[News] As Algeria’s revolutionaries fade away, the iconic Milk Bar bomber looks back without regret

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Sat Jul 10 13:45:37 EDT 2021

*A Great Memoir - Inside the Battle of Algiers: Memoir of a Woman Freedom
Fighter published in 2017. Check it out! *

Algeria’s revolutionaries fade away, the iconic Milk Bar bomber looks back
without regret
Siobhán O'Grady - July 9, 2021

ALGIERS — To passersby, she would have appeared unremarkable: a young
Frenchwoman enjoying a peach Melba at an ice cream parlor downtown.

But the woman who sat down in the Milk Bar in Algiers on Sept. 30, 1956,
was a clandestine member of the Algerian resistance fighting for
independence from France. Inside the beach bag she tucked by her feet was a

The explosion that

, then 21, set off in Algiers that day killed at least three people,
wounded dozens and marked a major turning point in Algeria’s struggle for

Algeria’s revolutionaries, who rose up against the French military and
ultimately forced France to cede control of the country, captured the
world’s attention, and their success became one of the high points of
efforts across much of Africa to shake off European colonialism.

Today, that revolutionary generation is rapidly fading away. Drif is among
the dwindling number who remain and one of the most iconic.

At 86, she moves softly and wears wire-rimmed glasses, her light hair cut
close to her ears. Decades have passed since she and her friends moved
between hideouts in the winding streets of the casbah of Algiers, where
freedom fighters once organized in secret. But Drif can still recall in
remarkable detail the events that would forever shape not only her future
but that of her country.

The bombing of the Milk Bar, frequented by French settlers, aimed “to
create in the civilian French population the same panic” that Algerians
were experiencing, she said in an interview at her son’s home in the
Algerian capital last month. The Europeans “were so overprotected, it was
as if there wasn’t a war. . . . And we had to tell them: The war is
everywhere. It’s not only for us, it’s also for the French,” she said,
expressing no regrets.

The French considered Algeria part of France, and around a million
Europeans had settled there by the time war broke out. “If we look to the
period of decolonization, settler colonies in the world are the most
violent and the hardest to decolonize,” said Jennifer Sessions, a
University of Virginia historian.

Although the war began in 1954 and was fought across rural Algeria, the
September 1956 attacks marked the beginning of a tumultuous new period in
the capital.

The explosive that Drif planted was one of three bombs placed by Algerian
women in Algiers that day — a series of coordinated terrorist attacks that
enraged and terrified Europeans in the city. The French military spent the
following year identifying and dismantling cells of fighters and supporters
of the independence movement. Thousands were rounded up and detained,
including Drif. Many were tortured
killed — and many others disappeared entirely.

Drif had made for a somewhat unlikely militant.

An exceptional student, she eventually moved for her studies to Algiers,
where she was one of only a handful of Algerians at her boarding school.
There, she met Samia Lakhdari, who would become her closest friend and
later her co-conspirator in the resistance. Lakhdari died in 2012.

“Knowing everything that had happened in our country, it was clear for us
there was no option but an armed struggle, and that we had to confront the
French, and with violence,” Drif recalled.

The young women’s immersion in French school and ability to blend into
European neighborhoods made them ideal candidates for undercover work on
behalf of the movement.

On the same evening in 1956 that Drif planted a bomb in the Milk Bar,
Lakhdari and her mother posed as Frenchwomen and placed a bomb in a popular
cafe. Another female combatant, Djamila Bouhired, planted a third bomb in
an Air France office the same day, but it failed to detonate. The victims
included children, some of whom required amputations due to the severity of
their injuries.

Before the explosion, Drif managed to exit the ice cream bar unnoticed. But
she was still close enough to feel the blast a few minutes later. In a
panic, she went to the home of a family friend, a Frenchwoman who had no
idea Drif was behind the attacks, she recalled.

Drif played dumb as the woman expressed her anxiety over the explosions.
Then she rushed to return to Lakhdari’s house.

“The instructions were not just to drop the bomb, and to leave before it
exploded, but to not get arrested,” she said. “We had to come back, because
if we were arrested, it would practically have been a failure.”

Their attacks were famously depicted in “The Battle of Algiers,” an
acclaimed 1966 film directed by Gillo Pontecorvo that reenacts some of the
critical moments of the Algerian resistance in the capital and the French
crackdown. The film, considered controversial in France, was temporarily
banned by authorities there.

After the bombing, Drif continued to work in secret for the armed wing of
the National Liberation Front, or FLN, which would go on to become the
country’s ruling party after independence.

She was arrested at a hideout in the casbah in 1957 but freed five years
later, when Algeria declared independence in 1962, sparking the mass exodus
of Europeans from the country.

Drif went on to marry Rabah Bitat, one of the masterminds of the
independence movement and later a prominent politician and interim
president of Algeria. She worked as a lawyer and eventually became the vice
president of Algeria’s senate. The couple also raised three children before
he died in 2000.

Two years ago, when an enormous wave of peaceful, anti-government protests
swept Algiers, Drif said she felt as if the youth of Algeria had “picked
back up the torch” from her generation.

Unemployment was spiking and frustration was running high with the longtime
president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, himself a veteran of the independence
struggle, and his network of powerful military officials, businesspeople
and politicians — known as Le Pouvoir, or the Power. Drif said she saw the
protests as proof that the new generation was “profoundly attached to their
country.” Bouteflika was ultimately forced to resign.

For Drif, the passion that younger Algerians displayed left her feeling
more heartened about the country’s future.

They “were fighting for the same principles we fought for, meaning a
country that is governed by its children,” she said.
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