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Sahnoun Mohamed

Originally from Orléansville (nowadays known as El Asnam) he got to know SCI in Algeria in 1952-53, and took part in several workcamps before being put in charge of the Algerian branch for a while. After Algerian Independence he held high office in the Diplomatic Corps and in international organizations, whilst constantly endeavouring to achieve Peace and Reconciliation.

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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Mohamed Sahnoun

It was through one of my teachers, and some friends – particularly Paul Lafon who was one of the leaders of the Algerian branch – that I first came into contact with SCI when I was a student in Algiers. I had read Pierre Cérésole’s book; I was interested in the values and objectives of the association, and I immediately saw its message of Reconciliation; an example of which had been the first workcamp in Verdun. I thought one ought to draw inspiration from it, in order to be able to work together. At that time the work going on in Algeria particularly interested the International Secretariat in Switzerland (whose Secretary was Willy Begert), as well as the French branch (whose Secretary was Etienne Reclus).
In the beginning our activities took place mainly in Algiers, and we often got together with members of the association. Then I did three workcamps, and rapidly found myself in charge of the Algerian branch; but to be truthful, Nelly Forget, Paul Lafon and I were together so much of the time that I find it hard to remember precisely who was in charge and when. At one time I represented the Algerian branch at an International Committee meeting which took place in Basel (beginning 1954?).
My first workcamp was in Kabylie, in a village called Tiki Ouache, just above the town of Delly. The village was very remote and in distress. The camp consisted in building a road to open up the village, and also to lay on a supply of drinking water. When I arrived there were already volunteers from France and other countries there. In fact I did not stay very long in that camp.
The second one was at Elkseur, near Bougie (Bejaia). Our work was putting in a water supply system. The village was less isolated than Tiki Ouache, and was more open to the outside world. The villagers were concerned about a lot of things, and we had interesting discussions with them. Even though it was before the War of Independence we could feel a certain degree of tension in the atmosphere. I only stayed there a fortnight or so.
In those days after doing our manual work we would discuss what we had experienced during the day; our relationship with the local people, and with the Authorities. We analysed it all, and it fuelled our arguments for getting over our message, which was one of Reconciliation and -in a waybeing charitable. At that time amongst us workcampers there was a commonness of understanding about the political situation, which, marked as it was by Colonization, was unbearable, and put into question by everyone of us. Even though we all agreed on the need for reform in the country, some people wanted to go further; whereas others considered that it was not their job, and that if there were other prospects it was up to the Algerians- whether of French or native origin- to discuss them and find their own solution. There was no common will in the camp to reach consensus on the issue; we respected one another’s opinions. We discussed the causes for the tension and the problems we observed, from an agricultural, economic and social point of view.
My third camp took place in Orléansville, my home town, after the earthquake of September 1954. At that time I was waiting for a grant to go and study at the Sorbonne. It was perhaps the camp that had the greatest impact on me, as I was on my home ground. I was naturally more aware of the problems and stayed there longer than in the other two camps, working non-stop. It was a very big camp involving other organizations, but SCI was by far the biggest. That is where I really became friends with a number of SCI leaders. Already in my previous camps the French Authorities had regarded us with suspicion, wondering who ‘those foreigners’ were. Even more so in September 1954 when tensions were higher, even in SCI office in Algiers.

According to Emile Tanner’s report, the earthquake had killed 1300 people and the town of 44,000 had been almost completely destroyed. Several villages had been razed to the ground.
The first group of volunteers, sent to one of the villages that had suffered most, managed to overcome their initial difficulties encountered in recruiting Muslim volunteers (including women) which enabled them to gain the trust of the local people. People initially feared that they would have to pay for help, that they might thus be disqualified from receiving official compensation, and that the volunteers might not be skilled enough for the work.
Working together with the inhabitants the volunteers did not acquire the skill or the speed of local men.
Not long after starting the work, SCI had to cater for forty more volunteers from three other organizations, working on other reconstruction projects and providing medical care.
All the volunteers suffered from extremely gruelling living conditions; but, relations between them and local people quickly improved.
After the uprising of November 1954, the French Authorities – who (according to our reminiscences) had initially welcomed SCI in a friendly manner – for some reason, suddenly decided to close down the workcamps.
This shocked people and it was a very big disappointment, for the volunteers as well as for the local people with whom they had become friendly. Emile Tanner concludes by saying that the organization of emergency workcamps requires a well-prepared branch and ‘emergency volunteers’.
Reminiscences of the French branch of SCI (op.cit)

In 1956 I had to stop studying at the Sorbonne because we Algerian students went on strike; I went back to Algeria and started working in the Social Centres team. In fact I had already got to know Nelly Forget well before then. Nearly all SCI people were there. As an organization the Algerian branch of SCI could no longer function; its premises had been closed down. I was a middle-ranking manager in the Social Centres when I was arrested and put in prison along with other members of these services, including Nelly Forget. Thus it was that in 1957, I was one of those convicted in the trial that became known as ‘The Trial of the Progressive Christians’ which had a big impact on public opinion. Among the defendants the Algerians were considered ‘plotters’ and the French were considered friends or ‘accomplices’.
When I was released I first went to France where I had regular contact with friends at SCI office in Clichy. I next went to Lausanne where I likewise met up with SCI members. I was unable to go back to Algeria before Independence.
This experience with SCI left its mark on a certain number of young people and colleagues with whom, later on I found myself involved in the political campaigns I lead, and also in my international work. Professionally, from early on, I tried to establish a dialogue between the different communities: at the World Youth Assembly with regards to the issue of the Congo; as one of the leaders of the Organization for African Unity after Independence when African countries were confronted with the problem of borders inherited from colonization, and finally, in the different posts I have held at the United Nations.
Today I still hark back to the importance that SCI has had for me, in my way of perceiving problems, in understanding the various sources of conflict, and in treating the wounds to people’s memory, resulting from these conflicts. It has been a particularly rich experience, in all sorts of ways: getting to know one another, gaining better psychological and cultural understanding, discussing important topics such as confronting one another in War ( we did not yet talk very much about ‘security’), and Ghandi’s ideas. In fact, at that time Romain Rolland’s work on Ghandi was virtually my bedside book. It opened up our eyes, because it showed us that the world was not made of enemies, that there were not only friends either; but, there were also possibilities for human beings who do not know one another, to work together and discuss matters. At the time we were emerging from adolescence, our SCI experience was a sort of answer, a school, - a fabulous school. The discussions taught me a lot; for example with the Norwegian volunteer who explained why he was a conscientious objector (like many SCI volunteers at that time). It was also the first ‘international school’ we got to know, though we were still only students. In workcamps we really encountered the world, and we could only be influenced by it. It more or less determined what I went to do in my life afterwards. It taught us how to avoid conflicts, to overcome them, and learn how to live together.


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