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Fighting for her land: My great-aunt Kamira, the Algerian revolutionary | Features

Fighting for her land: My great-aunt Kamira, the Algerian revolutionary | Features

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In the spring of 1962, the air in Beni-Mazouz, a small village nestled in the mountainous wilaya (province) of Jijel, was charged with anticipation.

My father, then a young boy, remembers vividly the day the French colonial forces began their retreat from Algeria. As a convoy of more than 100 tanks and vans trundled towards the port of Skikda, he remembers a sense of freedom swelling in his heart.

“We were beyond happy,” he recalls. As far as he could see, the streets were awash in a sea of green, white and red – the colours of our flag – while voices reverberated in unison chanting “Tahia Djazair [Long live Algeria]!”

The moment symbolised the culmination of Algeria’s arduous journey, steeped in resistance, towards liberation from French colonial rule.

The brutal ​​French invasion which began in 1830, marked the inception of a dark and oppressive chapter in Algerian history. In 1848, the government administration in Paris declared the Algerian territory across the Mediterranean an integral part of France, as though it was another domestic province.

Large-scale land theft, torture and the dehumanisation of Algerians became hallmarks of France’s settler colonial project. The Algerian government has said more than 5.6 million Algerians were killed during the French colonial period. By 1954, when the war for independence started, one million European settlers were living in Algeria.

Many people who lived in my father’s village of mostly farmers, Beni-Mazouz, are descendants of the resistance that confronted ​​France’s military.

Among these figures was Kamira Yassi: a sturdy-handed, tattooed rural woman known for her practical wisdom and belief in the curative powers of olive oil. She was my father’s aunt, “Amti Kamira”, as he calls her, a 5-foot-2-inch (157.5cm) tender matriarch who made the tastiest chorba, a traditional spiced soup. Locally, she was revered as a fierce anticolonial nationalist. My curiosity longed to uncover more about my great-aunt Kamira, her life, dreams and motivations, through conversations with my father and family.

In 1955, Kamira​ became a pivotal member of the National Liberation Front (FLN), the political and military organisation dedicated to ending the French occupation. “Amti Kamira was a true mujahidia [female freedom fighter],” my father said. “She had a deep determination for us to be Algerian in the land that was always ours.”

​​In search of an adventure and opportunity, my father moved to England in the 1970s and has lived there since. I was born and raised in ​London, far from the rugged and beautiful landscapes of Jijel. Despite this, many conversations with my father often circled back to the war for independence and the peaks above the ​village of Beni-Mazouz.

“I’m a child of the revolution, I didn’t even have shoes,” my father would say – words that echoed throughout my childhood. My school summer holidays spent in Beni-Mazouz were submerged in these tales, including ones of my great-aunt Kamira, whom I never had the chance to meet.

My great-aunt, the Algerian revolutionary
Kamira Yassi in 1959 (L) and 2004 (R) [Meriame Yassi/Al Jazeera]

Shattering stereotypes

​​Kamira’s life ​shattered Western stereotypes of a stay-at-home mother. She wore long, loose-fitting dresses, adorned with simple embroidery, and a rope tied around her waist. Every day, she carried a yellow straw basket or balanced bags of goods – from semolina to dry wheat flour – on her head.

She wore a floral head scarf, tied in a knotted bow on her head in a way that ensured her traditional forehead tattoos were always visible, a simple line symbol above her eyebrows and another on her chin. The facial tattoos were considered a sign of beauty and the height of fashion.

Kamira’s participation in the FLN took her to the coast of Sidi Abdelaziz, to the main village of Beni Habibi and the surrounding mountains, a crucial link in the resistance against the colonial military in the area. She travelled alone, leaving her husband to care for their children and cattle. “She would walk for hours, paying no mind to the harsh weather, be it the brutal cold of winter or the relentless heat of the midday sun,” my father recalled.

In the grains of semolina carried in her basket on her head, she nestled bullets and guns – all tools of her trade in the covert operations. ​Hidden within the folds of her dress, she concealed secret communications – handwritten letters detailing information about the French military, or messages for FLN members in the mountains.

Because she was a woman, she could move freely through checkpoints – a privilege not afforded to her male counterparts – transporting weapons and gathering intelligence.

​​She often met undercover with a harki – an Algerian working with the French army – who was sympathetic to the FLN cause, to exchange vital information about the occupying forces.

These meetings along the Sidi Abdelaziz coastline were fraught with danger, but were essential in planning the FLN’s clandestine movements. The harki would share with Kamira details about the French military commanders, paratroopers, checkpoints, weaponry and their strategic objectives. She would then ​return home to Beni-Mazouz, where she would convene with the local ​fellagha – the armed anticolonial militia – composed of family members and neighbours, to transmit the intelligence she had gathered.

In the ​mountains of Beni-Mazouz, Kamira and the fellagha lived among picturesque stone houses with burned orange tiled roofs, surrounded by a lush array of olive, pomegranate, fig, oak and eucalyptus trees.

The mountains carry the names given to them by the ​Kabyle, Algeria’s ancient Indigenous peoples of the north: Jeneena De Masbah, Takeniche, Walid Aiyesh, Tahra Ez Zane and Am’ira. ​​Our father’s history is intertwined with Takeniche, where he lived with his mother, Nouara, father, Ahmed, and brother, Ali. Kamira’s story unfolded on the next mountain of Walid Aiyesh, where she lived with her husband, two sons and three daughters.

My great-aunt, the Algerian revolutionary
From left to right, the author as a child, Kamira’s sister Zohra, Rabah and his mother Nouara [Meriame Yassi/Al Jazeera]

‘The first martyr of Beni-Mazouz’

Last winter, my father and I sat under an old tree on time-worn rocks, remnants from his childhood home on Takeniche. The crisp air was alive with chirping birds and the distant bray of donkeys. Here he recounted ​​tales from his youth during the war. It was at this same place that I had first learned about my great-aunt Kamira, many years ago. I prompted my father to retell the story about what had happened to her son.

“There used to be two lookouts stationed in the valley to watch for French soldiers. If they saw any approaching, they would vanish deep into the forest, signalling the villagers above to hide. My mother would strap me to her back, and my grandmother would take my brother.

“During one of those scrambles, Kamira’s eldest son, Messaoud, who was on watch duty, was shot by French soldiers. He became the first martyr of Beni-Mazouz.”

My father’s voice softened as he remembered once returning to Takeniche after hiding to find his family’s livestock killed, and their house nearly burned down by French soldiers.

​​While weathering the violence inflicted by the French army, people found a way to keep producing olive oil, a source of pride for families in Beni-Mazouz. When not on FLN missions, Kamira crafted large clay pots and produced olive oil; the painstaking process involved carefully selecting each olive and crushing it using stone mills to extract the rich, bold fruit flavours.

My great-aunt, the Algerian revolutionary
Left to right, Meriame, her cousin Houda and sister Sara inside the Takeniche cobblestone house where her father grew up [Meriame Yassi/Al Jazeera]

Childhood playgrounds

Our summer holidays in Beni-Mazouz were a far cry from my father’s upbringing. They were idyllic and played out like chapters of a fairy tale. My sister, cousin and I would roam the mountains freely, making them our playground. Each day was an adventure. We’d set off from the old house in Takaniche with homemade kisra – Algerian flatbread – and a few wedges of The Laughing Cow cheese. A stark contrast to the restrictions imposed on how far we could go to play after school in London.

Following the lightly marked paths made by shepherds, we would recall the story of my father finding an unexploded grenade, pin still in, in the ferns on the way to the waterfalls of Takeniche. “A French soldier must have dropped it,” he once said. Even as a child, this struck me as remarkably blase. When we heard the call to prayer for Maghreb at sunset, it was time to return home, before the wild boars came out.

Though I have never lived in Algeria, these regular visits throughout my childhood cemented my relationship with my country. The distance between London and Jijel meant that flights were relatively affordable for my parents, a privilege not honoured to some immigrant communities in the United Kingdom who have moved from parts of the world much further away.

My great-aunt, the Algerian revolutionary
The view from Kamira’s roof in the Lotta [Meriame Yassi/Al Jazeera]

New family

After the war, the families that lived in the mountains moved from their stone dwellings to the flat land in the Beni-Mazouz valley. The people who remained in the mountains gave this land distinct from the landscape above a nickname, the “Lotta”. The nickname is derived from the Arabic word al-watiya, meaning low.

Soon, towering villas with grand balconies and gardens boasting fruit trees and grapevines replaced the cobblestone houses. There are now two mosques, three or four ​​convenience stores, known as hanout, and four coffee shops.

Many of the old houses in the mountains are now vacant — they didn’t survive the elements. My father tried his best to preserve ours, but a few years ago, it collapsed after a harsh winter.

Like most of the families that lived in the mountains, after the war, Kamira moved to the Lotta. On one of my visits to Algeria, my father pointed out Kamira’s house. He wasn’t sure who lived there.​

My great-aunt, the Algerian revolutionary
The house where Rabah grew up in Takeniche during Algeria’s war for independence [Meriame Yassi/Al Jazeera]

The next day, I went to introduce myself. ​​A middle-aged man looked down from the balcony. “My grandfather was Ahmed,” I shouted upwards. I was immediately invited in.

As I entered the house, a ​​woman hastily kicked off her house slippers and gave them to me to wear, in a gesture of hospitality. I soon found out that this was Saida, Kamira’s granddaughter, and the man who invited me in was Saeed, Kamira’s grandson.

Sitting in the front room, window open and the sun shining in, Saida and Saeed weren’t surprised that although they were my father’s cousins, we hadn’t met before. Algerian families are big, and it’s common to have 20 or more cousins. They know my father as the one who lives “fil kherij”, meaning living abroad. With their warm welcome and the smiles exchanged, it felt as though I’d known them for years. They were delighted to learn that I wanted to hear their stories about their grandmother, Kamira.

​“The stories our grandmother Kamira told were unbelievable,” Saida said. “She was imprisoned for a couple of months. It was routine for the French to throw people in prison camps, just for being Algerian. There were many in this area, but when she was released, she went straight back to her duty with the FLN, right until the very last day of the war.”

My great-aunt, the Algerian revolutionary
Saida holds the medallion given to her grandmother, Kamira, to commemorate her son who was killed by French soldiers in the struggle for independence [Meriame Yassi/Al Jazeera]

They invited me for lunch the next day.

A large bowl of berbousha, a couscous dish, was placed in the centre of a lowered round table, known as maida. ​​A delightful broth of beef, carrots, potato and courgettes was ladled on top of a bed of light fluffy grains of couscous, with hints of cumin and fresh coriander. We shared the same bowl, using separate spoons, which is traditional culinary etiquette of Algerian culture, symbolic of our communal society.

During the meal, Saeed presented a large copper medallion awarded to Kamira by the state after independence to commemorate her son who was killed by French soldiers in the struggle for independence. Official documents reveal that Kamira was born in 1908 and that her son, Messaoud, was killed in 1958.

​​​Saeed explained that after the war the government awarded concessions to those who were active members of the FLN. “Our freedom fighters received priority in everything,” he says.

The discussions inevitably turned to the broader historical context. During the seven-year war, up to 1.5 million Algerians were killed. “That’s why Algeria’s nickname is the ‘country of a million martyrs’,” Saeed remarks. After a series of intense negotiations between then-French President Charles de Gaulle and the FLN, the Evian Accords were signed in March 1962 and a ceasefire was called.

On July 5, 1962, Algeria declared its independence, bringing an end to 132 years of French occupation.

I imagined that when Kamira heard the news of an independent Algeria, she covered the top of her mouth with a cupped hand letting out the most astonishing zagratouta. It is a sound of triumphant celebration and joy, an electrifying “yo-yo-yo-yo-yo-yo” that ends with a high-pitched “you-eeeeee”.

Saida told me that, after the war, Kamira worked in the Lotta as a cook in the local school. After she retired, ​she would often walk back to the mountain where she once lived, taking her cattle. “She preferred the older way of living to the modernity of the Lotta. In 2005, Kamira passed away,” Saida said. “She was strong-willed, there was no messing around with her, my Grandmother Kamira.”

As I prepared to leave, I reminded them, “We’re family”, and to expect a visit from me every time I was in Beni-Mazouz. As a parting gift, they handed me a repurposed Coca-Cola bottle filled with a dark green liquid glistening with a golden sheen: olive oil pressed from the very trees that once belonged to Kamira.

My great-aunt, the Algerian revolutionary
Rabah and his cousin Ahmed whose torture by French soldiers at 11 years of age claimed his eyesight, walk through Beni-Mazouz [Meriame Yassi/Al Jazeera]

My inheritance

​​The day after my father and I sat under the tree, we strolled through the valley of the mist-shrouded peaks of Beni-Mazouz. The scene resembled the grey, drizzly afternoons of London.

My father broke the silence with a reflection that struck a chord. “Our natural resources are disappearing because of climate change,” he remarked, his voice sharp with frustration. The village’s river had dwindled to a mere stream. “We used to be unable to cross this,” he said, gesturing towards the diminished waterway.

The conversation shifted to a more sombre note as he recounted the story of his cousin, Ahmed, who had been captured on this riverbank when he was 11 years old. Ahmed endured unspeakable torture at the hands of French soldiers, an ordeal that ultimately claimed his eyesight.

“They wanted to know where the revolutionaries were, but Ahmed was never going to tell them”. My father continued, “The French did whatever they could to try to break our spirit, but so long as we could dream of an independent Algeria, we knew that our day of liberation would come.”

As we walked, my father paused beside an olive tree marked with two large white dots, resembling a colon. He pointed at it and said, “Meriame, look here. These olive trees, marked ​​with this symbol, that’s your inheritance.”

I stood there, contemplating the olive trees that had nourished generations of my ancestors.

These trees were more than just plants; they were a living, breathing link to my heritage. Embedded firmly in the soil of Beni-Mazouz, they were a tangible link to the past, to the people who had tended them, and to the earth that had sustained them.

In these trees, I saw the reflection of my great-aunt Kamira’s essence: resilience, endurance, and a strong sense of connection to her ancestors and the land. At this moment, I understood that Beni-Mazouz, with its villagers and its olive trees, were an inseparable part of my identity, one that I embraced with pride and a sense of deep affection.

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