ALGIERS (Reuters) - When French soldiers and administrators left Algeria after more than a century of colonial rule, they did not go empty-handed.
They took historical artifacts, books and maps, a national heritage that still sits in French libraries and archives today and which Algeria says its former colonial master should return.
France and Algeria this week mark the 50th anniversary of the July 5, 1962, independence declaration that ended French rule. Each side will reflect on the problems that entangle them.
Algerians want Paris to apologize for decades of colonial servitude and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people who fought for independence. France wrestles with its legacy in the form of a huge community descended from Algerian migrants that struggles to integrate into French society.
Set against these problems, the missing archives are not the most serious issue weighing on French-Algerian relations. But the tussle captures the deep sense of both grievance and mutual dependence that remains between the two countries half a century after they broke apart.
Abdelmadjid Chikhi, director of Algeria’s national archive centre, said his counterparts in France had offered a compromise: Algeria would be given access to copies of the disputed items if it abandons its claim to them. He refused.
“We’re not going to give up our right. We’re not going to give up our property,” he said in an interview in Algiers. “Quite simply because it’s something that belongs to us. What’s mine is mine. I’m not going to sign away our national heritage.”
France sees it differently. Herve Lemoin, the director of the French national archives, said an agreement had been reached in 1966 to return Algeria’s historical archives, notably Ottoman-era documents, and technical documents from the 1830-1962 period, but Algiers had since claimed more.
The row has practical implications for Algeria because some documents held in French institutions contain technical data; maps of underground sewers, gas pipes and electricity lines.
In the summer of 2009, archaeologists found the remains of an ancient Christian basilica underneath Place des Martyrs, a busy square in Algiers not far from the historic Casbah.
Among the Algerian archaeologists excavating the site were a number of researchers from France. Asked why they were there, the Algerian head of the dig said: “They have the maps.”
He said it was customary for France to allow access to such maps on the condition that French scientists join the project.
Engineers building the first underground train system in the capital, completed earlier this year, had similar problems with a lack of data about what they were digging through.
In all, according to archives chief Chikhi, France still has about 50,000 manuscripts which originated on Algerian soil, as well as large numbers of other historical artifacts.
Most coveted by Algerian historians are the items which relate to the country before the start of French rule in 1830.
France has the library of Emir Abdelkader, an Islamic scholar who led a rebellion against French rule in the two decades after the French arrived. General Thomas Robert Bugeaud, sent by Paris to put down the revolt, captured the emir, sent him into exile and confiscated the library.
French institutions hold hundreds of scientific papers which date to a period before rule from Paris, when Algeria was a seat of learning that attracted scholars from Europe, among them Leonardo Fibonacci, the Italian mathematician.
Another Algerian artifact stands in the French port of Brest - a bronze cannon, known to Algerians as Baba Merzouq.
It was built for Algeria’s rulers to protect their Mediterranean coast from attacks by European forces trying to neutralize the pirates who used Algeria as a safe haven.
It was also used in the 17th century to execute two French consuls who annoyed the local rulers, giving the cannon its French nickname, le Consulaire. When the French invaded, they claimed the cannon as a trophy of war. Algerian civil society groups have mounted a vocal campaign to get it back.
Algerian historians feel the shipping of such items to France was part of a drive by colonial rulers to erase traces of the civilization that existed before they arrived.
It aimed, they say, to crush ideas of Algerian statehood.
The removal of artifacts began with the start of French rule and continued even in the weeks before independence, when files were transferred to France under the pretext of transferring them onto microfilm, said Chikhi.
“They didn’t want to leave any symbols of the state, and the archives are a symbol of state,” he said.
Despite the disputes, staff at the Algerian and French national archives have a decent working relationship.
They signed a cooperation agreement in 2009 and let each other’s researchers study, and sometimes copy, some documents.
“This agreement... opens for both our countries a page of history that we hope will be fruitful as possible,” Lemoin said.
The problems are at a higher level. When negotiators were hammering out the terms of Algeria’s independence in the French spa resort of Evian 50 years ago, they did not include in their treaty any articles on archives or historical artifacts.
Since the 1966 agreement cited by Lemoin, there has been political deadlock. France argues that since the archives and artifacts were collected by French officials when Algeria was part of France, it now owns them.
“These archives, which represent just 15 percent of the public archives existing in Algeria in 1962, came from civil servants, police and military... (and) are considered under French law sovereign archives that are not transferable,” Lemoin said. “But that does not exclude them from being made available for the needs of research and knowledge.”
Algerians counter that no one asked them if they wanted to be ruled by France. In any case, they say, if a document or artifact originated on Algerian soil, it is Algerian property.
Over lunch in the Algerian archive’s staff canteen, Chikhi recalls how he and his father were both jailed by the French for helping the uprising during the war for independence.
Later, Chikhi joined the post-independence administration and recruited literate Algerians as teachers. When the French left, so did most of the schoolmasters.
But the passage of time has helped heal those grievances. Chikhi hopes it will do the same for the row over the archives.
“Things are evolving,” he said. “You have to let time do its work ... There is a new generation of historians who see things in a slightly less impassioned way, on our side too. We are starting to see history from a different angle.”
Additional reporting by Lamine Chikhi in Algiers and John Irish in Paris, Editing by Lin Noueihed