Aurès, Algeria: Regroupement Camps During the Algerian War for Independence



During the Algerian War for Independence (1954-1962), forced removals affected nearly half of the rural Algerian population, and at the end of the war, over two million people were dispersed between two thousand regroupements created by the French army. During this conflict, the term “regroupement” (literally “grouping” or “gathering”) signified both the practice of forceful civilian removal and the place of their relocation. While these places were designated by the French as “centers” or “villages,” historians prefer today to use the word “camps,” first because their purpose and function (civilian confinement for military or political reasons) is comparable, to a certain degree, to other historical internment camps, and because most of them were similar to refugee camps: quickly created and hastily expanded, they put people into a situation of intense economic and social precariousness.

Regroupement was initially a military and political practice. Its aim was to create optimal conditions, in terms of territorial and population control, for the suppression of the National Liberation Army (ALN) and the guerilla troops of the National Liberation Front (FLN), Algeria’s main independentist party. The French Army’s principle mission thus consisted in displacing the rural population and spatially reconcentrating it. For the colonial state, the rural population used to represent, directly or indirectly, a potential threat, as many villages were located in mountainous areas or in isolated places that made their social control very difficult. In such places, the ALN received material and moral support from the population, sometimes under threat of force, but more often than not offered spontaneously, as micro-social or familial solidarity was common between the population and the djunuds, the ALN’s members. In the first years of the war (1954-1957), the French army, despite its massive deployment, failed to successfully control all of these villages, and the FLN-ALN grew quickly. Confronted with this dynamic, the French army put to use an “forbidden zone” strategy, creating areas where civilian presence and circulation were forbidden, which displaced rural families and destroyed villages and food stocks. This strategy was first used in the Aurès Mountains, where people lived in remote villages relatively out of reach of the colonial administration. There the nationalist uprising was powerful and clearly supported by the population: from 1954 until 1962, most parts of the mountains were transformed into exclusion zones by the colonial authorities.

If regroupement camps was the complement to making these restricted areas (people displaced were regrouped inside authorized zones), it would then be wrong to think of it as only a military practice. As the colonial policies in Aurès evolved, they tended to give regroupement an administrative purpose as well. Indeed, Aurès was seen as a place to experiment with the measures that would frame the “pacification policy” the army would eventually implement throughout Algeria for the duration of the war. At the time, these measures were called the “contact policy,” enjoining the colonial administration to “reconnect” with the colonized population. The French believed that Aurès was simply “under-administrated,” and their explanation for the regional strength of the insurgency went thus: a weak linkage between the population and the colonial government was the primary reason for local support of the FLN. Consequently, the French authorities had to strengthen their presence in the mountains in order to make better “contact” with the Algerians, as well as better control them. As the administration lacked the staff to accomplish this on their own, it was military officers were assigned to the eastern region to supplement the civil servants. These officers came from the Service of Indigenous Affairs of Morocco (AIM), where the French military had long controlled the administration of the rural land and population. AIM officers oversaw the Aurèsian population until 1955, when Jacques Soustelle, the new Governor General of Algeria, decided to generalize the model by creating the Section Administrative Spécialisées (SAS), an “exceptional” administrative sector that could potentially cover the entire Algerian territory — there were more than 700 SAS by the end of the war — and that multiplied the means by which “pacification” could be accomplished: intelligence gathering, local administration, educational and medical interventions, social engineering. While not systematically linked, the SAS and the regroupements camps developed in parallel. SAS officers were usually entrusted with the responsibility of supervising the camps, which were massively increased by military authorization after 1957: indeed, in two years, nearly 1,000 regroupements camps were carried out, displacing around one million Algerians.

The primary purpose of regroupement camps consisted in breaking local solidarities between the population and the ALN. For this reason, it was a policy of displacement into camps where Algerians were subject to a precise degree of control and confinement. Indeed, despite their heterogeneity across the country, similar administrative practices were deployed throughout the camps, introducing specific relations between the state and the population. These practices were part of a repertoire of actions which would ensure social control and surveillance, the application of which was mainly left to the SAS’s officers. For the colonial authorities, the camp had to be tightly sealed: it should be strictly controlled by a specific spatial organization and a permanent surveillance of interactions between the inside and outside. The location of the camps near military or SAS posts was the first element of this security procedure: the colonial actors could thus permanently control the life of the regroupements camps, by imposing particularly draconian rules (identity checks, daily calls, spontaneous house inspections, curfews). In most cases, this control was facilitated by the installation of a network of barbed wire, the materialized border of the camp. This fencing was often augmented with watchtowers, and checkpoint gates.

The spatial organization of the regroupements camps met the need for permanent surveillance, which explains why they were often modeled on military camps. But on this subject, diversity was the rule: the image of the aligned rows of houses, which has imposed itself since the war as the dominant representation of the regroupement camps, should not overshadow the plural morphologies of the camps. They were already subject to concurrent phenomena: most of them were first tent cities, which had to accommodate the population before the construction of real houses. This kind of camp could persist for a long time, as some populations remained in tents for several months or years. Among these tent cities, the regroupements camps of nomads followed their own sets of rules: the space was never as strictly arranged as in other camps, and the interned people could even change places — the Fontaine des Gazelles camp in southeast Algeria illustrates well this spatial distribution. It should also be remembered that not every camp was an ex-nihilo creation: the army often concentrated Algerian families into previously evacuated villages, and even sometimes into farm buildings — as in the town of Akbou, in the Soummam Valley, where the refugees of mountainous villages were packed by the hundred into unsanitary granaries.

But tent cities and resettlement into pre-existing villages were not the most common method of regroupement. Most used a similar spatial organization: straight and regular streets, lined with uniform houses, the whole forming a square or rectangular grid surrounded with barbed wire and watchtowers. This prevailing organization necessarily makes us wonder about the intentionality of the colonial authorities. For many analysts, this would be the product of policies focused on security and discipline, which imposed everywhere the same spatial principles of alignment, symmetry, and uniformity, a consecration of the new social order the army would try to impose to the Algerian people. This idea was first defended in 1964 by Pierre Bourdieu and Abdelmalek Sayad in their book Le déracinement (“Uprooting,” translation forthcoming by Polity Press): through spatial discipline, the regroupement camp aimed to impose a social discipline upon Algeria. The model supposedly imitated by the French officers — the military camps of the Romans and their methods for dividing up space — was said to express the whole political logic of the policy the army implemented: an enterprise of disciplining Algeria and its population through a total, and even panoptic, surveillance of physical and social space. The regroupements camps were a way of ordering a disordered world, to make it more accommodating to officers trained in military discipline. As one SAS officer quoted by Bourdieu and Sayad put it, “I like the straight line. People, here, are confused by straight lines.”

But it is difficult to clearly identify the real intentions the of French officers, and there is no consensus about this disciplinary dimension. The sociologist Michel Cornaton contradicts the analysis of Bourdieu and Sayad, putting forward a plural explanation: the alignment was the result of an initial will to maximize social surveillance (and even to carry out a potential military repression, through the straight streets), but also, and more especially, came from a certain pragmatic urbanism. Over any other concerns, aligning the standardized housing along a grid would be the cheapest and easiest solution for these men who had no background in urban planning, but who had to take in charge of the housing and organization of human communities. Cornaton asserts that the model the SAS officers followed was not unconscious (as in the Roman military camp), but very real: it was the model developed by the Commissariat for Reconstruction and Rural Housing (CRHR), an institution created by the colonial government in 1954 to reconstruct the city of Orléansville in central Algeria after a powerful earthquake. It was transformed in 1957 to implement a housing policy that aimed to relocate Algeria’s shanty-town residents to newly-constructed resettlement cities, before then being asked to build some of the houses in the regroupements camps. From this point on, the CRHR’s model of spatial organization served as the urbanistic reference point for the SAS officers: most of the photographs available show that the resettlement-city model dominates, consciously or not, the camps organized by the officers. Indeed, even if most of the time the CRHR did not have the means to directly intervene in the regroupements camps, many SAS officers took inspiration from its resettlement cities. But this pragmatic urbanism did not compete with the political ambition to discipline the Algerian population: in itself, the resettlement city, whose history dates to Algeria’s interwar years, emerged from a political will to discipline social space, in order to better control it. This was also illustrated by most of the slum-reduction projects carried out during the war, like in the East-Algerian city of El Bouni, where the Sidi Salem quarter was made to accommodate several thousand displaced individuals, both to improve their conditions and to ensure their control, in a context where the port city’s shanty-towns had become the main centers of support for the FLN. The spatial organization of Sidi Salem — which was approved by the army to be the biggest regroupement camps of Eastern Algeria during the war — shows a common logic between the resettlement city and regroupement camp: panoptic ambition (the exhaustive surveillance of social bodies, a component of the plan to make the Algerian population docile under colonial control) and a pragmatism borne of the situation’s urgency (the need to build as simply and quickly as possible within the limited means) were not opposed, but rather complemented one another.

Beyond this architectural aspect, what is striking about regroupement camps was the economic misery, the material and sanitary precariousness, the excessive mortality that dominated life in the camps. Indeed, the camps quickly proliferated as the impoverishment of the rural population worsened, and the main activity of the SAS during this expansion was to simply manage the precarity. Access to food, medical care, housing, and sanitary conditions to prevent epidemics were some of the daily concerns that plagued the camps. The regroupements camps were usually created in haste and with meager resources, forcing the population to plunge headlong into a potentially dangerous situation. Agrarian people found themselves unable to pursue their traditional activities, from being either forced into urban environments or denied access to nearby fields for security reasons. As the economic condition was highly unstable, most of those interned depended on the administration for food (10% were completely reliant on government rations, and most of the rest to at least a certain degree) as well as on the “unemployment sites” created by the SAS. Long kept secret, this situation was publicly revealed in March 1959, after the publication in Le Monde of a leaked report written by French politician Michel Rocard. Subsequently, the French government forbade the colonial authorities from creating new regroupements camps, and announced the launch of an improvement program called “Mille Villages.” Officially, the regroupement policy was to transform into a kind of massive social-engineering project — but the civilian relocations continued and even accelerated, in spite of the prohibition. In fact, Mille Villages gave the army a blank check to continue building the camps. These civil orders intensified and even systematized the regroupements which, between May and December 1960, reached their highest intensity of use. In northeastern Algeria, for example, the army and the local administration worked together to completely uproot the population: in the Collo District, 80,000 people were moved in a few months, and the number of villages decreased from 400 to 40.

With the resumption of negotiations with the FLN, the colonial administration received orders to cut short any further regroupements camps into new “villages,” whose construction would hardly make sense if Algeria gained independence. As part of the unilateral truce declared by French government, the regroupement policy was oriented instead toward a “degroupement” of the poorest camps. This policy called for the restoration of civil prerogatives, and halted the creation of new camps for the first time in the war. But it had little effect in the end: the Algerian population would have had to rebuild its villages on its own, and their immediate needs were too dire to do so; thus the policy was quickly abandoned. Even after independence in 1962, reconstruction of the original villages was often too difficult. The majority of relocated Algerians, upon return, often found their homes destroyed, or were unable to resume their farming activities, as the agricultural cycles had been broken by years of neglect. Thus many camps maintained their populations, and occasionally became new towns built on a colonial highly controllable template.