No End in Sight


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.