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The Algerian crisis

No End in Sight

Ahmed Bouzid

 

The fratricide that has engulfed Algeria since the cancellation of the 1992 parliamentary elections that were set to bring Islamists to power has claimed at least 60,000 lives, with many estimates going as high as double that figure, putting the death toll above 120,000. The sixth year of the crisis is about to end and still rarely does a day go by in Algeria when a massacre of civilians does not take place. On a "good day," the toll is two or three, but often the count is in the dozens. The victims, indiscriminately range in age from old men and women to infants. They are slaughtered by knife, decapitated, mutilated, or burned alive with a ghastly barbarity obviously aimed at shocking and horrifying. During one particularly bloody period, August and September 1997, a series of massacres claimed the lives of a few hundred people at a time. The most notorious of these massacres were those of Blida and Ain Defla, with 100 slaughtered on July 31, and another 111 on August 3, Rais on August 29, with 300 victims; Algiers on August 25, with 117 victims; Beni Messous on September 6, with about 200 victims; and Bentalha on September 22, also claiming around 200 victims. In those two months alone, the death toll of just the massacres that were publicly acknowledged by the authorities (many others were not) has been placed above 2,000. Since then, the killing has gone unabated, with the brunt of the suffering falling on a terrorized and helpless civilian population.

Officially, the Algerian authorities have invariably attributed all violence to the shadowy GIA (Groupe Islamique Arme), an alleged radical offshoot of the now-banned Islamist FIS (Front Islamique du Salut). Doubts have surfaced, however, about the identity of the GIA, with most Algerians coming to believe that factions within the security forces resolute on not negotiating a political settlement--the so called "eradicators," led by generals Mohamed Lamari, Khaled Nezzar, and Mohamed Mediene, for their policy of eradicating the opposition rather than compromising with it--have been behind some, if not most, of the violence, and that the GIA is at least partially controlled and manipulated by security elements. How much these allegations are true and how much is speculation, is not easy to tell. However, some basic facts about the violence can at least give us an outline of the truth. First, the majority of the victims have been poor villagers and shanty town dwellers, the same people who voted with overwhelming support for the FIS in the canceled parliamentary elections of December 1991. Rarely has a ranking official or a member of the pro-regime elite been a victim of violence. Most Algerians find highly dubious and unlikely the proposition that Islamists have turned against their base out of some feeling of desperation and hopelessness and, as the official line claims, to punish those populations for allegedly not fully supporting them. Instead, the widely held belief is that elements within the security forces averse to any political compromise are following a systematic scorched earth policy of demonizing the Islamist opposition, terrorizing the popular base of that opposition, and maintaining a general atmosphere of terror where arbitrary state actions against any show of dissent can be taken in the name "security prerogatives." What has been most shocking about the massacres in Algeria, and what has forced a curiously reluctant international community at long last to pay attention (though feeble) to the Algerian crisis, has been the stunningly flagrant, obviously deliberate, and repeated failure of the Algerian authorities to protect civilians. According to Amnesty International’s 1998 annual report, "most of the massacres took place near the capital, Algiers, and in the Blida and Medea regions, in the most heavily militarized part of the country. Often, massacres were committed in villages situated close to army barracks and security forces posts, and in some cases survivors reported that army security forces units were stationed nearby." The report goes on to point out that "the killings often lasted several hours, but the army and security forces failed to intervene to stop the massacres and allowed the attackers to leave undisturbed."

The Algerian authorities denied that security forces consistently failed to intervene, calling such accusations "old style propaganda" and "attempts to turn the exception into the rule." According to Algeria’a ambassador to the U.S., "in the few cases where such situations occurred, the military barracks in question were army logistical and technical facilities with no combatant force or anti-terrorist units." The ambassador then goes on to explain that "it is known that security forces usually undertake assigned missions that require advance preparation and planning. I was told by various foreign experts that night time immediate response improvised with insufficient intelligence, appropriate mobility and night vision equipment is generally considered as hopeless and suicidal."

Witness accounts abound to contradict this assessment and to instead lend support to the accusation that the security forces have been grossly derelict in their duties. "It is impossible," a survivor explained, "at least 1,000 dead in a month! How can perpetrators assassinate hundreds of people and disappear in nature? This is something difficult for me to imagine: How come that in a zone so militarized as the Greater Algiers area soldiers could not hear even the echoing of the shooting. Insha' Allah, he sighed hopefully, one day we will know the truth." Another witness said: "the soldiers came but halted on the other side of that road; they said they wouldn’t come closer because they believed this road was mined." David Hirst of The Guardian wrote that "[a]ccording to witnesses, the army sent tanks to the very edge of the town while a helicopter circled overhead." Robert Moore of The Observer: "in the village of Larbaa the attack took place 300 yards from a large barracks." According to Reuters: "[s]urvivors at Sidi Rais were more critical--‘The day before the massacre, the forces were everywhere in the village, on the eve of massacre they disappeared'."

On the surface, Algeria is a story that has been covered. As Algeria’s foreign minister and Algeria’s ambassadors around the world have repeatedly boasted, "[in 1997] 561 foreign journalists covered the events in Algeria under totally normal conditions." The number, however, is deceptive and hardly reflects the reality faced by journalists on the ground seeking to report on the massacres. The fact, documented extensively, is that the vast majority of those reporters who were admitted to Algeria were severely constrained in where they could go and what they could see and have frequently complained about the difficulty of carrying out their tasks. Those who have dared circumvent the authorities have spent a night or two in jail and then been summarily ejected from the country. According to Le Quotidien, "the movement of foreign journalists has become severely constrained. Daily, new reasons are given to refuse requests to travel within the country. The harassment is also daily. In addition to the work visa, an accreditation of the ministry of communication is also required..... Police escort--which is mandatory and without which journalists are not allowed to move­-officially for security reasons--have also come to weigh very heavily on the journalists. It is not rare that during an interview an agent would interrupt by asking ‘when are we going to leave?’ or ‘what more do you have to say?’ When we know the fear that the police inspires in people in Algeria, the mere sight of a walkie-talkie or an intimidating attitude suffice to discourage people from speaking up."

Small wonder, then, that if one were to follow the news from outside of Algeria, one would hardly come to the conclusion that Algeria is, as Robert Moore of the Observer put it, "the most hazardous [country] in the world." In the United States, for instance, we had to wait for the dark months of August and September, 1997, with their spectacular body counts of hundreds massacred at a time, to see Algeria "burst" all of a sudden into American consciousness, out of nowhere, as it must have seemed to most watchers. In Europe, awareness of the Algerian crisis has not been nearly as comatose, but the attention given to the crisis remains astonishingly out of measure with its severity. Nowhere else in the world would car bomb explosions go off in open markets, claiming the life of scores of people, with hardly a reference in the news. In American newspapers, the level of negligence is even greater. Although bombings and massacres still take place to this day, Algeria has again dropped off American consciousness after the attention it began to receive towards the end of 1997 and the early months of 1998, the period where the most horrendous massacres took place.

After a great deal of hedging, and in response to an increasingly outraged international public opinion, on January 19 and 20, 1998, the European Union sent an official delegation of three foreign ministers--the "Troika" as it has come to be known--from Luxembourg, Britain, and Austria for a visit into Algeria, with the hope of convincing the Algerian authorities to allow a special United Nations "raporteur" on human rights to look into the circumstances surrounding the atrocities. The visit lasted a total of 18 hours and the ministers were not allowed to visit the sites of the massacres or to lay a wreath there in memory of the victims, while their request that a UN raporteur be allowed in was rejected as an unacceptable challenge to Algeria’s sovereignty. Three weeks later, another delegation of nine deputies from the European Parliament spent four days in Algeria, also ostensibly to look into ways to shed light on the massacres. But at the end of its visit, the delegation recommended that no UN investigation should be undertaken and that "Algeria does not need judges; it needs help and understanding." Most significantly, echoing the official Algerian line, the delegation concluded that Algeria had the legal and political structures to satisfactorily look into the massacres and that democracy did exist in Algeria. It also suggested that, instead of looking into the massacres in Algeria, Europe should investigate "Islamist networks" operating in Europe, and even that some of the restrictions on the sale to Algeria of "anti-terrorist" arms should be eased. The delegation went so far as to drop one of Europe’s long-standing calls that Algeria negotiate with all parties concerned, including its most important challenger, the banned Islamist opposition party, the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Instead, in a remarkable gesture of open subservience, the head of the delegation, Andre Soulier, publicly tore up during a news conference an unopened letter addressed to the delegation by the FIS. and submitted to him by the president of Algeria’s only independent Human Rights Organization, LADDH.

A third excursion into Algeria by an international body took place between July 22 and August 4 1998. This time, a UN "panel," headed by ex-Portuguese President Mario Soares, visited the country on what was carefully coined an "information-gathering" mission, with no legal investigative mandate or authority. The panel, which officially had been guaranteed by the Algerian authorities open access to all sources of information, saw its movements and itineraries carefully scripted by Algerian officials. The personalities they met and spoke with were almost exclusively selected from those who toed the official line--that is, that there is nothing to hide, that the Algerian authorities are acting with complete transparency, that what Algeria is facing is a crisis of terrorism not one of human rights, and that what was needed was cooperation and not condemnation. Most flagrantly, the panel failed to seek any new information on the events that had mobilized the international outcry in the first place: the massacres. According to the Algerian Human Right organization LADDH, "at Beni Messous," where some 200 people had been slaughtered on September 1997, within a few miles from military installations, "the panel was taken to a naked field where there remained no traces of the massacre, and received by a colonel in the security forces who repeated the official version on a map." The panel also failed to take advantage of its visit to the Serkadji prison in Algiers, where more than a 100 prisoners were massacred in cold blood in 1995. In its reaction to the report issued by the panel, Amnesty International noted that "the panel’s visit to the notorious Serkadji prison... shows its failure to confront crucial aspects of the human rights situation. In a country where close to 20,000 people are detained on charges of ‘terrorism,’ the panel only met with one prisoner accused of ‘terrorism’ and focused its visits on prisoners accused of economic crimes. Such an approach is astonishing especially given that no international organization or human rights expert had previously been allowed into this or any other prison." Amnesty’s report concluded that "like previous political initiatives of this kind, notably visits by the EU Troika and by the European Parliament at the beginning of this year, the UN panel’s visit was irrelevant to the human rights situation in Algeria."

According to Algeria’s ambassador to the U.S., who on February 5, 1998, faced an unprecedented Congressional panel on the Algerian massacres, "Algeria is signatory to all the multi-lateral treaties on the non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and Algeria is a signatory to 23 conventions aimed at protecting and promoting human rights, and Algeria voluntarily accepts the optional protocols attached to those treaties, which establish monitoring mechanisms." How does the signing of treaties relate to actual respect of human rights and how does mentioning the number of treaties signed make Algeria more transparent, it was not clear. As far as Algeria’s responsibility to the international community was concerned, in the words of Algeria’s foreign minister Ahmed Attaf, "[t]he only obligation that we have at the moment is the periodic presentation of reports on the political and civil rights in front of the special United Nations commission on human rights." Not that these treaties and obligations are fair to the Algerian state in the first place-. No doubt wishing to contribute to a more equitable system of human rights jurisprudence, Algeria’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva, Mohamed Salah Dembri, complained that "[i]nternational human rights refers only to the responsibility of the state when, more and more, there exist entities outside of the state." The remedy to this unbearable state of affairs? "If we consider the phenomenon of mafias and terrorism, we have non-state entities whose responsibilities are not mentioned in international law as it exists today--and for this reason, we must further develop the notion of international law."

 

A more accurate means of measuring the extent to which the Algerian state has been respectful of the rule of law and the various treaties it has signed is by examining how it actually behaves. According to Amnesty International, "more people are dying in Algeria than anywhere else in the Middle East. Time and time again, no one is brought before a court of law. There is just a statement, released to the press, that the killer or killers has been killed." Often, alleged terrorists are first brought before national television, where they make various self-incriminating statements--that yes, they participated in an assassination or that they carried out a murder--and then, they disappear, never to be heard from again. Two particular cases are worth mentioning: the assassination of Tahar Djaout in June 1993, the first journalist to fall victim to the violence, and that of Abdelhaq Benhamouda on January 28, 1997, a labor leader and ally of president Zeroual. In both instances, the alleged perpetrators were presented in front of national TV to "confess" to their crimes. In the case of Tahar Djaout, a certain Abdallah Belabassi claimed in his televised "confession" that he drove the assailants to the scene of the crime and that he was operating under Islamist leader Abdelhak Layada. It turned out later that Abdallah Belabassi could not have driven the assailants, since he was a few miles away during the assassination with his hand ball team. Like Abdallah Belabassi, the alleged assassin of Abdelhak Benhamouda, Rachid Medjahed, was presented to national television on February 23, 1997, to "confess" to his crime. Arrested by the authorities on February 15, the accused was not seen alive after his "confessions" of February 23 and apparently died while in detention. According to Human Rights Watch, "[e]xcept for his televised ‘confession,’ neither Mr. Medjahed’s relatives nor his lawyer saw him alive after his arrest. After first learning of his death the family had to wait a month before being permitted to view his body. They were then provided no details concerning the cause and circumstances of death. Authorities to this day have not as far as we know acknowledged Mr. Medjahed’s death publicly."

In their report to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva in March 1998, the Algerian delegation acknowledged the possibility of only one single case of extra-juridical killing--that of Rachid Medjahed--who, it claimed, was injured in a shoot out while resisting arrest, although, the report added, the matter was still under investigation by the Algerian authorities. The Belabassi and Medjahed cases are only two instances among thousand of others, all eloquent testimony of the extent to which the Algerian state is respectful of the 23 international human rights treaties and proclamations of which it is willing signatory. According to Robert Fisk of The Independent, "documentary testimony [shows] that thousands – some say as many as 12,000 – men and women have been ‘disappeared’ by a government that claims to be fighting ‘international terrorism’."

The Algerian crisis is an on-going tragedy perhaps best understood not by any ready answers but by the questions that remain unanswered. To this day, no satisfactory justification has been provided by the authorities to explain why hundreds of people can be massacred a few yards away from military barracks. To this day, no independent inquiries into the assassination of 58 journalists have been carried out and not a single assassin has been caught alive. To this day, no one is convinced that the truth has been uncovered about who was behind the assassination of President Boudiaf in June 1992; who ordered and carried out the assassination of ex-prime minister Kasdi Merbah, in August 1993; who slaughtered seven Italian sailors in July 7, 1994; who was behind the Air-France hijacking in December 1994 and the Paris bombings of July 1995; who carried out the kidnapping and assassination of seven French monks in Algeria in May 1996; who assassinated labor leader Abdelhaq Benhamouda in January 1997; and most recently, who was behind the assassination of the popular Berber singer, Lounes Matoub, on June 25, 1998. The cases cited represent the most visible among thousands of equally unanswered mysteries. Journalists, scientists, artists, academics, politicians, lawyers, and tens of thousands of ordinary civilians have been killed and continue to be killed each and every day without one single credible inquiry taking place.

The wanton killing of civilians has now gone on literally unabated for at least six years. In Algeria, time will not sort matters out, as events have proved again and again. This past month, in a chilling deja vu, Algeria’s first democratically elected president was forced to give up his office by the same generals who had forced the resignation of his predecessor in 1992, thereby igniting the current tragedy. The cycle threatens to mercilessly repeat itself as a new struggle for power will no doubt establish new factions and alliances. Until the process of uncovering the truth begins in earnest and those who kill begin to understand that they cannot perpetrate atrocities with impunity, the horrors will go on.