery. The Spanish officer is one of them. The carcasses of the animals, already in a state of putrefaction, lay near the entrance, surrounded by woollen blankets; the refugees’ personal effects and clothing are still smouldering. . . From there the men, lanterns in hand, followed a trail of ashes and dust to arrive at the first cave. ‘An appalling sight,’ writes the Spaniard. ‘All the corpses are naked, in attitudes which indicated the convulsions they must have experienced before they expired. Blood was flowing from their mouths; but the most horrifying sight was that of infants at the breast, lying amid the remains of dead sheep, sacks of beans etc.’ These ‘spelaeologists’ go from cave to cave. An identical sight awaits them everywhere. The refugees in these hidden depths have been totally exterminated. ‘This is a terrible tragedy,’ the Spaniard concludes, ‘and never at Sagonte or at Numance has more barbaric courage been displayed!’ Now, in spite of the officers’ efforts, some of the soldiers start looting there and then: stripping corpses, making off with jewellery, burnouses, yataghans. Then the reconnaissance party returns to the colonel who is unwilling to believe the extent of the catastrophe. 72 More soldiers are despatched — it is now the afternoon of 21 June, the first day of summer 1845! Among them is the anonymous writer of the letter published by P. Christian: ‘I visited the three caves,’ he begins, ‘and this is what I saw.’ He, too, discovers the carcasses of oxen, donkeys, sheep, lying in the entrance; their instinct had driven them in search of the last breath of air that could penetrate from the outside. Amidst the animals, sometimes even beneath them, lie the bodies of women and children; some of them had been crushed by the panic-stricken beasts . . . The nameless writer lingers particularly over one detail: ‘I saw a dead man, with one knee on the ground, graSping the horn of an ex in one hand. In front of him lay a woman with her child in her arms. It was easy to see that this man had been asphyxiated, together with the woman, the child and the ox, while he was struggling to protect his family from the enraged animal.’ This second witness arrives at the same estimate: more than a thousand dead, not counting all those who are heaped one on top of the other, forming an indistinguishable mass; not counting the infants at the breast, nearly all of them wrapped in their mothers’ tunics . . . Some sixty moribund prisoners creep out of this subterranean tomb. About two score of them will survive; some of them are cared for in the field hospital . . . Ten of them are even set free! Pélissier explains that ‘by a providential chance, the most obdurate among the Sharif’s party succumbed’. Among the survivors are the wife, the son and daughter of Ben Nakah, one of Bu Maza’s caliphs for this region. These are the only prisoners that Pelissier boasts of! By the afternoon of 21 June 1845, the smoke over the promontory has dispersed. I ponder over Pelissier’s next order: ‘Bring them out into the sun! Count them!’ Perhaps, carried away by his determination to see the matter through, he may have added roughly, ‘Bring the savages out! Let’s see them all stark and stiff! Bring out their rotting corpses! Then we shall have won, we shall have made an end to it!’ . . . I can’t say for sure what 3116 military policy was; this is just a surmise; I am telling the story in my own way and is it so purposeless to imagine what motives these butchers had? What fascinates me most — more even than the progress through the dark caves, holding 1a nterns aloft to reveal the aSphyxiated victims — is 73 the moment when they bring out the carcasses and put them on display: ‘Approximately six hundred are brought out of the cave,’ the Spanish officer notes, and he emphasizes the distress of the colonel and his staff who all seem stunned, in a cold stupor. Six hundred members of the Ouled Riah tribe, laid out in the fresh air side by side, without distinction of sex or rank; notables with the poorest, fatherless orphans, widows, repudiated wives, swaddled babes at their mothers’ breasts or clinging to their shoulders . . . Corpses with smoke-blackened faces sleep, stripped of their jewellery and burnouses, but even more denuded by the silence which enfolds them. They will be neither washed nor wrapped in winding—sheet; there will be no wake held for one day or even for one hour . . . The Arabs of El-Kaim’s goum — who three days before had performed an incongruous Fantasia, all unaware of the tragedy to which it will be an overture — move warily away: the corpses lined up in wretched heaps seem to stare at them, to nail them to the mountainside, and they cannot escape from this curse as long as the corpses are not buried. The main body of the French company has remained at a distance. Except for the stretcher-bearers and the reconnaissance unit, the soldiers only glimpse this shambles from far off . . . The looted objects circulate, sold among themselves. Then words are exchanged: those who have been into the caves describe the tangled mass of corpses which could not be brought out. These Frenchmen begin to realize what a scene of carnage, what a necropolis lies beneath their feet . . . Did Pelissier himself enter the eaves personally? some ask. The third day of the tragedy is 22june, the day when the colonel makes his report. He is supposed to have said, as he emerged, ‘It’s horriblel’ Others report that he sighed, ‘It’s terriblel’ Be that as it may, he states, in the prescribed report: ‘These operations, Field-Marshal, are such as one undertakes when obliged to do so, but one prays to God that one will never again have to carry them out!’ So, Pélissier suffers, probably turning to pray to God . . . The troops comment on the outcome. On this twenty-second day of June, they enjoy the tangible results of the operation: numerous neighbouring tribes, including those members ofthe Ouled Riah who had withdrawn to the other bank of the Shaliff, the Beni Zeltouns, the Tazgarts, 74 Madiounas and Achachs, all send their delegates. They hand over their rifles and present the grade horse, the symbol of submission. Some of the soldiers are only too happy to forget the six hundred corpses exposed on the hillside (which the Makhzen loyalists eventually bury in a communal grave). They boast of their success in taking these caves which in three hundred years of Turkish domination had never been captured! Victory had apparently been won on this hillside. But the next day, 23 June, Nature has her revenge: the stench of death is so strong (ravens and vultures fly ceaselessly over the ravine, and the soldiers even see them carrying off the remains of human corpses!) that Pélissier gives the order, that same day, to move the camp half a league further away . . . As if the sun, the summer bearing down its incalescent burden, and all nature join forces to expel the French army. It is time to depart, the stench is too great. How can one get rid of the memory? The corpses exposed in the hot sun have been transmuted into words. Words can travel. The words, for example, of Pélissier’s verbose report, which arrive in Paris, are read at a parliamentary session, unleash a uproar of controversy: insults from the opposition, embarassment on the part of the government, fury of the warmongers, shame throughout Paris in which the seeds of the 1848 Revolution are germinating . . . Lieutenant-Colonel Canrobert, when posted to the garrison in this same Dahra region, will later deliver his judgement: ‘Pélissier made only one mistake: as he had a talent for writing, and was aware of this, he gave in his report an eloquent and realistic — much too realistic -— description of the Arabs’ suffering . . .’ Let us leave the controversy there: could the outcry in Paris over the report be nothing more than a political reaction? Thanks to his ‘too realistic’ description, Pelissier suddenly resurrects, before my eyes, those Ouled Riah who died in their caves on the night of 19 to ZOJune 1845. The dead woman found lying beneath the body of the man who was Protecting her from the bellowing ox. Because of his remorse, Pélissier keeps this corpse from drying in the sun, and these Islamic dead, dEPl'ived of the ritual ceremonies, are preserved from oblivion by the Words of his routine report. A century of silence has frozen them. 75 this new fumigation, to be Pelissier’s iml . .. No! the researcher finds the ccounts given by the descendants of the asphyxiated at least eight hun . v kept silent about this ruthless triumph- This is death indeed. To be interred in Saint—Arnaud’s caves and never exhumed' But, even he, this fine man, ' success of everything, ' leaders of the African No-one has been down into tl . . . I sent a confidential report to the Field—Marshal, stating everything simply, without any terrible poetry, nor any imagery.‘ Then he concludes emotionally on what is intended to be a poignant note: ‘Brother, no—one is more prone to goodness by nature and disposition than I! . . . From 8 to 12 August I have be conscience does not trouble me. I h tomorrow I shall do the sam Africa." on ill, but my ave done my duty as a leader and e again, but i have developed a distaste for 76 One of Bu Maza’s lieutenants, El-Gobbi, also wrote of these events — whether in Arabic or French I cannot say, as his account has not been found. However, twenty years later the contents of this document were noted by others, who in turn wrote of them. When Saint-Arnaud has completed his macabre task, he withdraws to a distance from Ain Merian, and stations his army there for some ten days. The natives dare not make a final attempt to rescue their entombed compatriots. However, one of Bu Maza’s disciples, who has a reputation in this region for amorous as well as military exploits, one ‘A‘i'ssa benjinn’ (a nickname that can be translated as ‘jesus, Son of the Devil’), this same Aissa arrives on the scene and addresses the other Sbcah tribesmen as follows: ‘Down below, there is a woman much beloved of me! Let us try to discover whether she is alive or dead!’ At his command the other fractions of the tribe clear the opening. Some ten or more victims stagger out alive. They had been in the upper galleries of the caves, ‘whieh’, Gauthier notes when he inSpects the scene, ‘make up a precipitous vertical maze’. In the other galleries, where the poisonous gases from the fumigation had lingered, they walked on corpses, so El—Gobbi tells us, ‘as on straw litter’. These they left entombed. On the site of the former Ain Merian encampment a settlers’ village was created, known as ‘Rabelais’. In 1913 Gauthier found a survivor of the fumigation there, an octogeharian who had been a boy of under ten at the time, and who had been one of those who had survived because Ai'ssa the ‘Son of the Devil’ wanted to free ‘a woman he had much loved’. And the university professor, carrying out his researches in peaceful colonial Algeria — Where men sleep, work, get rich on the turf fertilized with corpses — this academic can write when he has finished his research: ‘There are few things as distant from current experience as a fumigation . . . I am aware of my impartiality — I may say my dispassion — I don’t in fact see how a spelaeologist can be otherwise.’ Nearly one and a half centuries after Pe’lissier and Saint- Arnaud, I am practising a very Special kind of spelaeology, since in my descent into those dark caverns my only hand—holds are words in the French language — reports, accounts, evidence from the past. Could my exploration — contrary to BF. Gauthier’s 77 ‘scientific’ activities, be obstructed by a belated ‘partiality’? I am obsessed by the memories exhumed from this double necropolis, which spur me on, even if I feel I am opening a register of the dead, in the region of the forgotten eaves, for those who will never have eyes to read. Yes, I am moved by an impulse that nags me like an earache: the impulse to thank Pélissier for his report which unleashed a political storm in Paris, but which allows me to reach out today to our own dead and weave a pattern of French words around them. And Saint— Arnaud, too, whose letter to his brother, while breaking an agreed silence, lets me know the site of the cave—sepulehres. And even if it seems too late to open them now, so long after the ‘Son of the Devil’ sought for the woman he loved, those Cinnabar-red words still have the power to cut like a plough—share into my flesh. I venture to express my gratitude — however incongruous. Not to the first fumigator, Cavaignae, who was forced by Republican opposition to settle matters quietly; and not to Saint-Armand, the only real fanatic; but to Pélissier. After the spectacular, brutal killing carried out in all naiveté, he is overcome with remorse and describes the slaughter he has organized. I venture to thank him for having faced the corpses, for h aving indulged a whim to immortalize them in a description of their he approaches the victims when they have barely ceased their final twitches u not of hatred -— but ofa frenzied death—wish . . . ' butcher—and-reeorder, brandishes the torch of death which ill the scalding-house. Pélissier, composing his report on 22 June 1845, must have had some inkling that in writing of the war he is brushing the skirts of death with 78 wi ra cr fu in] be an we of flo thi an: its need of ceremonial, lighting on the footprints left by the dance of death. . . The whole countryside, the Dahra mountains, the chalk cliffs, the valleys with their charred orchards find their inverted mirror-image in the funeral caves. The petrified victims are meta- morphosed into mountains and valleys. The women, lying among the cattle in their lyrical embraces, reveal their aspirations to be the sister—spouses of their men who do not surrender. When Pe’lissier walks, a silent witness, through these caves which will be forever inhabited, he must have been guided by a palaeog— rapher’s instinct: in which strata of the amorphous mass of corpses and cries would he find victors and vanquished inextricably fused? After Pélissier emerges from this promiscuous contact with the fumigated victims clad in their ashy rags, he makes his report which he intends to compose in official terms. But he is unable to do so; he has become for all time the sinister, the moving surveyor of these subterranean medinas, the quasi-fraternal embalmer of this tribe which would never bend the knee . . . Pélissier, speaking on behalf of this long drawn-out agony, on behalf of fifteen hundred corpses buried beneath El-Kantara, with their flocks unceasingly bleating at death, hands me his report and I accept this palimpsest on which I now inscribe the charred passion of my ancestors. 79 :‘l ...
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This note was uploaded on 02/17/2011 for the course HIST 246 taught by Professor Holden during the Spring '11 term at Purdue University-West Lafayette.

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assia - Women, Children, Oxen Dying in Caves In the spring...

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