60 years on, independence war defines modern Algeria

60 years on, independence war defines modern Algeria
This combo of two photos shows on (Left) soldiers standing guard in a street leading to the Ketchaoua Mosque on December 11, 1960 and (right) people walking down a street leading to the Ketchaoua Mosque in the historical Casbah distrisct on October 29, 2014. Sixty years on, the war of independence from France remains a defining moment for Algeria and its elite.

ALGIERS, Algeria - Sixty years on, the war of independence from France remains a defining moment for Algeria and its elite, like 79-year-old Zohra Drif, a senator who once set off a bomb that left three people dead.

On the night of November 1, 1954, known as "Toussaint Rouge" (Red All Saints Day) because it coincided with the Catholic festival, some 30 explosions rocked government targets in the colony which had been under French occupation for 132 years, leaving seven people dead.

"When my brother arrived with the newspapers, he was shouting 'Tartgou-ha! Tartgou-ha!' (It's started!)," Drif, now deputy speaker of the Algerian upper house, told AFP.

"We understood straight away. It was the start of the revolution," she said.

At the time, Drif was a law student living with her younger brother and parents in Vialar, 280 kilometres (170 miles) southwest of Algiers.

"Not only were we not surprised, but right away we said it was the start of the revolution," the senator recalled, seated in her office facing the port of Algiers.

The teenager's only thought was to join the revolutionaries, but "it took us a year and a half to be accepted into the National Liberation Front (FLN)" fighting the colonial power, she said.

She underwent secret training with instructors whose names were never used and was then tasked with helping families of FLN fighters who had gone underground or been killed in action.

Drif was eager to join the fighters and argued that with her European looks she aroused less suspicion in target areas where French settlers lived.

'Starting point' of modern Algeria

On September 30, 1956, she planted a bomb in Milk Bar, a fashionable venue on the capital's Isly Street, in an attack that left three dead and a dozen others wounded.

"I was wanted and had to go into hiding. The French infiltrated our group and that's how they managed to arrest me" 12 months later, she said.

Tried and sentenced to 20 years of hard labour, Drif was first detained in Algiers, then transferred to prisons in France until the North African state's independence in 1962, when she was feted on her return.

The conflict cost the lives of 1.5 million "martyrs", according to Algerian authorities. French historians refer to 500,000 dead.

The war of independence still forms the core of the legitimacy of those in power in present-day Algeria, even if its influence is starting to wane.

The FLN accounts for the country's top leaders, including ailing President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, in power since 1999.

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