French Journalist Describes His Torture Being Waterboarded by French Forces During Algerian War

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We now turn to a real-life survivor of torture of the Algerian war. Henri Alleg is a French journalist who was arrested by French paratroopers in Algeria in ’57. Alleg was sympathetic to Algerian independence. He was interrogated for a month. He was questioned. He was waterboarded repeatedly. Alleg described his ordeal in an essay called "The Question," which was published in 1958 with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre. The book was subsequently banned in France and legalized only after the Algerian war ended in 1962. Henri Alleg is eighty-six years old now, survived torture by French paratroopers, lives now in Paris and joins us on the phone....

AMY GOODMAN: Henri Alleg, I realize it was, what, about a half a century ago that you were held, interrogated and tortured. But I was wondering, since obviously I think most people, most in the civilian population, even soldiers, are not really familiar with what exactly waterboarding is. It has become almost a kind of catchphrase. Can you explain exactly what happened to you?

HENRI ALLEG: Well, I was put on a plank, on a board, fastened to it and taken to a tap. And my face was covered with a rag. Very quickly, the rag was completely full of water. And, of course, you have the impression of being drowned. And --

AMY GOODMAN: The “tap,” meaning you were put under a water faucet?

HENRI ALLEG: A tap, yes, tap water. So, very quickly, the water ran all over my face. I couldn’t, of course, breathe. And after a few minutes, fighting against the impression of getting drowned, you can’t resist. And you feel as if you were drowning yourself. And this is a terrible impression of coming very near death. And so, when the paratroopers, the torturers, see that you’re drowning, they would stop, let you breathe, and try again. So that impression of getting near to death, every time they helped you to come back to life by breathing, it’s a terrible, terrible impression of torture and of death, being near death. So, that was my impression. But it’s difficult to say that this --

AMY GOODMAN: In the context -- explain the context for us, Henri Alleg, as they held you under the faucet and the water filled your lungs, what did the French military -- what were they demanding of you, and how did you stop it? How did it start again?

HENRI ALLEG: They just wanted me to, first of all, say what I was doing in the moments I was illegal, because I stopped, of course, going to the newspaper, because it was suppressed. So I had to hide, because I knew that I would be taken and sent to a concentration camp. So they wanted to know who were the people I met during that illegal period, what was the people that I had met and what they were doing. That’s what they wanted from me --

AMY GOODMAN: Did you tell them?

HENRI ALLEG: -- is to denounce my friends, and I refused to open my mouth to say a word about that. I wouldn’t betray my friends. They didn’t know much more about me. And that is what they wanted. And I didn’t want to help them in any way that would be possible.

AMY GOODMAN: When the water came into your lungs, how did you remain conscious? How did you resist it?

HENRI ALLEG: Well, they said to me, “When you want to talk, you just move your fingers.” Move your fingers. Of course, I was strapped to a board. And the first time I -- they started that, I didn’t realize even that I was moving desperately my fingers. So I moved my fingers, and they shouted around me, “So he’s going to talk! He’s going to talk!” So they let me breathe. And as soon as I got a little breath again, I denounced it, and I still refused. So they started again. They said, “He’s making a joke out of us.” So they gave me very heavy blows on my chest and on my belly to make the -- get out the water of my lungs and of my body. And they started again afterwards.

And suddenly, as I have explained it -- I think it was the third time -- I just fainted. And I heard them after a while saying, “Oh, he’s coming back. He’s coming back.” They didn’t want me to die at once, and I knew afterwards, a long time afterwards, that many of the people who went under that waterboarding, as you call it, after having had some moments of fainting, some of them would die, drowned, “asphyxier,” as we say in French. It’s completely -- it’s impossible to breathe, so they die, as if they were drowned, and this kind of “accident,” as they call, was very frequent.

AMY GOODMAN: Did you, Henri Alleg, have the sensation of dying?


AMY GOODMAN: Did you feel the sensation of dying?

HENRI ALLEG: Yes, and that’s a terrible sensation.

AMY GOODMAN: What did you feel?

HENRI ALLEG: Well, You feel that you're going to die. Of course, you don’t want to die, and in the same time you don’t want to accept the conditions that they make around you to let you live. So, finally, at this third time, before I fainted, I was really decided to die and not to answer at any cost.

But once again, I’m really surprised that this is the big question put before the American opinion now and not another question: Is such a war a war that can be accepted with such -- in such conditions and with such tools? Is it a civilized country that can use such things? And is the fact that this way of fighting -- as some military say, it can’t be otherwise -- is it acceptable? I think it is not acceptable, especially that the way to legalize such a way of fighting, some military say, we cannot do otherwise. It has no meaning at all. The people who lead a fight for freedom and liberty, even if some of them accept the conditions of the people who torture them, they help hundreds and thousands of other people to join the fight, because it appears to them as something that cannot be accepted by any man who thinks that his fight is honorable and justified.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, Henri Alleg, the Attorney General nominee who will be voted on -- his confirmation will be voted on this week -- has said if waterboarding is torture, then it is illegal. What is your response to that?

HENRI ALLEG: Of course, I think that all tortures are illegal, and it is unacceptable for a civilized country today.

If you permit, I may make a comparison between what the French did in Algeria and what the Americans are doing now in Iraq. There is a difference. The French government and the French military refused, until the end of the war and a long time after, tens of years after, to accept the idea that it was true that the military in Algeria used torture. They always said that it was not true, that it was propaganda, either nationalist or communist propaganda, but that the French, who had had such a long history of fighting for humanity, for the rights of man, and that the French army, who was the army of such a republic, they could not do such a thing. And they refused to accept the idea and the testimonies, that were very, very numerous, of torture in Algeria. Even if the people didn’t believe their denials -- I mean, the government's denials -- they still maintained that position, until some officers had denied another way of answering. They said that, yes, we did it, but we couldn’t do otherwise. But they only did it when there was an amnesty for all that had been done during the war. So, that was the French position until the end, until now. But in the same time, I think that the American officials had another way of looking at the thing. They didn’t say it was not true, even we saw on television and other means --

Read entire article at Amy Goodman at the website of Democracy Now

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Vernon Clayson - 11/7/2007

Big deal, why didn't he just tell them what they wanted to hear? His being noble in his silence seems rather senseless and rather un-French to me, he surely is one of the few Frenchmen that is reluctant to surrender. France has a long history of wars but the terrible losses in WWI left a lasting effect, they seem rather timorous since and who can blame them? Torture has been used thoughout the ages, it's unpleasant but nothing new and different, it's only a political football now because the media wants us to believe that George Bush started it all. Using an 85 year old Frenchman with a memory of waterboarding that occurred over 50 years as a witness for the prosecution is a real stretch, even for Ms. Goodman. Ms. Goodman, George Bush didn't condone it then, he was only 8 or 10, and doesn't condone it now, are you sure you aren't flashing back to your mother washing your face when you were an infant and thought she was trying to drown you?