Saadi Yacef, revolutionary whose memoir was adapted into the brilliant film The Battle of Algiers – obituary
He admitted committing atrocities in the struggle for independence, but insisted that ‘this was our only means against a cruel enemy’
Saadi Yacef, who has died aged 93, was an Algerian revolutionary whose memoir of the anti-colonial struggle against the French was made into one of the greatest and most influential films of the 20th century.
At the start of the battle for Algiers in 1956 he was military chief in the capital for the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN). It was a campaign of exceptional brutality conducted in the European quarter and the labyrinthine streets of the old city, or Casbah. The French army, under General Jacques Massu, resorted to torture, illegal executions and forced disappearances of opponents whom they cast as terrorists.
In an interview with Bloomberg News in 2007 Yacef spoke of FLN strategy as “specifically targeted at occupiers, not just anybody”. “We killed women, yes,” he said, “and took foetuses out of their womb” – actions which he justified as part of the struggle for freedom. “This was our only means against a cruel enemy.”
Two of the most spectacular FLN actions were the bombings in September 1956 of a milk bar and a café in the European quarter. They killed four people and wounded 52. The bombs were planted by women.
Yacef was captured in September 1957, sentenced to death by guillotining (later commuted to life imprisonment) and jailed in Algeria and France until he was pardoned after General de Gaulle came to power in 1958. His memoir, Souvenirs de la Bataille d’Alger, was published in 1962. As he was barely literate, it is believed to have been dictated to a friend while he was in prison.
In the film adaptation, The Battle of Algiers – directed by the Italian Gillo Pontecorvo, with a script by Franco Solinas and a score by Pontecorvo and Ennio Morricone – Yacef played the part of Jaffar, the character based on him. He was also one of the producers, having introduced the director to the battle locations and some of the people involved.
The Battle of Algiers won the Golden Lion at the 1966 Venice Film Festival and was nominated for three Academy Awards. In a poll conducted by the film magazine Sight and Sound in 2012, it was adjudged by directors and critics among the best films ever made. It was banned for five years in France.
The film’s influence, whether on insurgents or those trying to suppress them, has been acknowledged by the IRA, the Black Panthers, the Baader-Meinhof Gang, the Palestine Liberation Organisation and various military juntas in Latin America. In 2003, following the US-led invasion of Iraq, it was screened at the Pentagon and the Council on Foreign Relations, the New York-based think-tank. It also became part of the curriculum at military academies such as West Point.
After Algerian independence in 1962 Yacef became a member of the Council of the Nation, the upper house of the Algerian legislature, in which he served as an FLN senator until his death.
Saadi Yacef was born on January 20 1928 to illiterate, Berber-speaking parents from the northern region of Kabylia. He started work as an apprentice baker, and aged 17 joined the Parti du Peuple Algérien, a nationalist organisation soon to be outlawed by the French colonial authorities. It was reconstituted as the Mouvement pour le Triomphe des Libertés Démocratiques, in whose paramilitary wing, the Organisation Secrète, Yacef served.
After that was broken up, he moved to France, where anti-Arab racism sharpened his opposition to French colonial rule. He returned home in 1952, worked as a baker, and joined the FLN at the outbreak of the Algerian War two years later, becoming military head of the Autonomous Zone of Algiers.
General Paul Aussaresses, who worked under Jacques Massu during the battle for Algiers, asserted that while in custody Yacef betrayed the whereabouts of Ali Ammar, alias Ali la Pointe, whose story, culminating in the blowing-up of the house in which he was hiding, is the common thread of the film. Yacef denied the charge.
In the Bloomberg interview Yacef criticised FLN rule after independence as opening the door to Islamic extremism. “Through mismanagement we created a monster,” he said. In 1992 the Islamic Salvation Front was on the verge on winning parliamentary elections in Algeria when the military staged a coup and aborted the poll, triggering a civil war.
In 2007, when a re-release of The Battle of Algiers was being shown in Edinburgh, Yacef told the Sunday Herald that he thought he would be killed immediately after arrest because he was so high up in the FLN. “The executions were always done at dawn so when I saw the sun coming through the prison bars, I knew that I would live another day.”
Yacef, who is believed to have married a fellow activist, Djamila Boupacha, said that he was not frightened of dying – rather, that when “I was led to the guillotine, I wouldn’t be lucid enough to say the words ‘Long live Algeria!’ ”.
Saadi Yacef, born January 20 1928, died September 10 2021