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“the silent pain” of deportees in New Caledonia

The descendants of “straw hats” (headgear of the convicts) testify with emotion to a story that it took”fetch, almost extort them“.
They arrived after a five-month voyage, chained in the holds. The number of dead, whose bodies were thrown overboard during the crossing, remains unknown.“, tells AFP Taïeb Aïfa, 83 years old.
Her father was part of the last convict convoy in 1898 and her mother is the daughter of one of the first deportees on the “Pebble“, nickname of Caledonia.

The history of our ancestors was a taboo subject. The law of silence reigned in the families of deportees“, explains this octogenarian, pillar of the “arab community“, the descendants of Algerians.

From 1864 to 1897over the advance of the French colonial troops, who entered Algeria in 1830, more than 2,100 Algerians tried by special or military courts were deported to the colonial penal colony of Nouméa, in this French territory of the Pacific.

From colonized to colonizer

We kids of the straw hats were treated like boobs“(racist insult, editor’s note), remembers Taïeb Aïfa, whose father was sentenced to 25 years in prison for having defended his land in Sétif (eastern Algeria) against the French soldiers.
Tragic irony: “from being colonized in Algeria, they became colonizers in spite of themselves. On land confiscated from the Kanaks“, the natives, underlines Mr. Aïfa, figure of Bourail (west).

In New Caledonia, the French State aimed, as in Algeria for that matter, to create a settlement. The deportees were transformed into settlers“, reports for AFP, Christophe Sand, archaeologist at the IRD research institute in Nouméa and descendant of a deportee.

If the French convicts were later able to bring back their wives, it was forbidden to the Algerians who married on the spot.

Those sentenced to more than eight years in prison – most of them – did not have the right to return to Algeria after their sentence, underlines Mr. Sand. “According to our calculations, this process must have given up in Algeria between 3,000 and 5,000 +orphans+“, notes the researcher.
My grandfather left two children in Algeria whom he never saw again“, confirms Maurice Sotirio, grandson of a convict from the Constantine region (north-east).

In Caledonia, they were second-class citizens, according to Mr. Sand, especially since they often did not speak French, only Arabic or Berber.
Their children have suffered greatly from this stigma and only a few families have proudly safeguarded their origins.

At the end of the 1960s, the descendants came together in the association of “Arabs and friends of the Arabs of New Caledonia“.
I was a worker at 17 and I joined trade unions. Mayor for 30 years, I signed official documents as Taïeb Aïfa, a revenge on history“, testifies the one who was nicknamed the “Caliph“when he became mayor of Bourail claiming”his Algerianness“.

“Healing Process”

Mr. Aïfa remembers his first trip to Algeria in 2006, when he had the feeling of “symbolically bring back (his) father who, like other Arabs, had suffered from not being able to return and die in his native country“.
I claim my Caledonitude. But, I am also Algerian, I have a link with Algeria, family, land… I managed to obtain my Algerian papers 20 years ago“, he says proudly.

When Christophe Sand went to Algeria with two other descendants of convicts, he had “throughout the flight the impression of carrying (his) ancestor on the shoulders“.
When I saw, through the porthole, the port of Algiers, where my great-grandfather and his companions had been thrown into the hold, I felt a pain to scream“, he says.

Arrived at the village of Agraradj, in Kabylia (east), in his native house, he touched the ground: “I had the feeling that the symbolic weight that I had on my shoulders since the beginning of the trip had disappeared. I had taken his exiled spirit back to where it was born“.
For Mr. Sand, you have to go through “this process of healing, closing the door” for “building a future in New Caledonia“.
Healing from the trauma of exile allows the Caledonians that we are today to project ourselves into the future without remaining prisoners of the past.“.

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