Atrocities in Algeria: We were the murderers who killed for the state
The Algerian government blames Islamic fundamentalists for the torture and massacre of its people. But John Sweeney talks to two members of the secret police who admit the truth about the slaughter that even included children
John Sweeney, The Observer, 11 January 1998
THE NINJA – slang for the Algerian junta’s feared balaclava-clad paramilitary police force – spoke quietly as he gave the details of the 10 October massacre last year.
‘We were in a convoy of 16 vehicles, Nissan Jeeps and Peugeot 505s, four ninjas to each car. We left Chateauneuf police station (three miles to the west of the Casbah in central Algiers) at around 1.30 am. The journey to the Algiers suburb of Rais Hamido took about 45 minutes. We were armed with Kalashnikovs and 9mm Berettas.
‘Close to the target house, we stopped and waited for the Special Forces of the Securite Militaire. As soon as they arrived, one of us killed the electricity supply for the area, turning 20 to 30 houses completely dark. Switching off the electricity is one of our jobs,’ explained ‘Robert’, a ninja trooper who fled from Algeria to Britain last month and only spoke to the Observer in the strictest anonymity.
‘Our orders were clear. We should guard the surrounding area but not act unless we were given specific orders. The Securite Militaire went in and came out after a time, maybe two hours, maybe less. After they had gone, we went in to clean the place up. There were about 16 bodies, two families. I saw with my own eyes dead men, women and children, even a baby, all with their throats slit. I cannot tell you what it was like . . .’
So who is doing the massacres in Algeria ?
‘It’s us,’ said the two ninjas in unison. Their testimony is damning evidence contradicting the official line of the Algerian government – that Muslim fundamentalists alone are responsible for the slaughter.
‘Robert’ and his fellow ninja, ‘Andrew’, gave detailed evidence of the state’s involvement in a whole range of human rights abuses: massacre by military security death squads, torture of the regime’s opponents, spying, and the murder of difficult journalists and popular entertainers to blacken the name of the Islamists in carefully organised psychological warfare.
Andrew, a tall man, with an acquiline, sensitive face, said: ‘From 1987, when I joined the police, to when I came here I have done everything: murder, torture. If you cut someone’s throat in front of me right now, I would say that is normal, normal. I have seen torture and I have done it. The first time I witnessed torture was in 1992 when we arrested an activist who worked for the Islamic Salvation Front. Military security took him from us, and said to me: ‘You can come and watch, if you can stand it.’
‘They stripped and blindfolded him, slammed his testicles in a drawer, placed a sponge soaked in bleach in his mouth until he vomited. Then they took him away.’
Robert bore witness to torture last year in the infamous Chateauneuf police station: ‘We took the prisoner into the barracks, down through a trapdoor and into a basement. There were about 15 prisoners in the torture chamber. All were blindfolded. One man was being tortured with a blowtorch and a pair of pliers.
‘I saw this with my own eyes. The one we took was tied to a ladder. When he wouldn’t name names, the police pulled the ladder down so he fell on his face. Then they used a broken bottle on him. Then there was a machine for stretching people’ – he described a Nineties version of a rack – ‘and electricity, with water, to heighten the pain.’ The Algerian regime denies using torture, but Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture say it is systematic and have case after case after case on their files detailing instances of torture.
But the use of massacre as state policy is a less well- proven charge against the regime. Robert also recalled his part in two much bigger killings. The first took place in Ain Defla, in the mountains west of Algiers, in 1994: ‘We were told there was an Islamist group operating in the mountains. Up there the people live simple, ordinary lives. They are very poor. I started firing my Kalashnikov at the village. But there was no answering fire. When the order came to stop firing, we went in. There was only dead women and children.’
Another massacre in which he participated took place in the Algiers suburb of Larbaa at the end of 1995.
‘We surrounded the target house but were told over our walkie-talkies, ‘Don’t go in until the Securite Militaire arrive. We waited for them to come. They were ninjas like us but wearing the costume of the Islamists: false beards, baggy trousers. They talked with our officer. His name was Chaoui. The Securite Militaire told him we had to surround the area and wait.
‘We didn’t hear a sound. Two hours later they came out. We said ‘What happened?’. They said ‘Nothing’, then wiped their hands.
‘Our Nissan Jeep went in first. When we saw it, we couldn’t believe it. Women, children, all slaughtered. It was terrible. So many you couldn’t count. I saw throats slit, heads cut from bodies in every house. Everybody was slaughtered. There is no doubt in my mind that the people who did this was military security.’
Why did he do this work? ‘You have to obey orders or you are dead. If you break with them, they can get to your family. And they take your passport away when you join the police.’
Part of Andrew’s work was to spy on Algerian journalists and make sure they did not criticise the regime. According to Andrew, journalists not toeing the line are murdered – and the blame put on the Islamists.
He said: ‘I had a cousin, Mohamed Salah Benachour. He was a reporter for the APS. While in Tunisia, he said something critical of the regime. I was on his case and noted the remark and it went down on his RBK file. All the reports on journalists used to go into a RBK file. I do not know what the initials mean, but we used to send them to our boss, Police Divisional Commander Abboub Djelloul. They would then be passed on to the Ministry of the Interior.’
According to the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists, on 27 October 1994 Benachour ‘was shot and killed in Boufarik, south of Algiers, as he was returning from work. No one has claimed responsibility for his murder, but it is believed to be the work of armed Islamic militants.’
But Andrew said: ‘I know who killed him. They were my colleagues.’