Russia’s war against Ukraine has caused vast humanitarian devastation, not only murdering and displacing civilians but also triggering a global food shortage and stoking disease. The price of everyday essentials is soaring, as is global uncertainty. We have seen these dynamics before in Ukraine, during the Soviet 1930s, when millions perished of starvation due to Stalin’s policies. State-engineered famine has long been a tool of dictatorships, especially in the colonized world.
We have spent a decade seeking out the voices of those who experienced wartime North Africa, compiling them in our new documentary history. They are local Muslims and Jews, as well as Jewish and Christian refugees from Europe. They are Black West African and Moroccan soldiers pressed into service by the French military who were subjected to the harshest, most dangerous posts — and upon whom France turned its back when they were taken prisoner of war. They are women, men, and children forced into labor and prison camps. They are ordinary people who starved and suffered their way through World War II, but who are not remembered as its victims.
As the Third Reich embarked upon genocide, it implemented policies of exploitation in its occupied territories, including, in 1942, Tunisia, causing catastrophic shortages of housing, heating, electricity, and medical supplies. The fascist Italian and Vichy French authorities also plundered food from North Africa, causing widespread, state-engineered starvation and malnutrition. Drought, crop failure, and a typhus epidemic worsened these conditions.
The Axis Powers also imposed anti-Semitic laws that pushed Jews out of the economy and work-force in North Africa. They deported thousands of political opponents and refugee foreigners to an extensive network of newly created prison and labor camps. Wherever their power extended, families starved.
Today in his 90s, Al-husin Al-gedari, a Muslim native of Lamhamid, a rural village in Morocco’s Anti-Atlas Mountains, remembers these days vividly. Al-gedari and his neighbors understood their experience of famine was part of a wartime reaction: Germany’s theft of food from France, he realized, led the Vichy French regime to plunder food from its colonies in North Africa. In Lamhamid, villagers saw the dates from their trees confiscated by local authorities, who in turn supplied them to French administrators. Locals resorted to eating hedgehogs, lizards, even their own donkeys, which they depended on for farming. So desperate was the community that they buried the dead hastily, only to dig up the corpses to reuse their shrouds.
Albert Camus, who grew up in a poor settler colonial family in Algeria, brought news of North Africa’s wartime famine to the world. A generation of anti- and postcolonial writers, including Mohammed Dib and Frantz Fanon, would commit themselves to understanding further the cruel politics of state-engineered famine. They grasped what the world now witnesses. Hunger is a byproduct of war.
While Al-gedari starved at home, others starved in internment. A huge variety of people faced food shortages in the labor and prison camps that dotted North Africa, West Africa, and the Sahara. Some prisoners, such as Algerian activist Mohammed Arezki Berkani, were Muslim anti-colonialists who were targeted as political enemies by the occupying authorities. During his stint in the Vichy camp of Aïn Sefra, in the Algerian Sahara, Berkani and his fellow prisoners survived on carrots, and, in their desperation, consumed grass, peels, and feral cats. Berkani watched as prisoners “put salt on a piece of newspaper that they would swallow in order to alleviate the demands of their stomachs.” So great was his own hunger that one day he mistook a stone for bread.
Hunger united North Africa’s diverse prison population. Whether a prisoner was a local North African Jew or Muslim, a European Jewish or Christian refugee, a former volunteer for the Spanish Republican Army or French Foreign Legion (all groups targeted by the fascist European leadership) — they starved their way through internment.
In camps, towns, and villages, drought and poor sanitation feuled disease, especially typhus, and the experience of illness mingled with other forms of wartime anxiety. Shoshana Arviv was but nine when Benito Mussolini’s fascist government deported Libya’s Jews to concentration and labor camps. With thousands of other Jewish children, women, and men, she was interned in Giado. Arviv remembers weeping while her hair was shorn, ostensibly to prevent lice. She also never forgot the terror that came with the threat of sexual violence, a ubiquitous feature of occupation for girls and women in North Africa, as elsewhere.
Starvation, epigeneticists understand, alters not only the bodies of the living, but the bodies of generations to come. In this and other ways, deprivation followed North Africa into the postwar period. The traumatic war years also changed postwar politics in the region, inspiring nationalist movements and driving a wedge between the region’s Jews and Muslims.
Hunger, terror, disease, despoliation of the landscape, and cultural degradation were all through-lines of colonial rule in North Africa, with roots reaching back to the early 19th century. These hardships continued under the shadow of World War II, blending with new political realities.
As we look to Ukraine, the world would do well to learn from history. Hunger is not an accidental byproduct of war, but, rather, its menacing shadow. State-engineered famine is a weapon of war, and civilians its cruel target.