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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 July 2006, 11:00 GMT 12:00 UK
Former settlers return to Algeria
By John Laurenson
BBC News, Algeria

Pied-noir back at the sea front of old Bougie.
Some 30,000 former French settlers have returned to Algeria

The bitter war which ended with Algerian independence from France in 1962 is still blighting relations between the two countries 44 years later.

The Algerian president is boycotting September's summit of Francophone nations to press his demand for an apology for what he calls the "cultural genocide" his country suffered at the hands of French colonialists.

But an extraordinary reconciliation has been taking place. Former French settlers in Algeria are returning in their thousands to visit what many see as their home country.

I joined a party of 130 former colonialists for their return to the eastern Algerian town of Bijaya, the port the French called Bougie.

Political baggage

Josiane, an imposing former schoolmistress with forearms like sandbags, came out of the terminal building into the white African sunshine and made a speech.

"This is where we come from! This land belongs to us all, it's all of ours! No-one can take that away from us! No-one!" she cried, breaking into tears.

A polite round of applause. A "Bravo Josiane". Everyone was a bit tired after the flight, not really up for this.

But as people carried on getting on the coaches, she started up again.

"We never should have left! We would have made Algeria the most beautiful country in Africa!"

From a round of applause to a ripple. What with the heat and everything, Josiane was getting a bit carried away.

Don't forget. They classed us as natives - inferior in our own country!

Colonial tourists, and their sometimes rather unusual items of political baggage, are returning - on package holidays to the past, to a time when they were young, and "Algerie" was "Francaise".

They are still only a fraction of the one million settlers who once lived in Algeria, but 30,000 have already come back since the Islamist insurgency died down three years ago.

Pierre, whose family was in Algeria for eight generations, is one of those people. He says he has been living like a hydroponic plant ever since - out of the soil. He wants to find his roots again and start his life anew.

Jocelyne is another, proud of her headmaster father who was so determined that his Algerian pupils should get good marks and good jobs. "And they did", she says, her eyes shining.

And Brigitte, whose mother cried every night when they arrived in France, was called a colonialist, an exploiter, though her father was a road mender and her mother a seamstress.

She felt so guilty about being a pied-noir ("black feet" - the name once given to French settlers in Algeria) she did not even admit it to her husband until years after they married.

"But here, people remember my family", she says. "They say we were good people. They say 'Welcome home!' Do you realise? 'Welcome home!'"

Cultural genocide

The mayor invites everyone to a grand Couscous Royal of reconciliation.

After sharing his national dish he tells me he is enchanted by his meeting his former townspeople.

They are very welcome and he hopes they will return often. And if anyone wants to invest, they are very welcome to.

Pro-French graffiti, Algeria
There is a pro-French sentiment in the town

The mayor is not one of your slick, modern politicians.

He is a meat importer by trade and his communications advisor fidgets nervously every time he opens his mouth.

But he is a loyal member of the FLN, the party that drove the French out of Algeria and has held power ever since.

I ask if it is not contradictory for his country to welcome the pied-noirs as long-lost sons when Algiers has just said French colonisation was "cultural genocide".

He thinks about it a bit then says he follows his president's line and agrees with what his president says.

"But not in a nasty way", he adds with a winning smile, "in a nice way".

Bad memories

In town, I walk past a huge statue of a fearsome National Liberation Army mujahideen.

Some 300,000 people lost their lives in the war, 90% of them Algerian.

Pro-independence fighters bombed, assassinated and massacred pied-noir civilians as well as soldiers; the French army tortured and summarily executed suspects.

Anne-Marie and husband (middle) in her old flat, Algeria
Anne-Marie managed to find her old flat

Abdelnaur says he would not want to prevent the pied-noirs coming back but: "Don't forget. They classed us as natives - inferior in our own country!"

Mourad agrees they bring back bad memories. "Of abuses?" "Yes."

What is he thinking of? He won't say. I press him. He cries. I let it go.

Anne-Marie wants to find the apartment her family had to abandon when they left.

We walk past a shoe-shop still called Le Chat Botté (Puss In Boots) and the Church of Saint Theresa that has since become a mosque.

A local asks her what she thinks of how her town has changed. "For the better, of course, for the better!"

He says nothing has changed for the better. Nothing at all. They are all smiles. I don't think either is saying what they really think. But these are the soothing lies of peace.

Bound together

Up three flights of stairs she rings her old doorbell.

A man answers. His wife and her sister are there too, and everyone is kissing everyone on the cheeks.

And "of course we can come in" and "please excuse the mess".

Anne-Marie is invited to look round. The old bed. The old mirror. Out on the balcony she admires the view then points to the steps below.

"A surgeon we knew was assassinated here. His body was right there."

Inside, the master of the house says it is time to turn the page.

Despite everything that happened, Algeria and France are still bound together.

Algeria has inherited from French civilisation and is still economically dependent on France and the Algerian immigrants living there. Everybody agrees. We drink our orange squash. It is time to go.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 29 July, 2006 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Country profile: Algeria
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