Truth and justice after a brutal civil war

Truth and justice after a brutal civil war Algeria: the women speak

By Wendy Kristianasen, Le Monde Diplomatique, April 2006

The 200,000 dead and 8,000 disappeared of Algeria’s long civil war were almost all men. They left behind a generation of women from different backgrounds and political opinions who have come together in opposition to the president’s charter for peace and reconciliation.

There was an unusual event in Algiers on 24 February, when six associations working for the victims of Algeria’s long and brutal civil war held a joint press conference to reject the new charter for peace and national reconciliation approved three days earlier by the government. The charter, decreed on 15 August 2005 by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to “close the chapter”, as he put it, on Algeria’s violent past, won 98% of the vote in a referendum on 29 September. This was based on a simple proposition: were people for or against peace?

Despite the size of the vote, opposition to the charter is fierce among rights activists and has brought together old enemies. Chérifa Kheddar is the head of Djazaïrouna, an association of victims of terrorism. Nacéra Dutour leads an association that works for those who disappeared at the hands of the state or its agents. She said that Bouteflika, in promising peace to the Algerians, had “ended the dreams of truth and justice for thousands of families of the disappeared”.

As international rights groups observed on 1 March, the new law, which will grant amnesty to state-armed militias and members of armed groups who surrender, would “consecrate impunity for crimes under international law and other human rights abuses, and even muzzle open debate by criminalising public discussion about the decade-long conflict” (1). A referendum could not “be the means by which a government evades its international obligations”.

Although they would scarcely have spoken to each other before last summer, Kheddar and Dutour have come together because they feel that Algeria cannot move on without truth and justice. Algeria’s society was torn apart in 1992 when those in power cancelled an electoral process that the Islamist Front Islamique de Salut seemed likely to win; this triggered a violent civil war in which 200,000 people died, and provoked the rise of shadowy, extremist militias such as the Groupes Islamistes Armées. A chasm now separates the disappeared (presumed terrorists) from the victims of armed Islamist groups. For most Algerians, including moderate Islamists, the conflict was not a civil war, which is an idea too painful to articulate, but le terrorisme: armed insurgents against the state and those that the state had armed for self-defence.

Kheddar and Dutour’s backgrounds are similar. Both worked with women’s associations. Dutour said: “In 1986 I left to live in France. I was divorced and couldn’t bring my three sons with me. One day, 30 January 1997, I got a phone call: Amin, my middle son, had disappeared. Numb with shock, I went to Algeria to look for him. He had been living with my mother at Baraki. There had been an attack on the visiting prefect of Algiers; the army were called in and there were mass arrests. My son wasn’t interested in politics; he didn’t have a job and was trying to become a taxi driver. He wasn’t an Islamist. He wasn’t even observant. The only thing he did was fast during Ramadan. That was what he was doing when they arrested him.

“At the local police station they told me: ‘Of course we torture people: they always have something to confess. You’re all terrorists. You gave birth to terrorists. So everything that’s happening is normal.’ After that I got tips about where they had moved him, but they led nowhere: people were too frightened to tell. The last I heard of him was in 2000.” Did she think he was still alive? Her eyes blazed: “Of course he is. I feel him. He will come back.”

Dutour tried to organise other mothers but there was too much fear. “So I came back to Paris and set up the Collectif des Familles de Disparus en Algérie, working with French and international rights groups. Now that people are less frightened, I’ve been able to set up committees inside Algeria.”

At the rundown office of SOS Disparus in downtown Algiers, funded by Dutour and presided over by her mother, Fatima Yous, the corridor was packed with veiled women (two in black robes and niqabs), there to report or follow up family cases: the security forces or the police are thought to have abducted 8,000 people. Yous said: “The victims always know who’s kidnapped them, even their names. But after that the trail goes cold.” Since 1998, SOS Disparus has been organising demonstrations every Wednesday in front of the parliament building.

Of the victims’ associations at the February press conference, five are headed by women (2). That is unsurprising since Algeria’s women were crucial to the war of independence against the French, then in the violence of the 1990s. As fathers, husbands and sons were arrested or killed, they became heads of households. They were also raped and tortured. As Akila Ouared, militant feminist and one of the original moudjahidates, said:“We women were always there at the helm.”

She was an agent for the Front de Liberation Nationale (FLN) in France, tasked with giving money to the families of militants. “I inhabited secret, separate worlds. By day I was Jacqueline, working for the French (something I did not tell the Algerians). In the evenings or at lunch breaks, I would slip away to meet a fictitious fiancé. In July 1962, after the ceasefire, we created a first women’s association. I came back to Algeria and remained an activist with the FLN until 1965. I saw myself as an average Algerian engaged in a just cause. Now I call myself a feminist: not one who hates men but who simply wants equality between the genders.” She blames the FLN: “It was a front for independence; after that was gained, it should have opened the political field to others. It was responsible for introducing the family code in 1984. Two hundred moudjahidates sat down in the street to protest.” Ouared, 69, is still fighting that battle.

The code was amended on 27 February 2005 (3). Soon after women’s rights activists, including Ouared and Chérifa Kheddar, met in a private house in the pleasant suburb of Al Bia to discuss their position on it. All were educated, middle-class, unveiled women who define themselves as democrats, a reference to the brief democratic opening from 1989 to 1992. All their associations are independent of the state and fought hard for the abrogation of the code, which Ouared called “Algiera’s dishonour, an insult to women”. Chiefly, they objected to the retention a wali (guardian).

“It’s emblematic of women’s absence of freedom,” said Kheddar. “You can be president of the republic but you still need a guardian.” Women can now choose their guardian – is that an advance? “No, it makes the condescension even clearer.”

Nadia Aït-Zaï, 54, a lawyer and professor of law at Algiers University, runs a centre for women and children, Ciddef (Centre d’Information et de Documentation sur les Droits de l’Enfant et de la Femme). She calls herself “a militant who defends women’s rights. Not a feminist: that word has another history in other countries. We’re working on abortion, a taboo subject. At present only therapeutic abortion is permitted. One of the problems is that contraception is available to married women but not to the unmarried, widows or divorcees, who deal with these issues illegally, often abroad. We also want to add a special clause for women to article 39 of the penal code which forbids sexual harassment.”

Aït-Zaï said of the family code: “It could have been abolished; it’s part of the Napoleonic civil code, with Islamic references, a hybrid. Parliament was supposed to vote on the amendment. Instead, Bouteflika had it quietly passed as a presidential decree. As a jurist, I find the reform incoherent: it’s got one foot in modernity, the other in the past.”

Unlike many other activists, Aït-Zaï decided to “take what is positive: it’s a small step in two areas: justice and equality. Marriage is now consensual; relations between spouses are equal; the marriage contract confers separation de biens [separation of estates]; artificial insemination is allowed; in a divorce whichever parent has care and control becomes guardian; and the father must provide a decent home for that parent.” However, Aït-Zaï objects to the retention of the wali, and of polygamy (this has been made harder and is anyway only practised by 2%); and the lack of change over inheritance, which remains two-thirds to sons and one-third to daughters.

Aïcha Dahmane Belhadjar is national secretary for women and family affairs for the Islamist MSP (Mouvement Sociale pour la Paix, formerly Hamas), a junior partner in the ruling coalition; she is just as elitist as the women who met in Al Bia, although there is hardly any contact between her and them. She said: “We’ve tried to work with secular women but they’re hostile, so dialogue is difficult. It’s a mistake on their part because society pays the price. After all we are here: we can’t be avoided.”

It was not surprising that she viewed the amendment positively: “It preserves marriage as a social act, that’s what’s important. And women are not minors, because there’s no marriage without their consent: the wali is just a symbol of family relationships. But some of the changes aren’t clear. I would like to see a fund for divorced couples; I also think the obligation on women to contribute materially is a retrograde step.”

Belhadjar is a rebel. “Everything that’s not a declared sin is permitted,” she said. “I never thought Islam stopped women being part of public life; rather, I think it sees it as a duty. The home is important but it’s not everything. What I’m doing isn’t exceptional. If more Muslim women aren’t doing the same it’s because we’ve acquired patriarchal traits from our colonial past.” She sidestepped the charter: “It’s one step to remedy the crisis, but it’s not everything. There are sequels from the terrorism and they have to be addressed.”

Louisa Aït Hamou, 54, a lecturer at Algiers University, is a member of the Wassila network of women’s NGOs and professionals, including psychologists: “It began in 2000.We hold workshops, a weekly clinic for children, arrange professional help. But as well as action, there is reflection – about Algeria, but also beyond – which we publish. We are breaking the silence on taboo subjects: sexual aggression against women and children, family violence, rape, battered women, economic violence. Take Hassi Messaoud, a new oil-rich city: 30 women went to work there, where working women are unusual. The local imams accused them of being prostitutes and, in 2001, they were raped and knifed. One was buried alive. Wassila, with other NGOs, ended the long silence over this and supported the women in their search for justice, though only three of the 30 dared attend the appeal court on 3 January 2005.”

Aït Hamou described the beginnings of the women’s movement in 1979: “There was just one organisation, the Union Nationale des Femmes Algeriennes, and they only worked on education. So we started the Collectif Autonome des Femmes. It was illegal because you had to be in the FLN or the Union Nationale. Most of the women came with political and ideological baggage. I thought it was a distraction from real action. In the 1980s NGOs were permitted: but 99% of them were appendices of political parties so the distraction escalated and the divisions grew. At that time the struggle was against the family code. In the 1990s the women’s groups were empty shells because of the violence. But because rape became so widespread, we began to address the problem. Even if we haven’t used this breakthrough to its full to talk about ordinary domestic violence, women’s associations, though still highly political, now see the need to do practical work.”

One is SOS Femmes en Detresse, an independent association funded by German foundations. Meriem Belaala, its president, said: “In Algiers a centre manned by lawyers and other professionals advises on personal problems – domestic violence, sexual and family violence, incest and unmarried mothers. The centre also holds seminars to teach awareness of the psychological distress of women after the decade of violence.”

The association has opened a centre in Algiers to provide shelter for women and teach skills. There is another centre for women in Batna. “A huge success,” said Belaala, “because there we are breaking a taboo by getting women to talk. It’s a big step forward, even at the level of marital relations; women think that frigidity is their fault.”

It is hard for women’s associations to be both effective and independent of the state (something Wassila and SOS Femmes en Detresse have achieved), because of problems of funding and licensing. The movement is divided between those independent of the government and those within its ambit. The defection of a key figure in the movement, Khalida Messaoudi Toumi, to become minister of culture in 2002, is a source of bitterness. She was a member of the commission on the amendment to the family code and defended the reform: “Giving women the right to choose their guardian means women are now the subject, not the object. Women won, secularism lost. I’m for women every time. I am a publicly avowed feminist. And I’m a secularist: I want separation of state and religion. But women come first.”

She expressed “regret that the women’s movement did nothing. No one mobilised except the government and the Islamists.”

That statement was greeted with outrage. “No one from the women’s movement was appointed to the commission,” said Belaala. “In 2002 many of us got together to campaign for the code’s abrogation.” She raised a wider issue: “Almost all of us who supported abrogation are against the new charter.”

Bouteflika’s civil harmony law in July 1999, which offered immunity or reduced sentences to members of armed groups who gave up their arms and disclosed their actions, soon became a blanket amnesty for crimes by all who declared they had repented. With ex-GIA emirs openly flaunting their actions, many who supported the measure felt they had been duped. The law has been extended under the charter.

Saida Benhabiles Kettou, an activist in the government camp, is a teacher who went on to promote the conditions of rural women and children in Wagla, and was briefly a minister in 1992. She said: “The crisis in Algeria was about poverty and backwardness; Islam was its vector. While the democrats were in the salons, the FIS were on the ground.”

She sees the charter as the only option: “Truth and reconciliation on the South African model wouldn’t work here: we Algerians aren’t made like that.”

No one would dispute Algeria’s need for social justice but there is a need for a consensus about its future. Chérifa Bouatta, president of Sarp (Association pour l’Aide Psychologique, la Recherché et la Formation), said of the association’s work for women since 1990 in Sidi Moussa: “Our psychologists are worried about what will happen to the children of traumatised mothers. We think all this could repeat itself in another generation. But it’s not up to us to pass an opinion on the new charter: it’s up to the victims. Those I have seen want peace. They also want to know who was responsible.”

The victims I met all said that there was a need to know. Among them are women who became activists because of the violence. Brakni Taous, 38, is a civil engineer from Blida, where the worst violence happened. When her husband was kidnapped in 1996, she left with her baby daughter for Tizi Ouzou. “I know the names of the three men who kidnapped my husband. And I know he’s dead. But I don’t have the status of widow because his body hasn’t been found. What I want most is to find his body so that I can move on. I’m trying to contact and support others like me, and campaign for state recognition of victims of disappeared people. The new charter wants to pass all this over in silence.”

Madame Zinou’s real name is Keltoum Larbes, and she works as a nurse at Mustapha Bacha hospital in Algiers. She is 39, widow of Aliousalah Zineddine, known as Zinou, a journalist at the daily newspaper Liberté. “We lived in Blida. Zinou was one of 24 journalists ‘condemned’ by the AIS [the FIS armed wing] for what they wrote. At 10am on 6 January 1995 they gunned him down in front of our house. When I took him in my arms, he was dead. That was when my own struggle began. I joined the Comité National Contre l’Oubli et la Trahison but in 2001 it ceased to be active. So now I work on my own. Once a year I write an open letter to Zinou, which is published in the papers. I’m not an eradicator and I’m not political. I want peace, but not this peace with impunity that the charter is forcing on us. In South Africa it wasn’t like this.

“I’m a Muslim: the term secular makes people think you’re an atheist. But I’m working to promote secularisation, so that religion stops being used for political ends. It’s abhorrent to say that ‘Islam is the religion of the state’ [article 2 of the constitution]; we should say it’s the religion of the people.”

Religion was a bastion in the fight for independence; with article 2 it became entrenched in the thinking of the FLN. The regime tried to use it and failed. “The problem now is how to become secular, something we’re doing in our own way, with difficulty,” said Fatima Oussedik, professor of sociology at Algiers University. “The transition is deep and painful because we have lived through so much violence. We need to deal with that before we can have any sort of amnesty: it’s directly linked to truth and justice. We’ll remain an authoritarian society if we don’t have this debate.”

Women have taken up this challenge, and also the need for urgent social reform. The 200,000 dead and the 8,000 disappeared of the past years were almost all men: so women have a crucial role in the social, psychological and economic future.

(1) Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Centre international pour la justice transitionnelle and Fédération internationale des ligues des droits de l’homme. See: /mrv/…

(2) Nacéra Dutour heads SOS Disparus and the CFDA; Lila Ighil heads the Association Nationale des Familles de Disparus. Djazaïrouna, Somoud and the Organisation Nationale des Victimes du Terrorisme et des Ayants Droit, working for victims of terrorism, are headed respectively by Chérifa Kheddar, Ali Mrabet and Halaimia Fatima.

(3) The nationality law was also changed to allow Algerian women married to foreigners to pass on their nationality to their children.