By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Nothing has ever come easy for the Algerian people.
From their earliest history, dating back before 4000 B.C., they were alternately invaded by – and successfully resisted – the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks and French.
In times of Carthage, around 800 B.C., they were subjugated by the Phoenicians, conscripted into their armies as foot soldiers and slaves.
But by the second century B.C., when the Carthaginian state began to wane following the Punic Wars, the Algerian people, known as the Imazighen, or Berbers, began to break away and establish loosely administered kingdoms of their own.
Then came the Romans, at the turn of the millennium, and despite mass relocations, forc3ed conversions to Christianity and the expropriation of Berber farmlands, the Algerian people once again resisted, ultimately expelling the European invaders.
During the Middle Ages, the Algerians began to consolidate their national identity, with a series of Berber dynasties expanding their territory into Europe, Egypt, Sudan and beyond.
But tribal differences (the Berbers – who make up nearly 99 percent of modern-day Algeria – are divided into a seemingly endless array of ethnic subgroups) proved to be the North African country’s downfall, and efforts to unite the territory under a single banner remained futile.
The Islamization of the Maghreb, beginning in the seventh century, transformed the country into a unified religious body, although unresolved sectarian tensions eventually led to economic decline (Algeria for centuries had been the breadbasket of the Mediterranean and a key trading hub) and political instability.
Under Ottoman rule, there was a brief period of Algerian semi-sovereignty, when Algiers became the center of Ottoman authority in the Maghreb.
But when the Napoleonic wars of the early 19th century ended, Algeria was grudgingly thrust into a war with Spain, the Netherlands, Prussia, Denmark, Russia and Naples.
The resulting chaos led to the creation of the pirating Barbary States – of which Algeria was part, along with Morocco, Tunisia and Libya – and two unsavory wars with the United States that left the country economically devastated.
But none of Algeria’s oppressors were ever quite as subjugating or brutal as the French, whose colonization of the country began in 1830.The French ruled Algeria for 132 years with an iron fist, and during their reign, more than 1.5 million Algerians died as a result of torture, aerial bombing raids and mass slaughters of entire villages known as ratissages.
Those who resisted – and there were many – were eliminated or quelled in uniquely French panache, often having to drink bleach or witness their families violated and dismembered by French soldiers.
In May 1945, French troops killed more than 45,000 Algerians around the eastern town of Setif, after celebrations to mark the defeat of Nazi Germany turned into pro-independence protests.
The Algerians responded in kind and the violence escalated, spiralling into what would become one of the bloodiest and most gruesome wars of independence in modern annals.
Algeria’s hard-fought revolutionary war began in late 1954 and ended eight years later, with a still-undetermined death toll calculated to be in the tens of thousands and the unbridled use of torture and rape against unarmed civilians by both sides.
Since then, Algeria has struggled to rebuild itself, despite a two-decade-long civil war against terrorist Islamic fundamentalists who launched a vicious campaign of indiscriminate violence in Algeria in 1988, leading to the deaths of more than 100,000 people and incalculable economic losses.
But the single unifying thread that has tied Algeria and the Algerian people together has always been their determination to remain independent and free no matter what tragedies may befall them.
The harsh memories of the country’s grisly struggle against the French is a fundamental part of modern Algerians’ political DNA, and is recalled with sadness and determination every year, on the anniversary of the nation’s proclamation of independence by the insurgent National Liberation Front (FNL).
“This is a date that bears deep significance for the people of my nation,” Algerian Ambassador to Mexico Rabah Hadid said during a diplomatic function at his residence to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of that historic day.
“It was a war that cost the lives of one and a half million Algerian martyrs … and was the cruelest struggle in the era of decolonization that took place in the mid-20th century.”
Hadid went on to say that the years of abuse and repression that the Algerian people suffered during French rule years was evidence that colonization is an absolute evil that bears no place in modern society.
When Algeria finally gained its independence in July 1962, he said, its people committed themselves to the fundamental values of freedom, sovereignty social justice and democracy.
The ambassador also took the opportunity to say that it is Algeria’s bitter memory of colonial subjugation that has inspired its ongoing support of the Western Saharan people and the still-mostly-unrecognized Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), as well as the Palestinian people in their struggle for an independent state.
“In Algeria, we are firmly committed to helping our neighbors who still suffer from instability to resolve their problems through inclusive political dialogue and to avoid foreign interventions, which are not always the most balanced in nature,” he said.
Hadid likewise noted that Mexico’s early support of the Algerian revolution set the foundation for the close bilateral relationship that exists between the two countries today.
Mexico was, in fact, the first country to recognize the newly independent Algerian republic after it finally gained its national sovereignty in 1962.
Algeria, with the third-largest economy in Africa, is currently Mexico’s second-largest trade partner in that continent, with a combined commercial exchange surpassing $300 million annually.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at email@example.com.