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THE DEATH OF CHARLES DE FOUCAULD
Written by little sister Kathy (Rome, Italy)
"Praise to the one God! To her Ladyship, our friend Marie, the sister of Charles our marabout, whom traitors and deceivers, people of Ajjer, assassinated, from Mousa ag Amastane, amenokal of Hoggar. Much greeting to our friend Marie! As soon as I heard of the death of our friend, your brother Charles, my eyes closed; all is dark to me. I wept and shed many tears, and I am in great mourning. His death is a great grief to me. I am far from where the thieving traitors and deceivers killed him; they killed him in Hoggar, and I am in Adrar. But please God we shall kill those who killed the marabout, until we have taken our vengeance to the full. Greet your daughters, your husband, and all your friends, and tell them: Charles the marabout has died not only for you, but for us all. May God have mercy on him,and may we meet him in paradise.”
So wrote the local Tuareg chief to Foucauld’s sister. Though the stated intention to take vengeance would not have resonated in the marabout’s heart, it is moving to hear a Muslim chief express the hope that he will meet his Christian friend in paradise…
But who were the “people of Ajjer” who killed the marabout? They were also Tuaregs. Whereas Moussa was chief of the Kel Hoggar (“people of the Hoggar”) living in the mountainous region of southern Algeria, around Tamanrasset where Charles died, Ajjer was to the northeast, astride the Libyan border. Its main town on the Algerian side was Djanet. It was ruled by the powerful Sultan Ahmoud, until the French invasion in 1911 drove him across the border into Libya. There he came under the influence of the Senussi movement, which was catalyzing Muslim resistance to the European invaders.
Ajjer was an area in constant tension, and France had built three forts there in an effort to, as they called it, “pacify the Sahara.” The Tuareg tribes there, the “Kel Ajjer” (“people of Ajjer”) heeded the Sultan’s appeal and rallied to the Senussi, while the French presence was weakened by their involvement in World War I in Europe.
When the war broke out, Br. Charles, in the village ofTamanrasset, was more concerned with Moroccan raiders coming from the west. These bandits were attacking with increasing frequency and daring. Drought had been severe in the Hoggar, and Moussa and his men often travelled 800 km southwest to Adrar in search of grazing for their camels. There they had been attacked and 300 camels had been stolen. The French fort close to Tamanrasset, Ft. Motylinski, frequently had to deploy men to guard Moussa and his herds. Br. Charles began to fear for the safety of the population around him, mostly the women and children Moussa and his men had left behind, along with the Harratin cultivators who worked the gardens of Tamanrasset for the Tuareg. Oasis cultivators were always a temptation for bandits roaming the desert.
After consulting with the villagers, Br. Charles decided to build a small fort where they could seek refuge in case they were attacked. They began making bricks in June, 1915, and construction started in August. The walls were 1 meter thick, with a little tower at each corner. As the fort neared completion, the people told Br. Charles it would be much better in the event of an attack if the fort were stocked and occupied, so he took up residence there in June, 1916. The ongoing drought made him fear famine for the coming winter, so he made a large provision of dates, wheat, and cloth. These were delivered by soldiers from Ft. Motylinski, who also brought 14 rifles and taught the villagers how to use them.
While Charles’ attention was focused on the bandits in the west, the real threat was growing in the east, where the Senussi campaign was consolidating its influence on the Tuareg tribes. Sultan Ahmoud and his emissaries wrote to tribal leaders in Algeria, encouraging them to rally to his insurrection against the French. Moussa had a fistful of such letters. The French, meanwhile, received threatening letters ordering them out.
Who were the Senussis?
The founder of the movement, Sayyid Ali Senussi, was born in Algeria in 1830. Concerned both by the decline of Islamic thought and spirituality, and the weakening of Muslim political integrity, he found inspiration in Sufism, a branch of Islam which advocated life in a brotherhood under the direction of an enlightened teacher. He established himself in Tunisia and Libya. Quickly the movement took on political overtones as he criticized Egypt for its compliance with Turkish authorities. These latter published a fatwa against him. He sought refuge in Mecca, where he founded his first zaouïa (a Muslim “monastery”). There he proposed what he called the true, pure form of Islam. His Sufi connections, however, were viewed with suspicion, and Wahhabi pressure forced him to leave Mecca.
He returned to Libya, where his teaching, marked by great personal austerity, appealed to local desert tribes. He died in 1860 and was succeeded by his son, who extended the influence of the movement westward and southward towards Niger, where the French were advancing. The first enemy of the Senussis became France. It was no longer merely a puritanical brotherhood desiring to restore Islam to its “original purity,” but a political movement aimed at unifying Muslim Africa.
When Italy invaded southern Libya in 1904, it was only the Senussis who were capable of offering resistance. The Italians eventually had to flee, abandoning their military outposts and leaving behind a great deal of munitions. These fell into the hands of Sultan Ahmoud, who considered that his chance had come for reclaiming his territory from the French. Armed with three cannons and 500 rifles seized after the Italian withdrawal, his men inflicted a crushing blow on the French at their fort in Djanet, just over the border in Algeria.
It sent shockwaves throughout the Hoggar region. Rumors spread that Fort Motylinski (just 50 km from Tamanrasset) had also fallen. The local people fled into the mountains, fearing an imminent Senussi attack. Taking advantage of the situation, a group of men from south of Tamanrasset tried to attack Br. Charles’ little fort. Finding it impenetrable, they contented themselves with pillaging a few nearby tents. They were eventually rounded up by the French army, except for a man called El Madani, who fled into the desert with a stolen camel.
The commander of the French in the Sahara managed to recapture Djanet in May 1916. He would have pursued the Senussi rebels back across the border where they retreated into Libya, but he was stopped by the French authorities. Italian forces had only recently renounced their neutrality in the Great War, entering into alliance with France and Britain against Germany. Leaders in Paris were afraid French military incursions into a formerly Italian territory would damage that alliance. The French had to abandon the newly recaptured fort at Djanet, but prudence demanded they maintain a significant military presence in the area. This left their southern flank undefended, and that was the gateway to Niger, and to Tamanrasset…
A group of 200 armed Senussi rebels led by a Tuareg from Niger took advantage of that and started heading south. They were a very mixed group, including Arabs, prisoners, and 40 Tuareg under the leadership of one Ebbah ag Ghebelli. At one point this man broke off from the main group and headed west, straight to Tamanrasset. It is not known whether they were simply uninterested in fighting for the liberation of Agadez in Niger, or if they were acting under specific orders from Sultan Ahmoud. There has been speculation about whether they were sent to kidnap Charles de Foucauld for ransom, or as part of a move to get rid of influential Europeans who were preventing Tuareg leaders in the Hoggar from joining the Senussi rebellion. Or, were they simply tempted by the stock of arms and provisions in the little fort? They came with a prisoner: El Madani, the escaped member of the raiding party which had attacked the fort before. He knew both the fort and the habits of the marabout inside, and he had an idea of how to get him to open the door to the otherwise impregnable building.
On December 1, 1916, not quite six months after Br. Charles had moved into the fort, the group arrived in view of Tamanrasset and hid on the other side of the wadi until sunset. Letters had been delivered that morning by a postman headed for Ft. Motylinski, and they knew that Fr. de Foucauld would be expecting him to pass by again to pick up his replies on the return trip. Two of the men accompanied El Madani, who went to the door pretending to be the postman. He knocked, and when Br. Charles inquired who was there, El Madani gave the expected answer, “Bochta!”, “Post!” The door opened, and Br. Charles reached out to tap the visitor’s hand in the traditional palm-to-palm Tuareg greeting. He was yanked outside and the three men quickly overpowered him. His hands were tied to his ankles. After an intial cry for help, he kept silence. The rest of the group rushed up. They pressed him with questions, but he refused to answer. So they began ransacking the fort. Paul Embarek, a Harratin whom Br. Charles had redeemed from slavery when he was a young man, was summoned to witness the raiders’ triumph.
A moment of alarm ensued when two Arab soldiers arrived unexpectedly 20 minutes later to greet the marabout on their way to Ft. Motylinski. Shots rang out. Did Br. Charles make a move in hope of freeing himself during the confusion caused by the unexpected arrival? In any case, the young boy who had been put in charge of him panicked, put his gun to his prisoner’s head and fired. Embarek did not immediately realize that Fr. de Foucauld had been killed; but slowly the body slid to the ground. The two unfortunate visitors were also killed.
The group resumed its rampage inside the fort. When they finished, they slaughtered one of the camels that had been wounded in the shooting and invited all the village people to take part in the meal. No one dared refuse. Witnesses commented on how young all the raiders were.
Next morning, as the group got ready to leave, another moment of panic: the real postman arrived. He had heard rumors that the fort had been attacked, but the Sahara was rife with rumors and he had decided to ignore them. As he neared the fort, he too came under fire. He managed to run 200 meters, but his camel became frightened and suddenly sat down. The postman took a bullet to the head as he recited the shahadah, the Muslim confession of faith.
After the group left, the villagers buried the four bodies in the hole from which the clay had been taken to make the bricks for the fort. Embarek and another man were sent to Ft.Motylinski to inform the French authorities what had happened.
The points of similarity between the circumstances surrounding Br. Charles’ death and certain things we see in the news today give us pause for reflection. One feels sympathy for the Senussi freedom fighters who opposed the colonial expansion of the European powers on their soil. But it would be naïve to imagine that the Senussi acted without the support of those very powers they opposed. Germany and Turkey (who were fighting the French in WWI) funded much of their campaign. And while such overt colonialism may seem a thing of the past, it continues today under the guise of economic control and exploitation of some countries by others. This creates huge resentment. And if you want to tap into popular discontent, religion can be a very powerful tool.
Young people can be highly susceptible to the appeal of violence, including religiously motivated violence, in the quest for “freedom.” A problem, of course, is that like all wars, a war in the name of God can begin against one enemy and eventually turn against another. And that other may happen to be a brother. Those whom Moussa ag Amastane called “people from Ajjer” were Tuaregs like himself. The “wrong kind” of Muslims can become victims of Islamic jihad along with people who are not Muslim at all. With the Cain and Abel story, the Bible insists that violence originated as sibling rivalry.
“I want all the people who live here, Christians, Muslims, Jews, to get used to thinking of me as their brother,” Br. Charles wrote. For followers of Jesus, any violence is violence to a brother or sister whom God loves.
Today, from the vantage point of a hundred more years of learning from history, we might prefer that Br. Charles’ story had not ended in a fort stocked with French guns. But within the colonial world in which he lived, his activities were a prophetic attempt to break down barriers of religion and race and culture, and to hold a powerful invading army, and the society it represented, accountable for the uses of that power.
Br. Charles had always prayed that he might imitate Jesus in his death. Jesus did not die alone, but between two men among “the many” he had come to seek out and save. Br. Charles was buried with the three Muslim men who were killed during the ambush at Tamanrasset. After its independence had been won in a war with France that ran from 1954 to 1962, Algeria asked the French to exhume the bodies of their fallen soldiers who had been buried in Algerian soil and take them back to France. No such request was made for the remains of Charles de Foucauld. Somehow they understood that he belonged to them, a witness to a God whose love is a house where there is room for all.
 Berber word which may refer to a Muslim teacher, a holy man who relies on alms, or a saint.
 A Berber people with a traditionally nomadic, pastoralist lifestyle. The principal inhabitants of the Sahara desert.
 Dark-skinned, non-nomadic oasis dwellers in the Sahara who suffered discrimination—either enslaved, or living in informal dependence on their former Arab or Berber masters.
 A legal pronouncement by an expert in Islamic religious law.
 A fundamentalist and puritanical branch of Sunni Islam.
 A dry riverbed.