Surviving Algeria

‘They burnt my genitals, arms and legs with a soldering iron and a blowtorch. But worse was to come ..’

Surviving Algeria

John Sweeney, The Observer, 29 June 1997

The ship’s officer let’s call him Peter worked the Med, running wood and cereals to Marseilles and Naples in a dirty Algerian coaster. And hidden in the bowels of the engine-room, he shipped another kind of cargo humans to and fro. This was in the months after the military coup in 1992, and trade was brisk: people who wanted out of Algeria , people who could not get a passport, still less an exit visa. People on the run, ‘terrorists’, even police officers. And people who were just sick of the killing.

A friend of a friend would approach someone, over a coffee. They would talk money and agree on a deal. For around pounds 300 a head, the cargo would be slipped into the docks at Algiers. Someone would take them to the ship, keeping to the shadows. Then, quickly up the gangplank and down into the engine-room. The best place to hide the bodies was in the engine-housing itself deafening, hot and stinking of diesel fumes.

Sometimes, they took people into Algeria , those who could not enter the country legally, anyone on the run from the Securite Militaire, the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria ‘s version of the Gestapo. Everything had to be kept secret. If the captain found out, he would have to tell the Securite Militaire or else. Peter could trust some of his friends, some of the officers and some of the crew. But he could not trust everyone. On one trip, somebody must have seen the human cargo being loaded. The net started to close in.

At the start of 1994, Peter came back after the usual triangle-run round the western end of the Med: Italy, France and back to Algeria . Two friends of his, fellow seamen also in the body-shipping business, had been killed. The official story was that they had been murdered by the GIA, the fanatical Muslim terrorists who kill anyone tainted by the West. But that’s only half of the story. In Algiers, taxi drivers and human-rights lawyers alike will tell you: ‘Le terrorisme? C’est le pouvoir’ the authorities. They say the junta, led by President Liamine Zeroual, is using and controlling the GIA to kill moderate Islamicists and anyone who gets in the way. But there is no proof. The rule of law, the courts system and a free press have ceased to exist in Algeria .

What is certain is that Peter’s friends were dead, and they had been in on the secret of the escape route. Peter waited, tense and expectant. First, there was a contact, ostensibly from the GIA, saying they wanted Peter’s help. Then, three days later, the Securite Militaire came for him. There was no point in locking the door. They would have broken it down, he said. There were two cars, the plain-clothes cops toting Kalashnikovs and Biretta sub-machine pistols. He was driven away from his home at six o’clock in the morning and he would never be the same man again. He was blindfolded in the car, then taken to the ‘Basement’.

Once underground, they took off the blindfold and stripped him naked. The Basement was a large, subterranean room, full of shadows. Peter took in the scene: a handful of prisoners hanging by their feet or hands from the ceiling, another 15 or so tied by electric flex to chairs. A few bodies lay like discarded rubbish on the floor close by was a severed head. No toilets, just a hole in the ground. The stench was terrible.

And then they began to torture him. The first thing they did was to put a sponge filled with soapy water in his mouth and pushed it down his throat. This is a very popular torture in Algeria .

Then they punched him in the stomach until he was sick. They put his right hand on a table and smashed it with the butt of a gun, breaking a bone. They smashed his right leg, just below the knee, dislocated his left ankle and broke his right ankle. They applied electrodes to his head, behind his ears and to his genitals. He has cigarette burns on his hand, arm and foot. They used a soldering iron on his left foot. Then they used the blowtorch on him. He pointed to two small burns scars on his forehead. Then he rolled up the sleeve of his shirt and showed a third burn scar, a patch of skin the size of a beermat on his right arm.

What normally is soft skin was ribbed and hard, like the foot of a chicken. When they used the blowtorch on him, he could smell his flesh burn. Then Peter’s eyes filled with tears and he shook his head. ‘The blowtorch was not the worst . . .’ This conversation was taking place in the north London offices of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. There were four of us in the cluttered room: a Foundation lawyer, translating Peter’s French, its press officer, Annabel Ferriman, Peter and me. Outside, you could hear the rumble of London, buses changing gear, a police siren in the distance, a jumbo tracking into Heathrow. But the world seemed to diminish.

We waited until Peter could bring himself to speak. It seemed like hours. ‘The worst was I was abused . . .’ He stopped speaking, his hands shaking, his whole body racked with a huge sob, ‘I can’t forget it. I was abused . . .’ Two policemen held him down in a bending pose, while a third buggered him. The torturers accused him of working with the GIA. He gave them what they wanted: three names. He does not know what happened to the third person he named but the first and second are dead.

Did he feel responsible for their deaths? He wept again, nodded, sobbed: ‘Of course.’ After three days, he was blindfolded and taken away by car and dumped near his home. Why did they let him live? He didn’t explain, but later he revealed he had some family connections in the Securite Militaire. Maybe his connections helped.

Then, like a deadly game of cat and mouse, the GIA got in touch. They sent him a box, with a bit of soap and a piece of white cloth in it, to symbolise a shroud. This meant ‘shut up or you are dead’. He spent two weeks in hospital. A short while later, he was arrested again, but only for one night. They kicked him, but nothing worse than that.

He managed to escape from Algeria , first to Italy, then France. Now he is in Britain. He has family left in Algeria . That country’s nightmare stays with him. The year he was tortured, two of his female cousins disappeared. At the end of 1995, the killers almost certainly from the GIA came for another. She was married to a ninja, one of the terrorist anti-commandos who wear black balaclavas to hide their features from their victims. They came to her house and cut her throat. Neighbours found the couple’s two-year-old boy sitting, screaming, in his mother’s blood.

Earlier this year, his uncle was murdered. Officially, it was blamed on the GIA unofficially, his family saw that the assassins drove a car boasting the distinctive number plates of the Securite Militaire. His uncle had wanted out, he was sick of the killing.

Peter is a massively damaged man. He is agitated, tearful, feels ill, cannot sleep and is preoccupied with the mental agony of his sexual torture. And that makes the bureaucratic torture of Her Majesty’s Government even more shaming because Peter has been refused asylum. He, along with many other victims of Algeria ‘s silent war, is appealing against the decision, but the precedents are not hopeful. In 1996, only two per cent of the Algerians who applied for asylum in Britain were recognised as refugees. There are no signs that the new Labour Government will be more sympathetic. I have been a reporter, off and on, since 1977 and I have never conducted such a harrowing interview in my entire life. An actor can only do so much. You cannot fake burn scars the size of a beermat. You cannot fake hand tremors. You cannot fake that terrible moment when he forced himself to tell us he had been raped. If Peter loses his appeal and is sent back to Algeria , it is no exaggeration to say that that judgment will be a crime against humanity.

Peter has been counselled by the Foundation’s director, Helen Bamber. She first started to help victims of torture when she was 19 and one of the very first people to enter Belsen. Now 72, she has not lost any of her vivacity or her love of life. Nor has she lost any of her anger.

‘I am extremely upset that Peter’s application for asylum has been refused by the Home Office. He is living in terror and near breakdown. It is not just his case, though that is dreadful enough. The Foundation has had 33 Algerians referred to it this year and many of them have been tortured, often most cruelly. They too are literally terrified of being sent back to Algeria . Does the Home Office not realise that 60,000 people have been murdered in Algeria ?’ Nor is the Medical Foundation the only organisation that is banging its head against the brick wall of Home Office intransigence about the fate of Algerian refugees. The Refugee Council, Amnesty International and private individuals all know of cases of refugees who are living in fear of returning to their native land.

Ms Bamber continues: ‘One 29-year-old asylum seeker, Djemal Flissa, who was sent back, has never been heard of again. People do disappear in Algeria . People are tortured in Algeria . No one should be sent back there against their will.’ Perhaps one reason the British Government, like the French, is keen to retain good relations with the second largest country in Africa, is that British firms, such as BP, are exploiting the huge oil and gas reserves in the Sahara desert. There is also a lucrative arms market. In the first six months of 1996, the Department of Trade licensed 17 arms shipments from Britain to Algeria .

Thus far, under the new Labour Government, there is no indication that this trade will stop. But these commercial interests should not override our common humanity. Nor should they stop us from extending a hand to the ship’s officer, a man for whom the blowtorch was not the worst.

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture: 96-98 Grafton Rd, London NW5 3EJ. Tel: 0171-813 7777