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Day 94: Algiers

Michael Palin - SaharaUnlike other countries of the French empire, such as Tunisia, Senegal, Mauritania and Mali, Algeria's independence was won at considerable cost. Hundreds of thousands of French settlers had made their lives here, and, rather than accommodate the demands for self-determination that swept through Saharan Africa in the 1950s and 1960s, they decided to make a fight of it. Their battle to turn back the tide of history ended in ignominious failure in 1962, when General de Gaulle, heavily influenced by world opinion, finally handed over the country to the nationalist FLN (National Liberation Front).

The elegant old Villa Suzini played a particularly sinister part in all this. Down in the cellars, below the Carrara marble floor and the mosaic tiles and coloured glass of the central courtyard, are rooms into which the sun never shines. Plaster peels off the walls and there is a sour smell of damp. It was down here that the French paras interrogated their suspects. Torture was routinely used. Electric shocks were administered to various parts of the body through serrated pincers known as 'crocodiles'. Some of those who died of their beatings were buried in the garden or thrown down a well at the back of the house. The Villa Suzini was, until two or three years ago, used as an office, but now, apart from a sallow-complexioned caretaker and two or three dogs, it is deserted. No-one will work here.

'Too many ghosts,' explains Said.

Near the villa there is a funicular railway, and we take a car down the hill into the working-class district of Belcourt, where Albert Camus, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, was brought up, and about which he wrote in an unfinished autobiographical novel, Le Premier Homme (The First Man).
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  • Series: Sahara
  • Day: 94
  • Country/sea: Algeria
  • Place: Algiers
  • Book page no: 243

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