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Sfisef: The 23 victims of the tragedy at cave Laforgue

Colonial authorities suspected inhabitants of the Touila village of hosting independence fighters. They took 23 villagers as hostages and locked them up in a wine tank at the Laforgue farm, east of the town of Sfisef (Sidi Bel Abbès). The following day, 16 of them were found dead. This is their story.

Photo : Mohamed Mir.

To try and reconstruct the facts, Twala went to meet three of the seven of the survivors who are still alive: Sarno Benyahia (Sfisef), Bentekhissi Mohamed (Mascara) and Bououlsis Hanifi (Sidi Bel Abbès). Due to the physical incapacity of his sick former companions, only the latter was able to remember the painful memory of that terrible night, a traumatic event that left survivors with deep physical and emotional scars.

On that Tuesday, day 16th of Ramadan, recalls Bououlsis Hanifi, the Touila village, 5 kilometers east of the town of Sfisef, was preparing to host a group of ALN soldiers who were passing through the zone in order to pick up a number of volunteers who wanted to join the fight. The latter were staying with the family of Boucetta Lahcen, chief of the local “faoudj” which was made up of other members also present with them, among which were Kaddous Mostefa and Chaib Draâ Bettekouk, a Vietnam war veteran. 

Once informed of their presence, around 3 in the afternoon, units from the C.C.A.S. (Compagnie de Commandement, d’Appui et de Soutien) arrived with reinforcements and started searching for the suspects… The members of the faoudj  and their guests, the aspiring fighters, succeeded in exiting the encirclement being put in place, thanks to an ALN volunteer named Djelloul El Manko, who was able to cover their escape by shooting and injuring a French officer and NCO.

Seeing that their operation failed, the French ordered their troops to wreak havoc in the Touila village. A few hours were enough for the French soldiers and their auxiliaries to plunder and destroy everything. 

“Still under the orders of their direct superiors, Battalion Commander Holl and Second Lieutenant Lefebvre, they resolved to take no less than 23 inhabitants of the village as hostages, including a large number of men and children, including my late father and uncle as well as me, then a little over 17 years old”, recalls our witness. 

The whole group was transferred to Sfisef, to a sinister place called “Chicha” in order to be interrogated under torture. Around 10 p.m., the group was transferred again, to “La cave Laforgue”, another lawless zone put in place in the heart of Ouled Slimane. 

When they arrived on the scene, the NCO and the harkis escorting them ordered every hostage to empty their pockets. They gave them afterwards a cigarette each and ordered them to smoke it immediately. 

“The convict’s last cigarette? Did our executioners already know that our destiny was sealed by their superiors and thus they only had to accompany us to what would be a true death cave for many of us? We didn’t really know why at the time…”, wondered this tragedy’s survivor before continuing his story. 

Following this interlude, hostages were pushed one after the other into the bottom of the wine tank, of which the torturers made sure to tightly bolt the top and bottom openings.

“We knew that our time had come. In the darkness and the suffocating heat of the amphora, each one tried for better or for worse to snap up the hypothetical suspended air pockets and to pray to the Almighty to alleviate our suffering”, recalls Bououlsis Hanifi. “The mind weighed heavily. I heard my father read the shahada and ask me to do the same. Our prayers rose to the sky despite the satanic will of those who wanted to make us quiet from the outside”. 

The death tanks

““God is unique!”, shouted one of my companions and I couldn’t identify the voice. “Cries of pain and suffering. Then came the silence which gradually dominated the moans of those who already were departing. Under the effects of sulfur dioxide emanations and the suffocation due to confinement, we ended up fainting one by one. We were all outside of the physical world”. 

The following day, at around ten in the morning, a French officer ordered a prisoner brought from outside to open the tank. Out of the 23 people that were pulled, there were 16 dead due to asphyxia, from the families of Boussetla (Mohamed, Mokhtar, Abdelkader, Larbi), Kaddous (Mohamed and Ali), Tchemoun (Boudali and Aïssa), Bouelsis (Djelloul and Baghdad), Ouassouas (Mehadji and Bekkadour), Ziane (Larbi), Sarno (Mohamed), Benatia (Mokhtar), Maroc (Mohamed)…

Without worrying too much about their state of human rags, the seven survivors, namely Ziane Mohamed, Djellili Bekaddour, Ramdoun Bendida and Bououlsis Hanifi, were taken by French soldiers to the torture center they “visited” first in Sfisef, before being interned afterwards for nearly 20 days in the warehouses of the Perret farm were they once again endured torture and humiliation. 

When they were freed, the seven survivors faced all the trouble in the world in reintegrating their jobs as agricultural seasonal workers with their former employers. But the region’s specialty in viticulture (3800 hectares of vine in 1957) and the sugar beet that even the indigenous farmer adopted, offered them new job perspectives in the agriculture and industry sectors with the creation and start of production of a large sugar refinery, considered at the time to be one of its kind in North Africa. 

Others preferred to head elsewhere and look for possible job opportunities in different activity fields, including construction. That was the case of Bououlsis Hanifi, who had to move to the city of Sidi Bel Abbès where he was able to learn the building trade on construction sites, and Bentekhissi Mohamed, who moved to Mascara and worked in trade and crafts. When the painful memory of the cave Laforgue tragedy is mentioned with them, the miraculous survivors are aware that the sacrifice was not in vain because it revealed the true nature of the French colonization. 

Similar events took place during the same year in different parts of the country, the first one during the night of the 14th to the 15th of March 1957, in Aïn Isser (Tlemcen) where 101 men were locked up in wine cellars and 41 among them were killed asphyxiated, the second one on June 27th, 1957, in a wine tank in Mouzaia where 21 other Algerians perished in the same conditions. 

It is necessary to note once again that those crimes, assembled, do not fail to remind us of the “enfumades” perpetrated by the columns of general Bugeaud and to prove, at the same time, that Algerians dying asphyxiated is also a practice that originated in the early days of colonization. It pushes some to say that they cannot help but think that “the French army left more than a heritage of terror and heinous practices…the proof of its secular inhumanity”.