Laetitia Bucaille: Making peace with your enemy. Algerian, French, and South African Ex-Combatants, Philadelphia, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2019 pp. 376 isbn 9780812251104

In: European Review of International Studies
Valérie Rosoux UCLouvain ISPOLE (Institut de Sciences Politiques Louvain - Europe), Louvain-la-Neuve, Belgium,

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“The dead are invisible, but they are not absent”.

These words, pronounced in 1865 by Victor Hugo, 1 enlighten all post-conflict settings of the world. In the aftermath of mass atrocities, emotions such as grief, anger, resentment, shame and/or guilt are widely shared and passed on in family circles. Their impact on the individual, social and political levels is enduring. In such circumstances, how can former enemies gradually draw a line between the past and the present? How can they engage with post-war memory without ‘backsliding’ in an intractable conflict?

Laetitia Bucaille addresses these crucial questions in exploring the transformation of relationships between former adversaries in the Franco-Algerian and the South-African cases. In Making peace with your enemy, she draws particular attention to the roles played by ex-combatants in both case studies. At first glance, the Franco-Algerian and South-African contexts are largely dissimilar. The process of othering and the nature of violence that was committed in both cases are specific. However, the comparison of both configurations sheds light on the challenges faced in all post-conflict and post-colonial societies.

The research carried out by Bucaille is mainly based on interviews conducted from 2003 and 2009 with South African, Algerian and French ex-combatants. In each group, she selected individuals who had fought on national territory rather than abroad. One of the strengths of the analysis results from its reflexivity. The interviewees’ perceptions of the interviewer are taken into consideration in an inspiring way. Among the various themes illustrated in the book, three main issues are particularly critical: memory, reconciliation, and forgiveness.


All chapters of the book remind us that, inherently, memory is neither positive, nor negative. It depends directly on the objective pursued by the parties. In this regard, the significance of post-conflict narratives is paramount. As the French novelist Georges Bernanos wrote in Les enfants humiliés, “the future does not belong to the dead, but to those who speak for them, who explain why they are dead”. 2

Throughout her book, Bucaille shows that in South Africa and in Algeria, numerous actors speak for the dead: ex-combatants, official representatives, descendants of victims, associations’ spokespersons. All of them promote a specific representation of the deceased’s sacrifice. To better understand this process, it is useful to observe the interaction between official memory (i.e. the collection of official representations of the past), and individual memories (i.e. the individual remembrance of lived or transmitted experiences). The authorized version of the past, which is conveyed by the legitimate spokespersons of a particular group, is a way of presenting events to the world, of showcasing the country for a domestic and external audience. As such, this method is not a systematic assembling of the recollections of group members. It is, therefore, indispensable to detect the manifestations of competing narratives of the past. Bucaille’s book allows us to distinguish at least three levels.

The first concerns the Franco-Algerian case where discrepancies, and even contradictions, still characterize strategic narratives on each side of the Mediterranean. More than half a century after the end of the Independence War that took place between 1954 and 1962, the French and Algerian representations of the conflict are still largely incompatible. The second level regards the inconsistencies, within each national group, between the official version and recollected versions, between the public and individual representations of the national past. A last level of tensions can be observed, within each particular group, between individuals who do not all resist the official narrative.

One of the main questions that arise throughout the discussions presented by Bucaille concerns the degree of compatibility of these representations. Do the various accounts of the past simply result from a series of different viewpoints, or do they reveal fundamental contradictions which sustain conflictual relationships and dynamics – and, if reconciled, can help repair such relationships and ameliorate such dynamics? The South African and Franco-Algerian cases indicate that efforts to integrate diverging memories does not mean that events will be given a uniform representation on all sides in the future. The objective of rapprochement does not result in plurality being set aside. In fact, it supposes that a form of disagreement may be accepted to a certain extent. In that sense, what is often called a “work of memory” remains a process of negotiation concerning memories – that concept being then used in a plural form. From this perspective, the consideration of several points of view does not imply that all perceptions are to be taken as equivalent. The idea of a shared language about the past is not based on a theory where everything is presented as relative to a particular perspective (relativism). It entails, rather, the hope to live with the memories rather than without them or against them.


So far, there is no consensus in the literature about the necessary conditions for reconciliation. For some authors and practitioners, the core element of reconciliation is trust. For others, the key element is truth. Yet other voices claim that the essence of reconciliation is a psychological process of transformation leading ultimately to an identity change. In her book, Bucaille evokes the three dimensions and puts particular emphasis on the necessity of an identity change, even though such change seems particularly difficult in the aftermath of mass atrocities. In this regard, the extreme experience of torture emblematizes a relationship of absolute domination that often prevents the transformation of relationships between parties.

According to Bucaille, though, the experience of violence, particularly in cases of torture, does not constitute an insurmountable humiliation and source of lasting enmity. For her, “the violence endured by ex-combatants does not in fact constitute an obstacle to the idea of exchange and reconciliation”. 3 However, torture leads to physical and/or moral scars that might be carried for the rest of one’s life. Therefore, the mere passage of time does not systematically lead to the rapprochement of former enemies. Knowing that most individuals who were subjected to torture remain silent about this episode in their lives, the question remains open and far from being settled.

Bucaille underlines another obstacle on the road to reconciliation. The experience of ex-combatants stresses the existence of a gap – in terms of tempo – between official and social processes. In the South African case, for instance, the institutional pace of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (trc) was not similar with the individual pace of most victims. Individual healing is a process which advances in steps, at its own pace, which cannot be pushed or programmed. That means that rather than accentuating the divergences of interests between protagonists, we could also differentiate them according to their respective time frames. The time frames of survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders vary. Similarly, the time frames of peacebuilders, policy-makers, and descendants have little in common.

In South-Africa, restorative justice aimed at achieving the ‘healing’ and ‘restoration’ of all concerned – of victims in the first place, but also of offenders, their families and the larger community. The ultimate purpose of this initiative was not to punish offenders, but to reintegrate them into the community and to repair damaged social bonds. To do so, the authorities rapidly highlighted a new strategic narrative. Their objective was to grasp challenging diversities of colour and race, and to set a unique example for the world. As Nelson Mandela asserted: “Our once divided people are steadily merging into a truly rainbow nation”. 4 The “rainbow nation” metaphor symbolizes the eagerness to favour the passage from a country based on domination to a country based on respect. Nevertheless, as Bucaille’s book suggests, the desired healing effect of an institution like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission varies considerably from one set of victims to another. Thousands of people are still waiting for reparations. Continuing disparities in wealth, housing, education, and health between blacks and whites indicate that the process of reconciliation still involves hard work.


In such circumstances, the linkage between reconciliation and forgiveness is actually rather controversial. The political use of forgiveness raises the sensitive question of a double delegation. Who can ask for it and who can grant it? On the one hand, people ask for forgiveness in the name of their late fathers. As descendants, they are not perpetrators themselves. On the other hand, survivors forgive in the name of the victims, which is not evident as such. Many cases show the concrete limits of such an exercise. Without denying the potential impact of public acknowledgements, it seems important to highlight the distinction between the interpersonal frame (appropriate for forgiveness) and the political or collective frame (pertinent for public acknowledgements and diplomatic apologies).

Numerous South African and Algerian voices recall that scorn and humiliation were felt on a day-to-day basis in both historical contexts. The long-term consequences of these experiences can hardly be denied. A need for justice, deep resentment, grief and anger remain realities for many ex-combatants and their descendants. On this subject, the specific question of the disappeared is still highly problematic. The absence of traces of the missing and the absence of mourning rituals in most cases explain why the page can simply not be turned.

Making peace with your enemy reminds us that changes of representations, beliefs and emotions take time. Both the Franco-Algerian and South-African cases demonstrate that the appropriate unit of measurement after a war is probably neither years, nor decades, but generations. From this vantage point, the book actually questions the notion of “post-conflict” – which is generally taken for granted. While it is defined in handbooks, dictionaries, and encyclopedias, the duration of these “post-conflict” environments can still be uncertain. What are the basic criteria that determine when a conflict is over? How long do the notions of victim and perpetrator make sense? When does the victors/vanquished dichotomy lose its meaning? Until when are the labels “occupiers/occupied” relevant? These questions remain critical on all continents.


  • Bernanos, G. (1949). Les enfants humiliés, Journal 1939–1940. Paris: Gallimard.

  • Hugo, V . (1985). Actes et paroles. Pendant l’exil (1865), in Œuvres complètes, Paris: Robert Laffont.


Victor Hugo (1985) Œuvres complètes p. 65.


Georges Bernanos, (1949) les Enfants humiliés. Journal 1939–1940 p. 29.


Bucaille, Making Peace p. 224.


Address by President Nelson Mandela at the luncheon hosted by the Prime Minister Jim Bolger of New Zealand, November 15, 1995.

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