Of Men and Gods … Des Hommes et Des Dieux …

This is the title of a French movie which has been seen by over 2.5 million people in France since its release on October 10 this year (2010).

This is the title of a French movie which has been seen by over 2.5 million people in France since its release on October 10 this year (2010).

The movie (watch the trailer ) watch?v=B8WBJ3X4dhE treats the very topical subject of terrorism, and if you think that after 9/11 you have seen and heard the utmost of barbarous terrorism, then go and watch this movie when it comes your way.

It tells the story of the last days and the death of a small group of Trappist monks in a monastery in Algeria.

The monks, from the Roman Catholic Trappist Order of Cistersians of the Strict Observance (O.C.S.O.), based at the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas in Tibhirine near the town of Medea and 90 kms (56 miles) from the capital, Algiers, were kidnapped by an Algerian Islamist group on the night of 26/27 March 1996.

There were eight monks at the monastery that night – the seven based there permanently and a visiting monk. For some time before the terrorists had struck, the monks had been threatened by the armed Islamic group, GIA (Groupe Islamique Armée (GIA), and the Algerian government had proposed to them that they leave, either to go to a more secure monastery or to return to France. (All were French nationals although one was born in Belgium and one in Algeria which was at the time of his birth still a French colony.)

That March night the kidnappers had marched seven of the monks at gunpoint to a van and had driven them off. They had overlooked two of the monks who were hiding in their tiny cell-like bedrooms.

When, the next morning, the two drove their battered old car to Medea and the French learnt what had happened, there was indignation in France although it can be said that not half a percent of the people of France had heard of the Monastery of Our Lady of Atlas. There was however a feeling of ‘what were the monks doing in Algeria, a Muslim country, anyway’. Monks, priests and nuns were sent out into remote corners of the world to convert heathens to Christianity, were they not? So, what converts were there to find in an Islamic country?

Jacques Chirac was President of France and after his government’s initial protestations and demands that the monks should be freed immediately, the seven had become yesterday’s news.

On April 18 of that year – three weeks after the kidnapping – the GIA issued a communiqué to demand the release of their leader – Abdelhak Layada – being held by the Algerians for anti-State terrorism.

Two weeks later, on April 30, a tape of the voices of the monks was left at the French Embassy in Algiers.

Another month passed and then, on May 21, the GIA issued another communiqué: They had, they claimed, killed the monks.

Ten days later, the Algerian government announced that seven human heads had been found lying beside a country road. DNA tests showed that the heads were those of the seven missing monks. The seven bodies were nowhere to be found, and after a Mass on Sunday, June 2 in the Catholic Cathedral in Algiers, the heads were buried in the cemetery of the monks’ monastery in Tibhirine.

The two surviving monks would leave Algeria for neighboring, and friendlier, Morocco where they would set up another monastery near the village of Midelt. There they would disappear into media oblivion, as would their murdered fellow monks. Even when the American author, John W. Kiser, wrote a book – The Monks of Tibhirine – published by St. Martin’s Griffin in 2003, the monks had remained old news. (The book was not translated into French.)

In 2008, the monks were, though, again ‘news’. The Italian national daily, La Stampa, reported that a high-ranking Western diplomat had told them that the monks had been killed accidentally when an Algerian military helicopter had attacked the encampment where the GIA was holding the monks captive.

As a result of the La Stampa report, the French launched an investigation into the monks’ kidnap and murder.

When, on Monday, July 6 of last year – almost 14 years after the monks’ murder (can I say slaughter?), a retired French general, François Buchwalter, who was Military Attaché at the French embassy in Algiers in 1996, testified to a judge that the monks had been killed accidentally during an Algerian army helicopter attack on the encampment where the GIA was holding the monks captive. To disguise the blunder, the soldiers had decapitated the monks. The GIA were known to be throat-cutters, and the monks having been decapitated would without doubt lay the beheading at their door.  The soldiers had destroyed the bodies, probably by fire, to ensure that there would be no proof of army fire to be found. Abdelhak Layada, who had by then been released from his Algerian jail under a national amnesty, issued a statement to rubbish the general’s claims. He confirmed that the GIA had indeed decapitated the monks. It had done so, he claimed, because the secret negotiations between his group had the French secret services for his release had broken down. It was then implied in the Algerian and French media that the French secret service had known the circumstances of the monks’ death and had connived with the Algerian secret service, the DRS, to keep silent.

So what was the truth?

A day after General Buchwalter’s testimony, President Nicolas Sarkozy, said that he was determined for the truth to be learnt.

He said: “I want the truth. Relations between major countries are based on the truth and not on lies.”

Again the story of the monks faded and so it had remained until the 63rd Cannes Film Festival this year (2010) when the movie Des Hommes et des Dieux, directed by Frenchman, Xavier Beauvois, won the festival’s Grand Prix. The movie will be France’s entry in the 2011 Oscars. It is also being said here that the eight actors who play the eight monks will collectively be awarded the César (France’s version of the Oscar) for Best Male Performance here next February.

The movie bears testimony to peace and brotherhood and that we are all equal no matter the color of our skin, or whether we are Believers and how we worship the entity we consider as the Almighty. It also points out that we always have a choice, a choice to say ‘no’ and a choice to refuse to bend the knee to a dictator or terrorist. In one scene between the head monk and the leader of the terrorist group, the first, when ordered by the latter to hand over medication for his wounded men, and told that he has no choice but to hand it over, replies: “I have a choice.” He does not hand over the medication.

What really happened to those seven monks is still not known. I mean how they had met their deaths. President Sarkozy has seen the movie privately at a showing at his official residence and it is being reported that he sat through the two hours in thoughtful silence. I must admit that tears do flow watching this movie.

The Monks. (Photo Montage released by the monks' order)

The monks who were murdered were the Brothers Bruno, Celestin, Christian, Christophe, Luc, Michel and Paul. They were aged between 45 and 82.

The GIA was formed in 1991. They are allegedly linked to al-Qaeda.

The Monastery

The Monastery of Our  Lady of Atlas was nationalized by the Algerian government, but French monks have returned to it. They are allowed to keep the produce they can grow.

Marilyn Z. Tomlins

2 Responses to “Of Men and Gods … Des Hommes et Des Dieux …”

  1. 2
    Mike Says:

    Wow. What a tragic story. I hope truth comes to light. Thank you Marylin. Superbly told.

  2. 1
    Jo Wake Says:

    What a sad little story, whatever the actual truth is.

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