‘This is where they shot my wife. Here they killed my daughter with an axe’
David Hirst, The Guardian, October 20, 1997
David Hirst, the first British reporter, to travel to Bentalha, the sight of the worst massacre of the Algerian civil war, hears the horrific and moving accounts of some of the survivors
AITAR AHMED leant against the wall or his burnt-out kitchen sobbed. « This is where they shot my wife, Fatima, » he said, pointing to the sink. « Here they killed my daughter Nabila — with an ixe — and here my son Khaied, with knives. »
An English-language text book lay open next to the sink, the only object to have survived the fire which had consumed the furniture, doors and window frames after the slaughter.
One of Ahmed’s 11 children lad apparently just remembered that the word « electri-ian » is spelled differently in English from the way it is in French; its final « e » had been crossed out and replaced with an « a ». Perhaps it had been 16-year-old Khaled’s last act.
The kitchen was on the second floor of Ahmed’s three-storey home in Bentalha, a dormitory town on the outskirts of Algiers. Here, on the night of September 22, terrorists — presumed to belong to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) — killed about 300 people In a massacre which captured world atten tion because it took place so close to the capital.
It also fuelled growing de mands for some kind of inter national intervention in Alge ria’s barbarous civil war; or at least for an International inquiry into the massacres which seem to grow in scale frequency and horror. The rest of the world is beginning to ask the same sinister question that Algeri ans have been asking them selves for years: who is behind these atrocities?
Is it simply, according to the regime, religious fanatics, bandits or psychopaths? Or do they enjoy the complicity of others — perhaps of some diehard faction of the regime itself — which opposes any dialogue or compromise with the Islamist opposition, be it moderate or extreme?
Bentalha Is typical of those new, semi-rural, semi-urban neighbourhoods — scruffy, formless, half-finished — that proliferate on the ever expanding perimeters of third-world cities. Much of it is manifestly poor; but some of it is almost chic, in a rather primitive fashion.
Ahmed called his house a « villa »; it has a banana grove in its garden and jasmine drapes its containing walls. The town lies a mere ;eight miles from the centre of Algiers. It is just off the principal road heading south. There is a barracks less than a mile away, and several checkpoints to get to it.
Ahmed is frank in his spontaneous grief. As he tells it. the terrorists knew that they would be unimpeded in their grisly handiwork. They went about it in leisurely fashion.
They came at about llpm; they did not leave until shortly before dawn — six hours later. According to Ahmed, the army sent tanks to the very edge of the town while a helicopter circled overhead. No one else contests the essence of his version but some, more circumspect, found justifications for the army’s non intervention.
The massacre was confined to the Gelali quarter, composed of a few rows of « villas » and unpaved streets on the outer edge of the rapidly growing township. It gives directly on to the flat, fertile Mitidja Plain. It was from that direction that the assailants came — anything between 50 to 100 of them, according to Ahmed.
Some of his neighbours took refuge in his house. That is why 24 people died on the first floor, and 17, along with his wife, son and daughter, on he second. About 120 more managed to escape to the roof, There he had been planning some fresh construction; so there was a pile of bricks to land. « We hurled them down at them, as they came up the stairs, then slammed the door, » he said.
Ahmed said that it was from the roof that he saw the tanks. And he insisted they were tanks, not just armoured cars. In fact the traces of tank tracks are still clearly visible — they end just 200 yards from his house. It was from the roof that he also saw the helicopter.
It is not just the army and the gendarmerie that Ahmed cursed, but his neighbours too. A few had arms — members of the self-defence units, the so called « patriots » who have long been active in the countryside, but who are now also appearing on the edge of the capital.
One of them, Ammar, defended himself against Ahmed’s charges. « We could do nothing. » he said. « The GIA had mined all the roads and taken positions on rooftops. They fired on anyone who moved in the streets below. »
Surely, with tanks, the army could have done some thing? « If it had fired on the terrorists it would have killed all of us too, » said a colleague of Ammar.
But the great unanswered question is how the terrorists could have entered so well protected a town in the first place and then, even more as tonishingly. escape across the open plain with the same apparent ease with which they had come.