Descendants of Algerians deported by France to Pacific island remember their ‘silent pain’
On the 60th anniversary of Algeria's independence from France, descendants of the North Africans deported to the Pacific territory of New Caledonia remember the "silent pain" of their ancestors.
Between 1864 and 1897, as French colonial troops advanced through Algeria, 2,100 people were tried by special or military courts and deported.
They were sent in chains around 18,500 kilometers (11,500 miles) to the other side of the world, to a penal colony on the Pacific archipelago of New Caledonia.
The palm-fringed islands east of Australia are one of France's biggest overseas territories.
"The number of dead, whose bodies were thrown overboard, during the crossing, remains unknown," said Taieb Aifa, whose father was on the last convoy of convicts bought to the colony in 1898.
Those who survived the tough journey became known as the "straw hats" -- a nod to the convicts' headgear as they worked in the blazing sun.
Today, their descendants say that so great is the pain, the story has to be "almost prized from them," Aifa told AFP.
Aifa described a five-month journey to the islands, during which convicts were "chained in the holds" of ships.
For many years, even speaking about his ancestors' tale was taboo.
"A code of silence reigned in the families of deportees," said 89-year-old Aifa, now regarded as a pillar of New Caledonia's "Arab community" after serving as mayor of the small town of Bourail for 30 years.
Aifa's father was sentenced to 25 years for fighting against the French army in Setif, in eastern Algeria.
"From the colonized in Algeria, they became colonizers... On land confiscated from the Kanaks", he said, referring to New Caledonia's indigenous inhabitants.
"In New Caledonia, the French state aimed, as in Algeria, to create a settlement," Aifa said.
Christophe Sand, an archaeologist at the IRD Research Centre in Noumea, who is also the descendant of convicts, said that "the deportees were transformed into colonists".
Algeria, which Paris regarded as an integral part of France, is this year marking six decades since its 1962 independence following a devastating eight-year war.