State shuns issue of missing thousands

State shuns issue of missing thousands

Nobody knows how many thousands of people have gone missing since 1992. What everybody does know is missing is a proper response from the government, whose security forces are allegedly implicated.

Algiers, 02/11/99 – Off one of the busiest, most fashionable boulevards in central Algiers, a demonstration has been held every Wednesday for over a year. The demonstrators are the families of those who have gone missing. They gather to demand an honest, consistent response from the government, whose security forces are allegedly implicated. In the absence of such a response, nobody knows for sure how many thousands have disappeared since the outbreak of violence.

The demostrators assemble outside the headquarters of Algeria’s government-controlled human rights watchdog (ONDH). The slogans they chant have become familiar to all: « If our children are dead, tell us »; « If they’re alive, let us see them »; « If they’ve committed a crime, take them to court ».

Women organise for truth
The movement is led primarily by women – the wives, mothers and sister of people spirited away from their homes, usually at night, by the security forces in murky circumstances.

Protest become public and organised only in 1997. Yet the abductions started as early as 1992 with the outbreak of violence caused by the scrapped general election the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was poised to win. They have targeted families from deprived areas who sympathised with the now banned FIS.

Initially, individual women enquired into the disappearances. It was never their menfolk, for fear that fathers would suffer the same fate as their missing sons. In 1998, with the backing of only two of the seven parties sitting in the National Assembly, the far-left Workers’ Party (PT) and social democrat Socialist Forces Front (FFS), several days of street demonstrations compelled the President to pledge that every single disappearance would be investigated.

Government response incoherent
But since then the government has wavered between openness on the issue and information blackouts. Even the numbers of missing prompts controversy, with the victims’ families association claiming a figure of 4,000 and Amnesty International recording some 4,600 documented cases of disappearance.

The Ministry of the Interior and the ONDH claim that investigations into 3,000 missing people have revealed only a few dozen actual disappearances, with all the rest dying in skirmishes with the police or in hiding for terrorist activity.

The Ministry and the ONDH have both stated in the press that they have supplied each family with official answers to their demands for information. Families have flatly denied this and continue to wonder whether they should mourn the death of their loved ones, or live in the hope of seeing them again one day.

Bouteflika’s contempt shows impotence
But the strangest response of all to the issue has been that of President Bouteflika. In an interview in national daily, El Hayat, he initially stated some 10,000 people were missing and solemnly pledged the authorities would conduct a nationwide investigation. Then, at a rally for the referendum on the Civil Harmony Act a few weeks later, however, he blurted out angrily to a group of mothers haranguing him, « I haven’t got your children in my pockets. Forget the past. »

His words were a terrible blow to the families who had high hopes that they would eventually find out what had happened to their loved ones. The President’s about-turn was widely seen as a public avowal of impotence.

The Civil Harmony Act sidesteps such burning issues as the part played by the security forces in the dreadful violence which has torn Algeria for the last seven years, i.e. summary executions, widespread torture, and abductions. With its fancy footwork the act has already crippled hopes for peace.

Daikha Dridi