DELLYS, Algeria (Reuters Life!) - After sailing half way around the world to the small Algerian port where he was born, Gilbert Gambardella stepped off a boat and back in time.
Gambardella was a young man when he left Dellys in 1964, two years after Algeria shook off 130 years of French colonial rule.
His family were pieds noirs (“black feet”), French nationals born in Algeria whose ancestors were European settlers or North African Jews.
Indigenous Muslims turned against the pieds noirs after a traumatic and bloody war for independence and about 1 million of them emigrated to France. Many left in panic and took only what they could pack into a suitcase.
Gambardella became a mathematics teacher in French-held New Caledonia in the southwest Pacific. After he retired, he used email to track down a friend in Dellys, who urged him to return.
At 77, Gambardella made the months-long voyage back to Algeria with a friend, not knowing what he would find left of his past.
“I thought that nobody would remember me. I was wrong. Dozens were at the port to greet me,” he said, holding back tears. “Even the mayor, whose father was a friend of mine, was there — it was incredible.”
“My father was born here. I was born here. My wife was born here and three of my children. Dellys is part of me and I am part of her,” he said. “Now I can die. I will have no regrets.”
The pieds noirs made up about 10 percent of Algeria’s population and had a favored status under the colonial regime. But many mixed freely with Muslim neighbors and shared some of their customs and habits, especially in the countryside.
“We were very close to them (pieds noirs). They were Algerians in a way,” said Abdelaziz Saidoud, 72, a former independence fighter. “They loved our food, our traditions, our culture but they were against our independence.”
Hundreds of thousands lost their lives in the eight-year war, many of them members of the National Liberation Front (FLN) and their sympathizers.
Algeria is still demanding an apology from France for what it calls a “cultural genocide” committed by French colonialists.
Foreigners avoided Algeria during an Islamist insurgency in the 1990s but peace has mostly returned and 400 to 500 pieds noirs are now returning to Algeria for short visits each year, according to trip organizers.
Dellys mayor Rabah Zerouali is trying to encourage more returns and boost tourism to his town, which suffered from being on the edge of Kabylie, the heart of the insurgency.
During his four-day stay, Gambardella found more faces from the past when his old friend Ali Kerbouche, 75, invited him to eat couscous and bouzelouf (lamb’s head) at his home in their old neighborhood of La Marine.
“The elders know me very well. I was a maths teacher and the goalkeeper of the Dellys football team,” Gambardella said. “The youngsters looked at me as if I were a piece of archaeology.”
On his second day in Dellys, Gambardella went to the cemetery to visit his father’s grave.
“Several pieds noirs lived in Dellys,” said Mokfi Rabeh whose father was a friend of Gambardella. “Despite the war of independence, the two communities respected each other. We were very close.”
Kerbouche said of Gambardella: “He is French but he behaves like an Algerian. He belongs to this land. We will always welcome him and will be happy to receive him here.”
Editing by Tom Pfeiffer and Paul Casciato