Killing And Disappearing In Camera

For the second time in more than a decade which left as many as 200,000 people dead, 100,000 injured, 20,000 disappeared, 500,000 children orphaned and traumatized and 10,000 women raped, in a dirty war between a military junta and a myriad of religious fanatics groups, an Amnesty International delegation has been allowed to visit Algeria between Feb. 15 and March 3. Roger Clark, the leader of the delegation, declared in a press conference held on Feb. 27: ‘Torture remains prevalent and systematic in nearly all cases involving alleged links to what the government describes as “terrorist” activities. Thousands of families continue to suffer the agony of not knowing the fate of relatives who were arrested by security forces or abducted by armed groups or state-armed militias over the past decade.’ The requests by the AI delegates to meet with the Generals who hold the lever of power behind the scene fell on deaf ears. 


Despite the decreased number in their occurrence, assassinations carried out in the most horrendous ways, always attributed to terrorists but never investigated, are still frequent but are cynically ignored by state owned medias who never lose a chance, however, to denounce every Palestinian death in West Bank and Gaza. In the last two months, 40 civilian deaths have been reported by independent newspapers, 12 of which took place on Feb. 28 in Tipaza, a coastal city near the capital Algiers. One of the thorniest issues stressed by Amnesty International is the fate of 7,000 disappeared, mostly by members of the security forces, reported by relatives of the victims. According to the LADH (Algerian League for Human Rights) and MPVJ (Movement for Truth and Justice), two independent organizations, these 7,000 cases are just the tip of an iceberg that hides in its depth at least 13,000 other cases, unreported to the authorities due to fear of reprisal, mainly in remote areas.


I personally witnessed numerous cases of disappearances, torture and killings without charges when I was doing my military service, between 1994 and 1996. Military service is compulsory for all Algerian males aged 18 and above. I joined the army in March 1994. I spent the first 6 months in a military school, in Algiers, where we received a basic training, and then I was assigned to the First Regiment of Paratroopers that was operating at the time in the mountains of Jijel, located some 300 km east of the capital. I was appointed to the position of Personnel Officer.


At the time of my arrival, there was a man from the local area who volunteered to act as informer, presumably for getting protection for his family that was threatened by terrorists. He showed the commander a list of all those, in his village, who were collaborating with the armed groups by providing them with food, money, clothes and information. I am unsure about the number of people arrested and sent to unknown destinations, based on that list. One day, the ‘informer’ left just as he came, without any warning. It turned out that he was a terrorist in disguise and the people he denounced were those who were reluctant to cooperate with the armed groups. Too late. During that same period, one Friday afternoon, news came out about a tractor carrying fourteen armed terrorists to the local mosque. An RPG-7 grenade (a powerful Soviet anti-tank weapon used with abundance by the paratroopers) dismembered them alongside the driver. What were supposed to be ‘armed terrorists’ were in fact a group of innocent empty-handed farmers from an adjacent village heading for their Friday prayer. The truth about the incident was killed and buried with the fifteen bodies.


I heard from many different people in the regiment about a similar incident that occurred just a few weeks before my arrival. A freshly assigned second lieutenant was sent on his first mission with a group of soldiers to set a roadblock near the barracks. His lieutenant instructed him to check thoroughly every single vehicle in either direction and shoot at any one that wouldn’t stop. The second lieutenant set the roadblock on a slope. There came an old minibus with 17 passengers on board. The driver didn’t stop as ordered, most probably due to a problem with the breaks. The second lieutenant reduced the bus and its occupants to ashes with an RPG-7 grenade (once again). The story was repeatedly told to me as a joke. It was meant to be very funny as it showed how stupid the young officer was for carrying his superior’s instructions in so literal a way.


I will never forget a High School student brought one evening to the barracks, arrested on the allegation of his spying on soldiers for the benefit of the terrorists. The boy was very handsome and kind. He had an innocent smile on his face and looked like someone who was wondering what was happening to him. He was ‘interrogated’ by two officers from the Intelligence Section. At around 9:00 p.m., I went to my office to collect some documents. At that moment, the two officers came out dragging what I thought to be the young boy to the toilets. I couldn’t recognize him because what used to be his head was transformed into a kind of a red pineapple. They tortured him all night. The next morning, the first person I met was corporal S. He seemed very excited and I immediately guessed the reason for his high spirits. He had just come back from the nearby river where he slaughtered the boy and buried him in the sand. Corporal S. is a psychopath who likes above all beheading people. His legend started the day he went into a café with one hand holding a kalachnikov and another carrying a bag. He walked straight to the counter and told the waiter: ‘A black coffee for me and a fresh glass of lemonade for my friend; he is very thirsty.’ The waiter asked for some clarification: “Which friend are you talking about?” Corporal S. took off a human head from the bag and said: “This one!” Whenever a terrorist was captured (there were eleven of them in total all along the eighteen months I spent there), he would be given two choices: cooperate by giving information about his friends and their whereabouts and get the chance to be sent to a military tribunal that might innocent him or be tortured to death. Whatever the option he opted for, the terrorist would eventually end up under the knife of corporal S. 


The armed groups were behaving in ways that were far worse than those of the military towards the local population. They used to tax everyone who owned a shop, a taxi, or a farm. Any hesitation or refusal to cooperate would have terrible consequences, such as burning alive, torturing with pliers, slaughtering with a blunt knife, removal of tongues or sexual organs. They abducted dozens of young women from the isolated villages and forced them to enter into what they call ‘marriages of convenience’, that is, marriages for sexual purposes, on a contract basis that lasted from a few weeks to a few months. They also abducted many young boys and used them as sexual slaves. Whatever the terrorists wanted to do, they would just edict a fetwa – a religious law — of their own to make it licit. For instance, one of these fetwas says that you can kill a whole crowd of people – such as in a bus or at a market – if there is a policeman among them that you wanted dead. Another says that if you kill someone slowly by torturing her, she will have a better chance to go to heaven; the more suffering you extract from her the higher her chances. There are fetwas authorizing the consumption of drugs, stealing, lying or going without a shower for months.


What kind of future will have the 500,000 traumatized children who saw their parents and/or relatives slaughtered or burnt alive in front of them and who are ignored by the state? Who can measure the depths of the tremendous suffering of the 10,000 raped women who are left with no alternative but that of burying their secret in a society where a woman has no voice? And who can tell the helpless anxiety of whole families who are kept ignorant of the fate of their loved ones arrested by the police or abducted by the terrorists?


Without intense pressure from the international community, the silent tragedy that has befallen ordinary Algerians will continue with even more blood, deaths and torture. There is a strong democratic opposition inside the country that needs outside support. The American and British governments who seem so moved by the plight of the Iraqis at the hands of Saddam Hussein have failed to show the slightest degree of empathy for Algerians who are enduring the same dreadful plight at the hands of their dictators and terrorists. Even worse, both governments have lifted the ban on arms sales imposed on Algeria at the beginning of the 1990s, despite their knowledge of the reality that is well documented by such highly respected organizations as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch or Reporters Sans Frontieres. However, if tomorrow, the Algerian Generals dare to step out of what is deemed by Washington and London to be the right path for Third World dictators, Colin Powell and Tony Blair will not hesitate one second to produce voluminous dossiers about the “Beasts of Algiers” who torture, disappear, kill and massacre “their own people”.

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