La chat et le souris: Chapter 4
Under the starry sky the moudjahiddine
march across the desert. Ahmed accompanies Saleh’s platoon at the rear of the column – the katiba
is under-strength, and rather than assign men to a headquarters section, the lieutenant simply uses a handful of Saleh’s soldiers as orderlies and runners as needed. Ninety-two men make up the ALN company marching through the darkness – most are Arabs, a few Kabyles from the north sent as FLN commissars, a couple of Moroccan Berbers, and one Algerian Jew, Abraham Sfez, another former tirailleur
serving as a section leader in Sgt. Yazid’s platoon.
Sfez is a curiosity among the moudjahiddine
, tolerated if not wholly accepted by most of the Muslim soldiers – a few object to the presence of a Jew in the company, but Sfez’s loathing of the French is deep and virulent. Sfez had served in an infantry battalion and was captured during the blitzkrieg
in 1940 – he spent the war in forced labor, working in a clothing factory near Wiesbaden, producing striped prisoner uniforms for the Germans. Unbeknownst to the Jewish tailor from Äin Sefra, those uniforms would end up on his daughter and son-in-law before they died at Bergen-Belsen; his other daughter, also living in France at the outbreak of the war, never made it to a concentration camp, expiring from pneumonia in a Vichy transit camp. To Sfez, the French spat on his sacrifice – few can match his cold hatred of the French soldiers sent to ‘pacify’ Algeria, the home of his family for more than five centuries. Ahmed doesn’t care why Sfez joined the ALN – he is merely grateful for the veteran’s experience.
Of the four score and twelve that comprise the katiba
, slightly less than half are moudjahiddine
, the rest moussebiline
raised from among the villages of the Sahran Tell to participate in operations for a couple of months before returning to their homes and flocks and fields. Of the regulars, roughly two-thirds have prior experience in the French Army – others served as local militia which offered some weapons familiarization but little real drill and no actual combat experience. The lieutenant relies heavily on his veterans like Saleh and Sgt. Yazid and Poujad the machine gunner and Sfez the little Jewish tailor to train and indoctrinate the others in the unit.
Deep in the bottom of Ahmed’s rucksack is a dog-eared copy of a book. It is badly translated into Arabic and French from its original Chinese, but at present it is more Ahmed’s bible than the Koran.
- / -
From the mouth of the bunker Ahmed listened to the sound of heavy firing in the distance – the rattle of machine guns, the thump of artillery shells. The flashes lit up the inky blackness of the overcast, moonless night. The withdrawal from Isabelle had begun some three hours earlier, along the banks of the Nam Youm, the river that flowed through the heart of the valley of Dien Bien Phu, now a corpse-filled cesspool. Ahmed’s section waited in darkness in their sodden, muddy trenches for the word to move out, all thoughts of counterattack gone, only flight remaining.
The II Batallion de Marche
of the 1st RTA arrived at the strongpoint in mid-December, five months earlier. Isabelle, the southern-most outpost of the French firebase situated on the west back of the stream, was situated in a barren marsh devoid of cover – the high water table turned the bottoms of the tirailleurs
’ shallow trenches into mud immediately, and the youthful sergent
couldn’t remember the last time his boots were dry, or intact for that matter. Since the Viet Minh attack began in earnest in March, the men of Isabelle had known little peace or quiet. For months the artillery supported the other French strongpoints – Huguette, Elaine, Claudine, Lilli, Dominique, and the others – while the infantry, composed of an assortment of Algerians, Moroccans, legionnaires, and Thais protected the guns. Now General Giap’s divisions were overrunning the last bastions, and the survivors of Isabelle were ordered to slip away under the cover of the May night. Ahmed waited and waited for the order to leave, his men crouched in the bunker or the nearby trenches, unaware that the Viet Minh had infiltrated their lines, unaware until the human wave swept over their position. The Algerians in the trenches died quickly as Ahmed and the others in the bunker kept up what fire they could, but it took no time to realize that resistance was hopeless – rather than sacrifice the remainder of his men, Ahmed accepted an offer to surrender from a Viet Minh officer who spoke impeccable French.
The efficiency of the Communist soldiers surprised Ahmed. The first day the prisoners were marched en masse
about ten miles to a sort of transit camp, then segregated into different columns by rank and national origin – Ahmed found himself in a group with about fifty other North African non-coms, from Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria. From there the march continued along route provinciale
41 deeper into the northern highlands, away from the Delta and the remainder of French soldiers on Tonkin. The prisoners walked day after day, covering ten to fifteen miles a day, subsisting on husked rice with occasional salt or a few peanuts. Men dropped by the dozens, while those that managed to keep marching suffered from untreated wounds and sores. The march to the camps in the Viet Bac took two months, and it was all Ahmed could do to keep his feet moving most days.
The camp where Ahmed finally stopped did not look like the sort of stalag
he expected – it looked more like a village of flimsy shacks, without wire or guard towers, for indeed, there was nowhere the prisoners could go that they would not be quickly found and returned. Life in the camp was as harsh as he expected, however – the prisoners were expected to labor, and so they did, strong or weak, healthy or ill. Dysentery, malaria and other diseases killed more of the prisoners, their immune systems wrecked by malnutrition and exhaustion.
To the physical privations was added a psychological assault on the prisoners as Communist propagandists harangued the men daily, to admit their crimes against the peaceful people of Indochina, to accept the Marxist-Leninist dogma – Ahmed was forced to participate in call-and-response as well as individual conversations with the commissars. The latter sought not to instruct but to break down resistance to indoctrination by probing the ‘errors’ in thinking instilled by the capitalist war-mongers, forcing Ahmed to make concessions to the skill of his interrogator. The most adroit that the Algerian encountered was the one the prisoners nicknamed “Uncle Ho.” Uncle Ho was in his mid-forties, short even by Vietnamese standards, his black hair graying quickly. His breath smelled of the awful Chinese cigarettes that were always protruding from the corner of his mouth – he had the curious habit of taking a long draw of smoke after making an important point.
Summoned to his session, Ahmed sat on a small wooden stool as Uncle Ho stood behind him. “Sergent, you are from Algeria, correct?”
he asked. His voice was soft, only slightly above a whisper, and rarely changed its volume or timbre. Ahmed nodded. “Tell me why you fight for the French even as they oppress your own people, the people of your faith?”
The question caught Ahmed by surprise. “My father was un soldat,”
he replied, uncertain.
“And why did he fight for France, fight for the tormenters of his own people?”
Ahmed could smell the smoke of Uncle Ho’s cigarette hanging in the air. Ahmed shook his head. “I don’t know. He died when I was young, fighting the Germans in 1940.”
“Are you a citizen of France?”
asked Uncle Ho. Ahmed shook his head again. “Are your Muslim laws recognized as binding by the French?
he continued. Ahmed made no response – to claim French citizenship he would be forced to renounce Islamic law, to deny his faith, the faith of his fathers.
Uncle Ho’s voice came from just behind Ahmed’s ear – he could feel the Vietnamese officer’s breath on his skin. “Why do you fight? Why do you fight?”
Ahmed lay awake the whole night, and the next, and the next, struggling to answer the question.
- / -
Ahmed realizes that Saleh is walking near him as the column advances. “You’re surprised at my orders?”
Ahmed says softly, his voice barely audible over the crunch of their boots on the desert’s rocky floor.
Saleh considers the question before answering. “I know your courage, sir, and I know your strength,”
he says at last. “You are more cautious then I am.”
Saleh stops, unsure of how to continue.
“We will not win our struggle by killing our own people indiscriminately,”
Ahmed says softly. “We must make their re-education our priority and focus our military efforts on the system that keeps us from self-determination.”
He pauses for a moment. “We need an R.C. 4, to give the French people pause and to inspire our own through the love of freedom, not fear. This may be our opportunity to strike such a blow.”
Saleh is quiet. Ahmed the idealist. If it means killing the French, I will do it,
Ahmed also falls silent. The words in Mao’s book, deep in his rucksack, repeat themselves in his head. Attack with a sure blow, advance at a steady pace. If we are sure to win, fight to the end; if not, resolutely refuse combat. How sure am I?
His thoughts are interrupted by a runner, accompanied by one of Saleh’s section leaders. “Sir,”
says the runner, “Sgt. Yazid told me to tell you that his scouts have found the paras.”