Rabah Sahili had just turned 19 when he arrived in central Paris for a peaceful demonstration by Algerians 60 years ago.
What he witnessed, he told AFP in an interview, was police savagery in a crackdown which killed dozens and perhaps as many as 200, according to historians’ estimates. The official death toll at the time was three.
President Emmanuel Macron on Saturday condemned as “inexcusable” the crimes committed on October 17, 1961.
“The police and gendarmes showed atrocious brutality. They were raging to inflict harm,” Sahili said, his voice breaking.
More than 30,000 Algerians had gathered to protest in Paris a decision to impose a curfew solely on the country’s French Algerian minority.
The rally was called in the final year of France’s increasingly violent campaign to retain Algeria as a north African colony. This coincided with a bombing campaign targeting mainland France by pro-independence militants.
On Saturday, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune announced that a minute of silence would be held the following day — and each October 17 to commemorate the “martyrs” of the 1961 events.
Some were shot dead. Others had their bodies thrown into the River Seine.
The pro-independence National Liberation Front (FLN) had called on Algerian migrants from the capital’s working class western suburbs to rally at a landmark square in Paris.
Other demonstrations were planned elsewhere in the city, and 10,000 policemen and gendarmes were deployed.
Sahili was arrested as he stepped off a train that arrived in Paris from Hautmont in the north, where he and his parents had lived for years.
“We had to meet at the Place de l’Etoile to start our peaceful demonstration. We had a single task: to make sure none of the demonstrators had any blunt instruments,” he said.
– ‘It was savage’ –
“I was with a cousin when the police descended upon us. Because he was stronger, he tried to protect me, but he received an avalanche of blows using the butts of guns and batons that caused his leg to break,” Sahili recalled.
He said that people were being detained based solely on whether they appeared to be Algerian.
“All the Algerians coming out of the metro were arrested… even some Italians, Spanish people and South Americans” were held, he continued.
He noted that police and gendarmes were acting on firm instructions to target French Algerians.
Sahili said they were all driven “using batons” to a nearby car park, while trying to avoid being struck on the head.
“They had such a ferocity… It was savage, no more, no less,” said the former FLN member.
“At midnight, we were moved to the Palais des Sports, where we remained for three days, under the watch of the police and harkis (auxillary forces),” he recounted.
The 9,000 people who, according to Sahili, were held in the sports dome were offered no more than a bottle of water and a snack.
Then they were taken to a “sorting facility” in the suburbs.
– ‘Freezing cold’ –
“The camp was devoid of absolutely all services: no beds, no toilets. We slept on the floor in the freezing cold,” Sahili said.
“I stayed there for a fortnight before I was allowed to return home.”
“During the arrests, I saw about 20 people lying on the ground bleeding near the Place de l’Etoile. There were many police and they behaved like ferocious beasts,” he said.
“Algerians were also thrown, some alive, into the Seine by the police, but we will never know the exact number of bodies taken by this river,” Sahili recalled.
According to him, even before the events of October 17 a good number of Algerian activists “ended up in the waters of the Seine” during police raids.
He recalled participating in the rescue of a young activist thrown into the Seine, saying he was found “at the last minute” and would have died were it not for his youth and health.
Following the independence of Algeria in 1962, Sahili remained in France for another two years before returning to his home country, where he built a career with national airline Air Algérie.
For decades, French authorities covered up the events of 1961 but Macron was the first president to attend a memorial for those who died on the day that Sahili cannot forget.