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Algerian Chronicles

Albert Camus's 1957 work shows his outrage over the suffering of Algeria's Arab and Berber populations.

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Indeed, "Algerian Chronicles" gives ample evidence that Camus felt genuine outrage and deep compassion about the suffering of Algeria's Arab and Berber populations, and for every statement that makes him sound like an apologist for France (and such statements are, admittedly, present) there are several that take the French government to task for its wrongdoings and demand that it radically alter its policies. He was particularly outspoken regarding French military attacks on civilian populations and also regarding the widespread use of torture, both of which he viewed as absolutely unjustifiable.

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Indeed, many in France called Camus a traitor on account of his sympathy with the Algerian Arabs. When he returned to Algeria in 1956 to speak against the killing of civilians at a public meeting – after having been forced to leave for having been so outspoken in his criticism of French authority there – a mob of French "ultracolonialists" gathered outside the meeting and angrily chanted "Death to Camus." The text of that speech is included in this volume as "Call for a Civilian Truce in Algeria.")

But the main movement in favor of Algerian independence, the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), was equally guilty of human rights violations. They too sometimes used torture, and they too committed acts of terrorism against innocent civilians. Camus's family, who still lived in Algeria, were among the potential targets of these terrorist acts, and some of the rebels accused him of a kind of self-interest in denouncing the terrorists; but what is clear from "Algerian Chronicles" is that Camus's compassion could be triggered by the suffering of any human being, and that his political and moral concern was with any innocent person who might be made the victim of violence in the name of any political cause. Indeed, his unhappiness with the evident disregard for human rights on both sides in the Algerian conflict sent him into a long period of silence, during which he said he nothing out of fear that whatever he might say would be used as ammunition by one side or the other:

"When the fate of men and women who share one's own blood is linked directly or indirectly to articles that one writes so effortlessly in the comfort of one's study, then one has a duty to weigh the pros and cons before taking up one's pen. For my own part, while I remain sensitive to the risk that, in criticizing the course of the rebellion, I give aid and comfort to the most insolent instigators of the Algerian tragedy, I am also afraid that, by retracing the long history of French errors, I am, with no risk to myself, supplying alibis to the criminal madmen who would toss grenades into crowds of innocent people who happen to be my kin."

Instead he tried to maintain a sensible middle position, breaking his silence occasionally to call on both sides to stop violating the rights of the innocent and to declare a "civilian truce" that would have protected all noncombatants from being made targets of violence.

The civilian truce was seen only as a first step, but Camus was probably right that it was a necessary first step. Neither side, though, was interested in implementing it: each used the misdeeds of the other to justify their own. Camus's sane and compassionate position, meanwhile, seemed to satisfy no one. The extremists on each side saw Camus as having aligned himself with their enemies (that is how extremists, after all, tend to see moderates). Or else they saw him as having chosen no side at all – or having tried to have it both ways – and so accused him of indecisiveness, cowardice, or naïve idealism.

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