Thursday, May 23, 2024

Nestled amid the vineyards in a picturesque region of southwestern France known for its sweet wines and goat cheeses is a fenced-off parcel of thorny, empty land, mostly avoided by nearby villagers other than the few who walk their dogs there.

The nondescript patch has become part of a national effort to address a painful episode in France’s colonial history: the treatment of the predominately Muslim Algerians known as Harkis who fought for the French during Algeria’s war of independence.

After the war ended in 1962, some of the Harkis and their families were placed in several internment and transit camps across France. They stayed for years in those camps, treated more as unwanted refugees in France than former soldiers, surrounded by barbed wire and watchtowers, while the French government organized their relocations across the country.

In the early years, many of the children in these families, historians say, died in the camps, including one known as Rivesaltes, where about 21,000 Harkis passed through. Historians say they believe that the bodies of at least 50 of these children are buried under the dry soil of Rivesaltes, which is close to the Mediterranean and about half an hour’s drive from Avignon.

A much smaller number of adults also died in the camps; a few are also believed to be buried near Rivesaltes.

A stone memorial opposite the field near Rivesaltes lists the names of children who died there, without saying where they were buried. A nearby museum honors the memories of various groups of people interned in Rivesaltes at different periods — including Spanish Republicans and Jews during World War II, and then the Harkis — but there is no mention of the nearby burial site.

“It is absolutely vile,” said Hacène Arfi, 68, who lived in the camp as a child and has led an organization to assist Harkis. Walking through the field where he believes the remains of his stillborn brother lie, he said: “They didn’t do a serious job here. They just chucked a stone slab somewhere and decided it was enough.”

After pressure from families of people interned in Rivesaltes, the French government promised in October to excavate the land where the children’s bodies are believed to be buried. That pledge is part of a broader effort by the government to address how the Harkis were treated after the war, a conflict that remains a raw wound in France.

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