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Petit Jean-Pierre

Origin of the text
Olivier Bertrand: Breaking down barriers 1945-1975, 30 years of voluntary service for peace with Service Civil International.
Paris (2008)

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Jean-Pierre Petit

My first experience with SCI was just after WWII. My father, a high official in the district administration, had come close to being shot by the Germans when I was 14. This naturally had an impact on me; moreover, our home had been destroyed by bombing. Consequently I hated the Germans. A few years later, conscious of this, I decided to be brave and go and have a look at the reality of post-war Germany. So, I got in touch with the German/French Office for Youth and I went to Offenburg, where they organized kinds of workcamps with young French people and Germans who had just been expelled from part of Eastern Germany which had just been annexed to Poland. The refugees lived in barracks near the airport. The camp took place in 1955 in the port area where the dockers lived. I used to meet them and I was impressed by the fact that they still spoke well of Hitler. It was surprising, because they were good guys, who were hospitable and invited us to eat with them. But on the other hand we gained a better understanding of the influence Hitler had had on nice people like them.
This first workcamp had proved too short for me, and I wanted to do more. I met Etienne Reclus, the French branch secretary, and he sent me to another camp in Germany. It wasn’t that I was so keen on the basic aims of SCI; I just wanted to go to Germany for personal reasons. The camp was in Mannheim, and it lasted for three weeks, with a majority of German volunteers. It consisted of building a kindergarten for the children of Volkswagen workers. It was not very hard work. .We were very well received, and were invited out several times. It gave me the opportunity of looking at Germany from a different angle. I remember having seen the memorial to those who had been killed during WWII and having been impressed by the very large number of names on it. It occurred to me that we had the same war memorials in France, and it brought home to me the absurdity of war. I also discovered some of the reasons why people had been attracted to Hitler: they had simply been pleased to get a job and a home, and for them it was all thanks to him. Nevertheless, they probably knew a lot about the crimes that the Nazis had committed. This was food for thought for me, and we had many discussions.
Then, between 1955 and 1959, there was a gap, for a while as I started working with the CIMADE (an organization working with refugees) for Algerians, some of them members of the FLN, ( the National Liberation Front) the banned Algerian nationalist party, which was struggling for independence. These Algerians had been convicted and were obliged to remain outside Paris. I was asked to go and replace a priest for a year in an industrial area (Le Creusot). The priest, who helped the Algerians, introduced me to an Algerian trade-union leader, and (as I realized later) he was also leader of the FLN for that area. I thus became involved with the nationalist party. With them, we looked after those of them who were banned from living in Paris, and we used to find them jobs, - as well as for former miners - with the main industrial company around there, Schneider.
That Schneider Company was the only firm still in operation in the region. People, and particularly the Algerians, were very poor and we used to distribute food from the parish to them. They were practically starving. At the same time I was working for SCI, and I had to keep an eye on the work of Monique Hervo, a volunteer who was working with a small group in the North African shantytown of Nanterre, near Paris. It was in 1958-59 (in the middle of the Algerian war of Independence); I visited Monique every month and we both had the same type of links with the FLN. We were free to do it as individuals but not in the name of SCI. There was some reluctance within the French branch itself, but in fact, behind the scenes Henri Roser, the SCI president, discreetly supported us.

Independent Algeria

It was then that my work with SCI really started. Ralph Hegnauer, the International Secretary, was aware of the situation. When Independence came, and a delegate was needed on the spot in the Tlemcen region of western Algeria, SCI asked me to accept the position. I arrived there at the end of August 1962. I had got to know a number of Algerian people in France, but they were very different from those living in Algeria. In France, the Algerian people I had met were much more reserved towards the FLN.
The Algerian Prefect who was in charge of the Tlemcen region was faced with a very difficult situation. During the war more than 20,000 people from that area had been expelled from their homes by the French army. Their villages had immediately been destroyed in order to create a no-go zone along the Moroccan border, aimed at stopping the movement of insurgents, and arms getting into the country via Morocco. Everything had been destroyed, and the people had to choose between: either being expelled into Morocco or being forcibly put into ‘resettlement camps’ where people from the different tribes were systematically mixed together. This had no doubt been done on purpose; it was common knowledge that tribal feelings were very strong, and living together would, at least, be very difficult for many of them. After Independence, those that had gone over into Morocco were living in refugee camps near the border, and a large number of them were taken care of by SCI, providing tents, lodging, food, medical care and so on. But the volunteers who had carried out that job were exhausted, and they had to be replaced by a new team. Under the administrative responsibility of the Prefect of Tlemcen, we had to help the refugees get back over into Algeria and find some sort of accommodation for them.
First of all, we had to find tents for 20,000 people, feed their children, give them shoes (most of them were barefoot), but also supply them with seeds and sheep so that they could resume their traditional agricultural way of life, and so on. The region was divided into three areas: the North was assigned to an American organization, SCI was in charge of a large area around Sebdou, and down to the Sahara desert, and a third association was in charge of the rest. Our work, in what was officially known as the ‘Tlemcen Project’, was centred on the ‘commune ’of El Khemis. In the first nine or ten months of the project more than 150 SCI volunteers were involved, working a few months each. They included teachers, doctors, midwives, nurses (we were fully in charge of health care provision for a large area) and some 40 or so other volunteers who did the masonry and carpentry work on the construction of a new village which became known as ‘El Fass’. This replaced the former village of Beni-Hamou nearby which had been destroyed by the French army. A paid Algerian driver would come once a week with a lorry, and the villagers who were to benefit from the construction would send some men every day to work with the international volunteers. Many more came occasionally to lend a helping hand. It took over two years to finish the construction work.
Among the tasks Ralph Hegnauer gave me to carry out, was to get in touch with Mohammed Sahnoun, the first native Algerian to have been in charge of the Algerian branch of SCI. He had previously been jailed by the French authorities. I met him shortly before he left for New York, where he was to look after preparations for the arrival of the Algerian delegation to the United Nations. He told me that given the political climate in the country at that time, starting up the Algerian branch of SCI again was out of the question. I should remember that Algeria had just become independent; nationalist sentiments were very high; and people were not ready to accept an international organization establishing itself in the country, as it would be seen as foreign interference. But new workcamps could be organized, as long as it was done by SCI, that is, by a foreign branch of SCI, and not by an Algerian branch. This was embarrassing for me, as we were aware that there were actually a number of Algerian former volunteers who were, willing to re-start a branch. I tried to find a compromise by asking an Algerian friend to share the responsibility for projects with me, and give him a chance to start up the branch again with the old group, but unfortunately he pulled out.
In El Khemis the 50-odd volunteers lived in a former military fort. I did not live there, but I used to visit them three times a week with a Land Rover, to deliver food supplies. The rest of the time, I visited the other places where teachers and nurses were working. I lived in the flat SCI rented for our office in Tlemcen along with a British volunteer, I slept on the terrace. It was cold in the winter and too hot in the summer, but very nice nevertheless. The camp in the abandoned fort in El Khemis was at an altitude of 1.500 meters. In winter, it was very cold, and snowfalls were common. Living conditions were very difficult: all the bridges had been destroyed, we had to cross the rivers, and there was no phone since all the lines had been destroyed (sabotaged amongst other amenities, by the French army as they pulled out). There were hardly any ‘mod cons’: only wood stoves, and no running water – so, we had to wash in a bucket (today, this would not be acceptable). In the early days, at El Khemis we did not have enough mattresses to go round and some volunteers had to sleep in twos, top-to-tail on the same mattress - Ralph Hegnauer, who was used to it, showed us how to do it. There was only one (SCI) doctor covering a very large area with tens of thousands of people. It was very hard for the volunteers. Nevertheless, apart from hepatitis, typhus and a car accident, they managed. After I had finished my term of service, and gone back to France, tragically, one of them was accidentally killed whilst working.
All in all, the project lasted five years. It went on long after I had left. If we attempt to make a final assessment of the workcamp, on our arrival the situation in the region was so disastrous that we could say that SCI saved many lives, through our efforts combating a number of basic problems: shortage of food (this involved organizing milk and vitamin distributions), inoculating large numbers of people against tuberculosis, and helping to provide a minimum nursing service at the hospital in Tlemcen. Volunteers also reopened and manned a number of schools and developed community projects. The relationship with the local population was excellent. After my departure, the management of the project passed through a variety of other peoples’ hands, including several Swiss people and Roger Briottet. They finished the construction of the village, and in due course, all the health care and teaching jobs carried out by SCI people were officially taken over by Algerian personnel under ministerial control and financing.
In 1967, we tried to find an Algerian partner organization with whom we could work together, as we had already done in Morocco. We did manage to find a new organization which agreed to work with us on joint projects.

Morocco and Tunisia

As I indicated above, in Morocco, the initial phase of our work with Algerian refugees had been carried out before Algerian independence. Following a request by the Moroccan authorities, SCI had set up a delegation in the eastern region of Oujda, close to the Algerian border to take care of the refugees. I was not involved at that stage, but as indicated, this naturally led on to, our taking care of the same refugees upon their return to Algeria.
When I became SCI delegate for North Africa, in 1963 I immediately went to Morocco. My task was just to get in touch with newly established workcamp organizations there, with whom we were not acquainted, in order to see whether we would be able to cooperate with them and undertake international workcamps together. A meeting was held between the Coordination Committee of workcamps in France (Co-travaux) and some Moroccan associations. I had lots of individual contacts with them, organizing exchanges of volunteers – possibly long-term volunteers etc. These associations had sprung up after a first Moroccan national workcamp, led by Mehdi Ben Barka 2, which lasted for a whole year (1957- 58) and which involved 13,000 volunteers. Thus the volunteer spirit in Morocco was related to decolonization, and independence. These associations were very nationalistic on the whole, but the newer ones were more open to an international approach.
For more than 20 years, I spent at least four months a year in North Africa. In winter to prepare volunteer exchanges, in summer to visit workcamps, and often back again in the autumn to assess what had been achieved. In 1974, there was a Moroccan national project for the development of the Rif area. Others lasted for several years, building school canteens, with financial aid from the Belgian branch of SCI. Nurses were also sent out to work in the slums in Rabat, until Moroccan nurses were trained, and could take over the work. For a number of years, SCI also sent volunteers to help take care of mentally handicapped children.
All these projects received international volunteers, including female volunteers. In particular, over a period of three years, Morocco and India exchanged volunteers There were a few girls from North Africa who took part in Moroccan camps, and also surprisingly, in India, but none took part in camps in France. Some exchanges of volunteers have also taken place with Algeria, but the relationship between Algeria and Morocco often made things difficult. So workcamps have been organized in France to receive participants from the two countries. In many cases, they had never met anyone from the other countries involved, but everything went well.
They used to say that an association loses in quality and ideology what it gains in size and structure. This is not the case today as far as the French branch goes. It is not a big association – on the contrary – but excessive importance is attached to structural problems. Even at an international level, institutional issues have become far too important, while the movement itself is very weak.
I was employed by SCI from 1963 to 1996; first by the International Secretariat, then from 1978 by the French branch. I would often go to the French national Secretariat in Clichy, but I never actually lived there. Conditions there were very frugal, but we had a lot of fun. Today, I still work as a volunteer making my contribution to induction courses for long-term volunteers.
I received a request from Tunisia to develop activities for young handicapped people. Therefore work camps were organized to train volunteers how to produce recycled paper in the traditional way, so that they could instruct handicapped people in the technique. It is not economically profitable, but it is a useful activity for the mental development of handicapped people. It is similar to earlier projects initiated by Ralph and Idy Hegnauer. Volunteers worked together as in any other workcamp.
Despite its modest size, SCI really works for peace. I still believe in it. I try to share this with the young people who come on our training courses. They understand this sort of language; maybe not exactly in the same way as in the old days. But, when work – as far as possible manual work - is undertaken for the good of the people, in SCI spirit , that is, bringing together people with different convictions, from different ethnic groups, with acceptance and toleration, it is an act of peace which is strictly in line with how Pierre Cérésole envisaged things. It is first and foremost an encounter, from which friendships develop between people of different backgrounds, for instance between French and North African people. Should there ever be a serious conflict between our countries, I cannot imagine these people fighting against us.

 




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