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Reporting the First Years of Algerian Independence


On the way to the outskirts of a village south of Algiers, myself and my companion, a CBS TV newsman, met three carloads of journalists heading back to Algiers because nothing was happening out on the battlefield. We were the only journalists there. So on my second day as a freelance photographer, I had a world scoop!

Introduction: In Search of Amber by Kathryn Degraff

It was the month of August, 1957. A four-door black Citroen moving at high speed along the main highway from Tunis to Algiers, had left the Tunisian border town of Ghardimaou heading west toward the Algerian frontier. Inside the car were three officers of the Algerian Army of National Liberation, the underground maquis seeking independence from France, and a graduate student from the University of California at Berkeley.

Five kilometers east of Ghardimaou, where a dirt road leads off to the Oued Rarai, the Citroen turned onto a dirt road, crossed a dry stream bed and came to a halt at the edge of an olive grove. Groups of men in battle fatigues, their weapons nearby, lounged under the olive trees eating lunch. They got to their feet as the Citroen approached, shouldered their guns and formed ranks.

For the graduate student from California, this moment was the realization of a dream that had begun two years earlier at Berkeley when she had decided to write her Ph.D. dissertation on the Algerian Revolution. Little did she realize then that she was on the threshold of a quest that is still continuing to this day.

Kathryn Degraff writes about her experiences as events unfolded involving her in the Algerian Revolution, Four Day Bizerte War, Algerian Civil War, Algerian Independence and Elections, selection of Algeria as the 106th member of the United Nations.

In August of 1957, the attention of the world had finally been caught and the issue of Algerian self determination was scheduled for debate at the United Nations General Assembly to be held in New York City in September. Already 14 foreign journalists had gone into Algeria from the Eastern Base and that same day, at different points along the frontier, a correspondent of the Baltimore Sun and a Dutch photographer were being smuggled across the border just as Kathryn was bringing the number to 17. She was the first woman to make the trip. The Algerians had deployed thousands of their troops along the Eastern frontier to protect the foreign journalists.

Excerpts from the manuscript: In Search of Amber by Kathryn Degraff

. . . After watching and photographing a stirring parade by the guerrilla soldiers, with the Algerian flag carried by the young intelligence officer who was to act as my guide and interpreter on my sojourn across the border into the Algerian maquis, it was back to the Citroen for the last few kilometers of a dirt road that lead to the Tunisian-Algerian frontier. There had been a brief flurry of anxiety over the outcome of my mission when a report arrived of a French detachment in the hills to the north of the Oued Rarai. Tunisia at the time provided sanctuary to the Algerian freedom fighters and gave them an Eastern Base for their operations against the French occupation forces in their own country.

The French detachment was outnumbered. The Algerians felt they would not risk attacking. I was to be taken in along the dry stream bed at the base of the hill the French troops occupied. The decision was made to go ahead. "Be sure to tell me when we reach the frontier I said as they headed into the mountains. I want to record it on both tape and film." My guide replied reassuringly " Don't worry, you'll know". We drove through the golden oak studded hills, which reminded me of California, making me feel more at home than any other time that year.

At a wide spot in the road, the car pulled over, and the four got out. "We're here," the guide, Yusuf, announced. The other two from the car, shook hands, wished us Godspeed. returned to the car and departed. "From here on we walk." Yusuf said flashing a smile. . .

. . . Armed with a tape recorder, a movie camera and a rolliflex, we traveled with a medical unit of four Algerian women as they moved among the sick and injured refugees who had fled their villages for sanctuary in the mountains with the Liberation Army. Dodging French search planes and motorized patrols created some tense moments and some documentary footage on both tape and film, as well as, a moving unforgettable shared experience that was eventually to turn my academic research in a totally new direction.

On my return from the Algerian maquis, I continued on to my original destination of Istanbul, Turkey, and a teaching job at the American College for Girls, which had been the means and cover for my real mission that summer: the Algerian underground. In Istanbul I had a two year contract to fulfill. My two year teaching assignment in Turkey was punctuated by several return trips to Tunisia to gather more information about the social and cultural aspects of the Algerian Revolution, still with the intent of writing a Ph.D. dissertation.

When I returned to North Africa in 1961, the war had intensified and was threatening to spill over into Tunisia because of a naval base the French still retained there, some years after the country had gained independence from France. Angered over Tunisian support of their Algerian neighbors, French armed forces had burst out of the naval base at Bizerte in a deadly 4 day attack that caused many deaths and left the port city of Bizerte occupied by French paratroops. The Tunisian Government had immediately appealed for international mediation and begun an English language broadcast to try and win support for their sovereignty from the European powers. So I immediately went to work for Radio Tunis.

The morning a cease fire was announced, I headed for Bizerte, where my American press credentials got me through the French lines into the occupied city. Carrying the same portable tape recorder I had taken into Algeria several years earlier, I wandered alone into the deserted city trying to survey the damage, casualty figures and status of the cease fire.

French paratroopers were stationed on the roof tops of many buildings, but no one barred my way as I wandered the empty streets of the beleaguered city. I quickly discovered that the old parts of the city were still in Tunisian hands despite the heavy bombardment and hundreds of casualties. Walking the perimeter of the Tunisian held part of the city, with the cease fire just hours old, I began recording my observations. Suddenly a shot rang out from the far side of an open no-man's land patrolled by French paratroopers.

. . .That evening, having made my way back through the French lines in an ambulance with the cassettes hidden on my body, I went on the air for the Radio Tunis English Program, short waved to Europe, to report on conditions in Bizerte during Day One of the cease fire.

In the Spring of 1962, my speaking tour completed, I returned to Tunisia in anticipation of the forthcoming Algerian independence and return of Algerian exiles to their homeland. No sooner had independence been recognized than the new Provisional Government of the Algerian Republic began squabbling among itself.

I had a tentative job as a photographer awaiting me in Algiers. On August 28, with two Algerian women heading back from exile, I drove from Tunis to Algiers along the same highway that had first taken me into Algeria five years earlier. This time the country was on the verge of civil war and in a state of total anarchy. . . Arriving in Algiers, I checked into a hotel and immediately set out to explore the city and locate other returned exiles. I was barely a block from the hotel when machine gun fire erupted and I beat a hasty retreat. The civil war had begun.

The Army was divided with some divisions supporting Ben Bella, and others supporting another leader. The Casbah was being held by Yacef Saadi, the real life hero of the Battle of Algiers (Yacef later played himself in the classic movie The Battle of Algiers). On August 30, he held a press conference on a Casbah rooftop announcing his support for the Ben Bella faction. The following day my photographs were on the film sent to the publication Jeune Afrique.

Four days later I found myself south of Algiers where the women of the town had gone out onto a battle field and placed themselves between the hostile factions of the Liberation Army, shouting that after eight years of struggle for national freedom, brother must not fire upon brother. Walking toward the spot where this dramatic confrontation had taken place, my camera around my neck, I saw two groups of soldiers in front of me, approaching each other from opposite directions, their uniforms the same except for different colored neck kerchiefs. They walked up to each other and began shaking hands and embracing. I photographed the entire episode. . . a cease fire!

On the way to the outskirts of a village south of Algiers, myself and my companion, a CBS TV newsman, met three carloads of journalists heading back to Algiers because nothing was happening out on the battlefield. We were the only journalists there. So on my second day as a freelance photographer, I had a world scoop! One of my photographs appeared on the front page of the International Herald Tribune the next day.

Other Assignments followed from Time Magazine, The New York Times and UPI, which punched my ticket for a ringside seat to watch and report the first years of Algerian Independence.

Highlights of selected post war events: In Search of Amber by Kathryn Degraff

On September 20, Elections were held, the picture of the day was to capture Ben Bella voting. Kathryn's connections with the information Ministry got the photo for UPI. Time Magazine published a photo titled "Waiting for Polls to Open."

On September 25, the First meeting of the National Assembly was held, Ben Bella was chosen as Prime Minister of the Popular Democratic Republic of Algeria. On September 27 Ben Bella announced his choice of cabinet members and Bouteflicka was named Minister of Tourism.

As the Algerian delegation readied for the historic trip to the United Nations, Kathryn began to research the possibility of flights and secured the last ticket available for that flight on October 1. The presses at Paris Match were stopped waiting to receive the roll of film with photos taken aboard the flight, since no other photojournalist had made the flight, the film was priceless. A colleague met her at the airport in Paris to pick up the film but ended up with the camera, as well, because the film would not come out. Kathryn reasoned that she still had a Rolliflex for the next leg of the trip and was willing to give it up. She later found out that the film had not engaged the sprockets and had turned up blank.

On October 12, Kathryn returned to Paris then to Paris Match to retrieve the camera and to deliver the photos taken at the United Nations in New York. Paris Match paid her fee despite the faux pas. She told them that she owed them an exclusive. Too much time had passed for the photos taken aboard that flight on October 1 to be published. These photos and many more will be published for the first time in the MultiMedia story titled In Search of Amber, The Algerian maquis. END

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