In 1996, in Algeria, eight French monks of The Monastery Notre-Dame de l'Atlas of Tibhirine have a simple life serving the poor community that was raised around the monastery. During the Algerian Civil War, they are threatened by terrorists but they decide to stay in the country and not return to France.
"Of Gods & Men" a 2010 film by Xavier Beauvois is loosely inspired by the murder of the monks of Tibhirine in 1996.
It won the "Grand Prix" at Cannes Festival in 2010 and the César Award for "Best Film" in 2011.
In 1996, Algeria was five years into a civil war that was to last until 1998 and the monks incited mixed reactions from the population. To those whose medical needs they tended they were friends. But to others, including those in authority, they were a symbol of French colonial power.
As tensions rose between the government and the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria (GIA) grew, the monks were advised to leave their sanctuary. They refused. Early on 27 March 1996, several members of the GIA forced their way into the monastery and snatched seven of the nine monks.
In a communiqué, the GIA demanded the release of a group of Islamist rebels in exchange for the monks. After nearly a month, on May 23rd, 1996, a report by a radio station in Tangiers, Morocco, announced that the seven monks had been killed two days earlier, stating this was because the French authorities refused to negotiate.
A week later, on May 30th, the Algerian authorities announced the discovery of the monks' remains on a road near Medea. Only their heads were ever recovered.
Young Algerians take to the streets in an outpouring of rage against soaring unemployment and the one-party rule of the National Liberation Front (FLN), in power since independence from France in 1962.
The week-long riots, which became known as Black October, mark Algeria’s longest period of unrest for 26 years. Shops in the capital, Algiers, are torched and the offices of the FLN ransacked. Hundreds die after the army opens fire on protesters.
In a concession to public anger, the National People’s Assembly overturns a ban on new political parties and passes a law allowing opposition parties to fight elections. The Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) begins its spectacular rise as a political force, winning 55 per cent of the vote in local elections the following year.
The Algerian army steps in to annul the country’s first free and fair parliamentary elections, won by the FIS the previous month, and forces Chadli Bendjedid (in power since 1979) to dissolve parliament and stand down
The government declares a state of emergency and disbands the FIS and its local and regional council administrations. The crackdown triggers 10 years of bloody civil war with Islamist groups.
The army installs Mohamed Boudiaf, a founder member of the FLN who fought in the independence war against France, as head of state.
Mr Boudiaf is killed while delivering a speech. The 73-year-old president is shot in the back of the head by one of his own security team, said to have ties to militant Islamists.
The Armed Islamic Group (GIA) emerges as one of the two main guerrilla groups fighting the government.
Liamine Zéroual, a retired colonel, is appointed head of state, winning the presidential election the following year with a comfortable majority.
More than 85 per cent of Algerian voters back constitutional changes in a referendum.
Some of the bloodiest incidents of the civil war take place in a wave of massacres in villages in western Algeria. The bloodshed is blamed on the GIA, but questions are raised over the army’s failure to stop the violence.
The newly created Democratic National Rally wins parliamentary elections while the moderate Islamic party, Movement of Society, makes a good showing at the polls.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika becomes president after opposition candidates pull out of the election amid concerns over vote-rigging. Despite his opaque regime, Mr Bouteflika wins popular approval for helping to bring an end to the civil war.
A government-commissioned report acknowledges that Algeria’s security forces were responsible for the disappearance of more than 6,000 people during the 1990s.
In a referendum, Algerians back an amnesty for those implicated in the violence.
Some 200,000 people lost their lives in Algeria's 1991-2002 civil war between Islamists and security forces, dubbed the country's "Black Decade".
The Algerian government maintained that the massacre was another Islamist crime.
However doubts were raised after allegations that the army itself may have been responsible, either through a blunder or to discredit the Islamists.
In July 2002 a former Algerian soldier, Abderrahmane Chouchane, said that Zitouni (GIA chief) had also been a military agent while running the GIA.
Then in December 2002 an ex-member of the Algerian secret services, Abdelkader Tigha, claimed in the French daily Liberation that the military had ordered the abductions using the services of Zitouni's group.
"Annoyed by the obstinate presence of the Trappist monks in a strategic area ... and anxious to secure France's support for its anti-terrorist campaign," the military decided to kidnap them, Tigha alleged from prison.
In 2004 Paris prosecutors opened a formal inquiry.
French general Francois Buchwalter, the military attache to Algiers in 1996, told the investigation in 2009 that he had learned that the Algerian military killed the men in error.
Buchwalter said an Algerian soldier whose brother took part had told him that military helicopters had opened fire on a militant camp, realising afterwards that they had also killed the monks.
The general said the monks' heads were removed afterwards to make it look like the work of jihadist rebels. He accused the French authorities of abetting a cover-up.
In 2014, three years after a formal request, Algeria agreed the skulls, buried at the monastery, could be exhumed for examination in the presence of French magistrates and experts.
It however blocked the French team from taking the samples back to Paris.
In 2015 the investigators released a report that heaped doubts on the official version by concluding the monks were likely killed several weeks before the date claimed by the GIA.
They said the skulls did not show bullet wounds, which would also undermine the claim of an army error, but without the bodies it was hard to make any conclusions on how the men died.
Another report released in 2018 made similar conclusions but added that all the skulls showed signs of a "post-mortem decapitation", feeding suspicions their beheading may have been staged. It mentioned that the monks had their throat cut.
To this day, it's still unclear who killed the monks as both Algeria and France pass the buck to each other.
Algeria may be responsible but there's also a rumor that France got in contact with the GIA and wanted to make them wait, slowing down the negociations, because they were able to locate them and wanted to try to save the monks. When the GIA learned about the plan (by the Algerian authorities), they killed the monks.
Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5