Algeria on Friday received the skulls of 24 resistance fighters decapitated during colonial France’s conquest of the North African country that had been lying in storage in a Paris museum.
The return of the remains, viewed as war trophies by French colonial officers, comes amid a worldwide reexamination of the legacy of colonialism since the May 25 killing of 46-year-old African American George Floyd by a white police officer in the United States.
UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet has urged countries to make amends for “centuries of violence and discrimination”.
The skulls were flown into Algiers airport from France on a Hercules C-130 transport plane, escorted on arrival by Algerian fighter jets, an AFP correspondent said.
To a 21-gun salute, President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and a military guard of honour gave the war “heroes” an official welcome.
The remains, in a coffin draped with the Algerian flag, were brought out of the aircraft and carried shoulder-high by soldiers as a military band played a funeral march.
Tebboune bowed in front of each coffin and a Muslim cleric recited a prayer for the dead.
“The city is incredibly silent as the sirens of boats echo across the port of Algiers,” in tribute to the resistance fighters, an Algerian tweeted.
The coffins will be taken to the Palace of Culture in Algiers where they will be on display Saturday for the public to pay their respects.
On Sunday, Algeria’s 58th anniversary of independence, the skulls will finally be laid to rest in the martyrs’ section of the capital’s El Alia Cemetery, local media reported.
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France’s 132 years of colonial rule, and the brutal eight-year war that ended it, have left a lasting legacy of often prickly relations between the two governments and peoples.
The French presidency, in a statement to AFP, said the return of the remains was a gesture of “friendship” as part of efforts to “reconcile the memories of the French and Algerian people”.
Announcing the repatriations on Thursday, Tebboune said the decapitated fighters “had been deprived of their natural and human right to be buried for more than 170 years”.
He paid tribute to them as “heroes who confronted the brutal French occupation between 1838 and 1865”.
“The savage enemy decapitated them in reprisals before transferring their skulls overseas so that their graves would not become a symbol of the resistance,” Tebboune added.
One of the leaders whose remains were returned is Sheikh Bouzian, a revolt leader who was captured in 1849 by the French, shot and decapitated.
The skull of prominent resistance leader Mohammed Lamjad ben Abdelmalek, also known as “Cherif Boubaghla” (or the man with the mule), was also among those to be returned.
Historian Malika Rahal welcomed the news.
“The martyrs are returning home,” she said in a tweet.
“The body parts of those who fought the conquest of their country are returning home after a very long stay in cardboard boxes at the Musee de l’Homme in Paris.”
Emmanuel Macron, the first French president to be born after the 1954-62 independence war in which 1.5 million Algerian died, made his first official visit to the country in December 2017, saying he came as a “friend”.
At the time, he told news website Tout sur l’Algerie that he was “ready” to see his country hand back the skulls.
Algeria had officially asked for their return in 2018, as well as requesting the handover of colonial archives.
Algerian and French academics have long campaigned for the return of the skulls.
Algerian historian Ali-Farid Belkadi was the first to call for their return in 2011 after undertaking research work at the Musee de l’Homme.
At the time, he said the skulls were kept in “vulgar cardboard boxes that resemble shoeboxes”.
In December 2019, Macron said that “colonialism was a grave mistake” and called for turning the page on the past.
During his presidential election campaign, he had created a storm by calling France’s colonisation of Algeria a “crime against humanity”.