Saadi Yacef: 1928-2021; resistance fighter and actor

Saadi Yacef updates

Saadi Yacef’s life was centred in the warren of narrow alleyways that form the Casbah of the Algerian capital. It was here that he led a guerrilla uprising against colonial France, a key episode in the long and savage war that ended with independence in 1962.

Yacef, who died earlier this month at the age of 93, was the Algiers military chief of the National Liberation Front, or FLN, the organisation that spearheaded Algeria’s struggle for freedom. He later turned his memoirs of the 1956-57 battle of the Casbah, written in prison after he was captured and sentenced to death by the French, into the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers.

Yacef not only produced the film, directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, he also played himself (under the name Djafar) and gained international recognition. The production’s widely acclaimed insights into urban uprisings have also led to it being screened by the Pentagon, as well as by Palestinian groups and the Black Panthers. 

Born in the Casbah in 1928, Yacef left school at 14 to work in his father’s bakery, which was already a point of contact for militants of the Algerians People Party, a precursor of the FLN. In 1947, Yacef joined the Organisation Spéciale, an armed revolutionary group where he first established his reputation as an Algiers-based fighter. In 1949 he moved briefly to France, but upon his return to Algeria he resumed contacts with anti-colonial militants in the Casbah. In 1954, when the FLN launched a call for the Algerian people to unite behind its fight for independence, Yacef was asked to form a commando group.

“He was a simple guy from a working-class background,” says Nacer Djabi, an Algerian sociologist. “The revolution changed his life and gave him an important role. It was a time when the big FLN leaders were welcome in the Casbah.”

In June 1956, after the French guillotined two FLN prisoners, Yacef’s fighters carried out a series of assassinations against French targets. Dozens of people, including policemen, were killed. In response, an extremist French settler group, acting in collusion with police, placed a bomb in the Casbah that killed some 75 Arabs. The FLN retaliated with a bombing campaign, launched by Yacef. He recruited a trio of young female FLN militants who managed to slip through French checkpoints carrying explosive devices in their handbags, which they deposited in European cafés and the Air France office.

“With the first bomb, I felt no pity, absolutely nothing,” said Yacef in a 2004 interview. “I did it because I had been there when the bomb in the Casbah exploded. I felt it was vengeance, part of the rules of the game.” He later said he felt remorse after a bombing in a nightclub frequented by French soldiers, but admitted that when the French executed five more Algerians, “I did it again . . . I forgot my tears and made 13 bombs that day”.

Saadi poses after being captured by French troops in 1957 towards the end of the battle of Algiers © AFP via Getty Images

With French police unable to control the uprising, Paris deployed thousands of paratroopers in January 1957, who crushed it in months. Yacef was arrested in September and in October the battle of Algiers ended when the French surrounded and blew up a house in the Casbah where militants were hiding. Among those killed was Ali La Pointe, a central figure in the uprising.

The Battle of Algiers may have been lost but news of the army’s brutality and systematic use of torture deepened unease about the occupation in France. “The liberal French intelligentsia became players in the drama, and France’s whole Algerian policy began to be discredited,” says Hugh Roberts, a historian of Algeria and professor at Tufts University.

Yacef had also helped in the effort to bring the plight of the Algerians to international attention by helping to organise a general strike called by the FLN in January 1957. “It proved that when the FLN spoke it had the support of the people,” says William Quandt, author of two books about Algeria.

After his arrest Yacef was sentenced to death but he was eventually freed after the ceasefire with the French in 1962. Despite recognising his role during the independence struggle, over the years some of his former comrades have questioned whether information he gave the French after his capture may have led to the killing of La Pointe, who is still an iconic hero in Algeria — accusations that Yacef always denied.

“The battle of Algiers contributed a lot by taking the pressure off fighters in the mountains and by bringing armed operations into cities and helping internationalise the struggle,” said Djabi. “Still there have been questions about why he was not executed, but no answers.”

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