You want a desert war? Try this one

You want a desert war? Try this one

JOHN SWEENEY,The Observer, 08 February 1998

THE planes have taken off, the war is on and they’re bombing the enemy back into the Stone Age. Only this particular war is happening not in Iraq, but Algeria . The shadow-play – thus far – in Iraq is on our TV screens and radios all the time. The real thing in Algeria is somewhat under-reported.

Tonight on BBC Radio Five’s Special Assignment at 8.35pm you can hear a report from this non-war nobody is interested in. There is, sadly, no sound of the bombs falling on ‘terrorists’ hiding in the forests near the western city of Tlemcen. The Algerian military junta is careful about who it gives visas to, and I’m on their blacklist.

But, bizarrely, the best place on earth to find out what is really going in Algeria is in a triangle in north London, formed by the Finsbury Park mosque, the Archway tube station and the Kentish Town offices of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. You don’t need a visa to go to Kentish Town. Within London’s Algerian triangle live two men, not even a mile away from each other. One is a torturer, the other a victim of torture.

The cruelty I shall report below is obscene. It, literally, makes me sick. I don’t want to think about it, but it is necessary to report it because that way it might stop.

The two sides in the undeclared war are the shadowy generals – les eradicateurs – behind the President, General Liamine Zeroual, and the Islamic extremists. In the middle are the Algerian people. Around 80,000 have been killed so far. The favoured method is cutting throats. They call it Le Grand Sourire, The Big Smile.

The generals have powerful supporters in the West: the oil majors, including BP, the bankers at the International Monetary Fund who lent the regime a couple of billion dollars two years ago, and the French secret service, the DST. Its former chief, Yves Bonnet, was a fulsome advocate of the military regime and someone who threatened to sue the Observer for a story which did not mention his name at all, until he was arrested on fraud charges and, sadly, had a heart attack.

The generals say the massacres are the work of the Islamists, the most hardline of whom belong to a terrifying organisation called the Armed Islamic Group, or GIA by its French initials.

The moderate Islamists say the killing is the work of the regime’s secret police and the ninja, the paramilitary cops who sport black balaclavas, pretending to be Muslim fanatics. The conventional wisdom at the Foreign Office is that the hardline Islamists are responsible for the killing.

We met Ali at the Medical Foundation. His father was a hardline Islamist and a fighter. He remembers the hour and the day the ninja came for him. He spoke with his head bowed. He never looked up. He was arrested on 2 January, 1993, at 2am by 20 ninja. They were after his father, but took him in the boot of their car to Chateauneuf police barracks in Algiers. They stripped, beat and raped him. Repeatedly. ‘The police came for me time and again, though they knew I had done nothing. Each time they used me as a woman.’

It was unbearable to witness his shame and self-disgust. Ali is a broken man, who today hates his father for fighting for his mad cause.

But not a mile from Ali’s flat was Robert, a ninja, a thin, lightly bearded man. You could call him handsome. I had met him and written about him in the Observer a few weeks ago. But at our second meeting he opened up more. He worked in Chateauneuf. ‘I was a shit of a policeman because I did things you can’t even imagine. I can’t sleep, I can’t think . . . I can only think about what I’ve done because I murdered innocent people and I can’t forget that.’

He went on: ‘I tortured Algerian citizens in the barracks. I forced them to sit on broken bottles. I put them in baths, then gave them electric shocks. I tied them onto high ladders, then I would kick the ladder over so that it fell, face down. I pulled out beards with pliers. And the blowtorch.’

How could we be sure that Robert wasn’t an Islamist posing as a secret policeman to discredit the government? At our first meeting he had drawn a map, showing the precise whereabouts of the torture complex, behind the national police school, in the basement of a block of barracks. Ali, the torture victim, corroborated the map. Robert went on to say that he took part in 18 massacres, pretending that he and his fellow-ninjas were Muslims.

These two men are real. Their stories check out. If the Foreign Office doubts the evidence that the Algerian government is behind some of the massacres, it should get in touch with the Observer. We can introduce them. Our number’s in the phone book.