The Algerian War: memoirs of an ICRC delegate

19-05-2011 Interview

Pierre Gaillard, the ICRC’s former Delegate-General for North Africa and the Middle East, reminisces about his activities during the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). This article was published in the magazine Al-Insani in October 2010.

At what point did the ICRC become involved in the Algerian conflict?  

At the outbreak of the events in 1954,  I suggested to the ICRC that we take action on behalf of prisoners. It was necessary to approach the French government, which was not so easy; Algeria consisted of three French departments. For the French, it was an “internal matter.”

We had a special advantage: the president of the Council of Ministers at the time, Pierre Mendès France, was open to the steps taken by our delegate in Paris and agreed that the ICRC should be authorized to visit places of detention in Algeria and Morocco. The president of the ICRC at the time, Paul Ruegger, was a visionary who had convened two meetings in Geneva of international experts (lawyers, politicians, and so on). These meetings, which dealt with internal disturbances and aid to political detainees, had culminated in written conclusions that the ICRC had published in the form of booklets. To some extent, the booklets laid the groundwork for the development of international humanitarian law (IHL), which was later enshrined in the 1977 Protocols additional to the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The conclusions of these expert commissions, in particular those concerning aid to political detainees, were what we relied on in formulating our request to the French government. They helped us describe the action that the ICRC wished to take in Algeria and Morocco.

We got an agreement to visit prisons in Algeria. These were to be sporadic missions; repeating the visits was out of the question initially. On this basis, we started visiting prisons in Algeria in 1955.

Did you visit all the prisons?  

Our aim was specifically to visit people who had been arrested following the “events.” We had a general authorization, but most of the prisoners were still defendants; they had not yet been convicted.

In accordance with French law, the defendants were under the authority of the examining magistrates, so that, for each place of detention, we had to get authorization from the magistrate concerned to speak privately with the accused. Some magistrates were hesitant. Because of the principle of judicial independence, some did not even feel any obligation with respect to the government’s decisions. In spite of everything, however, we were able to carry out the mission.

Subsequently, during these private discussions with the detainees, we learned that in addition to the prisons, there were administrative internment camps called “accommodation centres.” At the time there were three of them, one in each main region: one camp in Djorf el Barda, for Constantine province, a second one in Berrouaghia, for Algiers province, and a third one in Arzew, for Oran province. We were also authorized to visit these administrative camps, so the second mission included both prisons and accommodation centres. The prisoners were numerous and the visits long.

Later, during the discussions in the internment centres, we learned that before arriving at the detention sites, some prisoners had been held in local camps managed by the army, the “transit and screening centres.” Each military sector held by a regiment had a centre of this type, in which people arrested for political activities or captured during the conflict in the countryside were detained. We also visited the transit and screening centres. From then on, the ICRC had a humanitarian presence in the Algerian conflict. The French army provided us with liaison officers, first a captain, later a colonel and finally a general, illustrating the importance that was attached to our mission.

Naturally, doctors accompanied us on all of these visits to back up our findings, if necessary. In addition to the transit and screening centres, we noted the existence of “re-education centres,” undoubtedly designed to return captured fighters to combat. By then, however, some French intellectuals had already begun to condemn the practice of torture in Algeria.

What was the ICRC’s position?  

In 1957, the ICRC sent confidential reports to the French government, in which all the observations made by the mission, including any allegations of torture, were recorded. One of those reports was disseminated by the media. Three pages of it were published in the newspaper Le Monde. Under the commitments made by the ICRC to the French government, the reports were not to be divulged. The ICRC obviously was not the source of the disclosure, but the French authorities were greatly affected by it. For several months, the ICRC could not return to Algeria. On the other hand, the Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic (GPRA) became aware of the importance of the ICRC’s action.

What status was granted to the imprisoned Algerian fighters?  

In the waning years of the conflict, following an approach made by the ICRC to General Salan, commander-in-chief of French forces in Algeria at the time, an instruction was issued so that men captured in uniform with weapons in hand could receive treatment similar to that accorded to prisoners of war, without being granted prisoner-of-war status. The Geneva Conventions were not officially recognized as applicable, since this was an internal conflict. But a change occurred, perhaps because of a desire to get these combatants to switch sides. Hence there were many categories of prisoners, and the ICRC’s visits had to cover all the detention centres. During each mission, of course, we had to share our observations with both the civilian and the military authorities of each of the three regions, Constantine, Algiers and Oran.

At the end of the mission, in Algiers, we met the commander-in-chief and the governor-general.  Then, in Geneva, the ICRC drew up a final report on all the camps it had visited, followed by a summary containing recommendations and comments. It was one of these reports that was published in Le Monde.

Despite all these steps, torture in Algeria was not eliminated, but we had the feeling that we had helped to limit its effects, especially since many officers disapproved of these practices. As head of mission, I had a discussion with Guy Mollet, then president of the Council of Ministers, to support our observations.

On the Algerian side, what status was granted to French soldiers captured by the National Liberation Army?  

I personally insisted, in my contacts with the GPRA and with the Algerian Red Crescent, which was then being formed and with which we were in regular communication in Geneva, on being able to help French soldiers captured in Algeria. It was a question of obtaining elements of reciprocity with respect to the action conducted in Algeria on behalf of various categories of Algerian prisoners. On four occasions, the ICRC secured the unconditional release of French soldiers captured by the National Liberation Front in the countryside. The number of prisoners was small, to be sure, but the impact of these releases was great. The prisoner releases took place twice in Tunisia and twice in Morocco. In Tunisia, the prisoners were freed with a degree of solemnity. I represented the ICRC each time. The ceremony, attended by journalists, proceeded as follows: an officer of the Algerian National Liberation Army (ALN) arrived with the prisoners. He then handed them over officially to the Algerian Red Crescent, which in turn handed them over to the Tunisian Red Crescent. The latter then entrusted them to the ICRC. I transported the prisoners to the French consulate, which repatriated them.

In Morocco, releases of French prisoners captured in Algeria took place once in Rabat and once in Oujda, where there was a local sub-office of the Algerian Red Crescent. I recall that in Rabat, the French prisoners were freed under the aegis of the sister of King Hassan II, Lalla Aisha, who was then honorary president of the Moroccan Red Crescent.

What kind of relations did the ICRC have with the Algerian nationalists?  

Early on, the ICRC also forged relations with the Algerians – first in 1955, with Farhat Abbas, who had come to introduce Dr Djilali Bentami, a native of Oran province, to the ICRC as the representative of the future Algerian Red Crescent in Geneva. The Algerian Red Crescent could not be officially recognized at the time, as the conditions for recognition had not been met.

Throughout the Algerian War, however, I had close and trusted relations with Dr Bentami, who was practically my neighbour. It was thanks to Dr Bentami’s personal efforts that the ICRC was able to secure the release of French prisoners on four occasions. At the end of the war in 1962, Dr Bentami became Algeria’s first ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva. His assistant at the time was Mohamed Bédjaoui, who was writing his thesis on “Law and the Algerian Revolution.” The ICRC was also concerned about the “regroupment centres” for civilians who had been evacuated from their homes by the French army to shield them from the ALN. They were to some extent refugees in their own country. The ICRC quickly began providing them with material aid. As part of this effort, the ICRC urged the French Red Cross to come to the aid of these people. Teams of nurses and social workers were sent from France to Algeria to initiate this action. At the ICRC’s suggestion, the Algerian Red Crescent agreed to have the aid distributed by the French Red Cross – an outstanding example of cooperation within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement!

In the wake of the disappearance of several hundred French civilians in the months following Algeria’s independence, the French government asked the ICRC to begin searching for those people, with the agreement of the Algerian authorities. Unfortunately, despite prolonged and methodical searches, this effort yielded only meagre results.

Another issue also arose: the fate of the harkis (Algerians who fought with the French army), about whom very alarming reports were circulating. The ICRC asked me to return to Algeria to take steps on their behalf and in particular to visit the places of detention where they might be found. In autumn 1962, having returned to Algeria, I met ministers of the Algerian government and Colonel Houari Boumediène, chief of the armed forces. My actions were unsuccessful. However, as the conditions for recognition of a national Red Crescent Society in Algeria had now been met, the ICRC, in accordance with existing procedure, officially recognized the Algerian Red Crescent, thus enabling it to participate in bodies of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.

Did Algeria’s accession to independence put an end to the ICRC’s activities in the country?

Absolutely not! After 1 July 1962, a four-person ICRC delegation remained in Algeria to continue helping civilians who had suffered because of the war and the recent disturbances, whether they were Algerian or French or belonged to other nationalities. The delegation, having established official contact with the new government, was also given the task of helping the Red Crescent Society, which was starting to form chapters in Algeria.

In addition, the relations between Algeria and the ICRC were always characterized by mutual confidence and respect, as the following story attests. A few years after independence, an aircraft belonging to the Israeli company El Al was hijacked to Algiers. The Algerian Red Crescent contacted the ICRC and asked that I come to Algiers. I was received in the greatest secrecy by the president of the Algerian Red Crescent, who even put me up in his home. The El Al pilots were quickly handed over to me without publicity, and together we left Algeria.


1957, Djorf. Detention centre. 

1957, Djorf. Detention centre.

1958. Pierre Gaillard during an ICRC visit to a prison camp in the Oran area. 

1958. Pierre Gaillard during an ICRC visit to a prison camp in the Oran area.

1959. Ksar Tir. Pierre Gaillard with a prisoner that has just been released under the auspices of the ICRC 

1959. Ksar Tir. Pierre Gaillard with a prisoner that has just been released under the auspices of the ICRC

1959. Ksar Tir. Prisoners being released under the auspices of the ICRC. 

1959. Ksar Tir. Prisoners being released under the auspices of the ICRC.