The Interface Interview with Nesroulah Yous, Author of « Who killed Bentalha? »
Algeria Interace, 19.10.2000, www.algeria-interface.com/new/article.php-article_id=105&lng=e.htm
Nesroulah Yous now lives in France where he has taken up painting and calligraphy. He talks about his determination to shed the light of truth on the gruesome Bentalha massacre.
Do you think your book and its detailed account of the massacre in Bentalha has broken the wall of silence?
Many Algerians now want to speak out. Most people never took sides in the conflict but they were caught up in it. They were murdered, slaughtered, humiliated, insulted. They want to know want who was behind it all and they won’t stop till they do. The problem is they no longer believe there’s any justice, either in Algeria or internationally.
You write that Bentalha knew what was coming.
Bentalha was on death row. The villagers knew what was going to happen, they were fatalistic about it. They could see no end to war and no official will to protect ordinary people. Sometimes soldiers would wreak havoc on us, sometimes Islamic guerrillas. We were in between, we just suffered in silence.
Why did city-dwellers have trouble in accepting that violence was a daily occurrence in the countryside?
In the city people misjudged what was going on. They look down on country dwellers. The press has plenty to answer for. It never reported properly. No Algerian journalists came to Bentalha after the massacre to see for themselves.
Weren’t they stopped from investigating?
Yes, But if they didn’t know what happened they shouldn’t write about it. They added insult to injury and played into the hands of the authorities. They added to all the confusion. Even ordinary villagers who witnessed atrocities didn’t know who to believe. I saw people who were too shocked to take in what they’d seen with their own eyes. They knew the butchers were the military, but their eyes saw Islamic guerrillas.
So the army did the killing?
Yes, I’m certain. I had trouble coming to terms with the truth because it defied the imagination. It was death squads that served the interests of one of the cliques in power. I tell you I’m certain. I worked with the military and I saw soldiers in towns like Meftah outside Algiers pull young men from their homes and shoot them. Nobody dared mention it at the time and I don’t talk about it in my book because it’s a separate issue.
You mean there are things you don’t reveal to protect people?
Exactly. But there are people I have endangered.
Do you believe there’s a connection between the massacres and the agreements between the army and the AIS?
I’m convinced. But my neighbours and people who’d fled the bloodshed in other regions claimed the AIS didn’t kill villagers. They even warned local people to flee because they knew what was going to happen.
So you say the killers tracked down the people who fled Tablat and Jijel to Bentalha?
Refugees told me they recognised soldiers from fake road blocks where’d they’d seen people get their throats cut. The only ones with Islamic-type beards were the executioners. Who knows what to believe? Islamists disguised as soldiers and soldiers disguised as Islamists. The military overstepped the mark. The political police, the SM, were familiar faces around Algiers. They dressed as Islamists to abduct people from Baraki just up the road from Bentalha. They weren’t worried about being recognised.
You say there were some decent officers. Why didn’t they intervene?
It wasn’t that easy. A couple of weeks after the massacre some gendarmes I knew spoke to journalists. They were deeply distressed and said the military should let the survivors speak out. That was when the SM began intimidating people who knew there were no landmines. That was the army’s bogus excuse for failing to intervene even though troops were stationed on the edge of the village.
You describe the anti-Islamic vigilantes, the so-called patriots, as louts. Surely some took up arms to protect their families?
I didn’t want to tar them all with the same brush. I just describe what I saw and experienced. I believe some people honestly didn’t know they were being used. They fought back against the Islamists to protect their loved ones. In the book I talk about two vigilantes I got to know. I had faith in them right to the bitter end, like the SM officer I also mention. What could they do but keep quiet about what they knew? Otherwise they’d put the lives of their families in danger. I saw so many people killed because they couldn’t accept the army’s behaviour. It’s important to distinguish between killings carried out by Islamic guerrillas and by the army. In 1992 I met some gendarmes who wanted to resign because they said they felt war wasn’t their business.
Don’t your allegations absolve Islamist crimes?
It’s all the confusion that absolves them. Bouteflika and some army officers have cleared the Islamists by wiping their slate clean. They should be judged just like the military killers. I was worried that by speaking out in Algeria and France I’d play into the Islamists’ hands. But there’s no going back. In the book I talk about Islamist acid attacks on women and the massacres they committed. They have a hell of a lot to answer for.
But you blame the army for the massacre even though you saw bearded Islamic guerrillas among them.
I saw soldiers and guerrillas behind my house. I recognised some soldiers, while other people recognised local Islamic guerrillas. It’s hard to credit. In the book I face the facts. What the underlying truth is, I don’t know, but I aim to find out. And I say the Algerian government has failed us.
You mean it’s abandoned the people?
Not just that. It’s also blocked investigations. Why? It’s very disturbing.
And the massacres continue…
Not on the some scale. People have organised now. Armed Islamic groups and military death squads now target isolated people in the countryside. But there’s something new – the bandits who rob farmers and shepherds. It’s not just the army and Islamic guerrillas. It’s in the interest of organised crime to let war go on and to block enquiries.
Will your book ever be published in Algeria?
I hope so, but I doubt it. If the country is to open up, the truth must come out. In public debates nowadays even journalists, and a lot of other people, are facing up to things. They’re gradually talking about subjects that were once taboo. One example is all the people who’ve gone missing. It’s taken three years for the issue to be addressed openly. It took the massacres for people to say it was time to fight back. It was incredible, just one week after Bentalha people came from all over.
Do you expect the Algerian authorities to react to your book?
I do. They’re not going to let me get away with it. The book hasn’t had much publicity yet because they want to hush things up. Oddly even in France, the media haven’t responded. They must be worried about reactions from Algeria. In September 1999 public channel, France 2, ran a documentary called « Bentalha, Anatomy of a Massacre » and the heads of the channel were worried about legal repercussions. There’s pressure from both the French and Algerian governments. But the truth will come out eventually.
Will there be a smear campaign?
Islamists, political parties and the intelligence services have all tried to persuade me not to write the book or to buy me off. I’m now getting threats. My wife got a phone call saying I was a dead man. People ask me if I’m in the pay of the regime or one of the ruling clique, or whose protégé I am. Other say I’m an Islamist. The intelligence services went to Bentalha and claimed I’d organised the massacre. It’s all so perverted, but predictable. I thought long and hard when I started the book. I realised I had nothing to lose and that I was ready to take on the Algerian regime. After all I’ve been through, they won’t stop me now. If they want to take the matter before a court I’ll go all the way. I’ve been asked which army general I’m working for. It’s time to break out of the mindset of machination and manipulation.
What happened after the documentary on French television?
People said I was the rat who’d jumped ship. That I’m the brother of Nacera Dutour. Being her brother is irrelevant. Nacera fights for the truth because her son was abducted. And I’ve always wanted peace and justice. I won’t be humiliated. I’ve been beaten up by soldiers and policeman because I stood up for people they were mistreating. I felt it was wrong, the people were being driven to revolt. In Algiers and Bentalha they know where I stand in. Rumour mongers can’t smear me.
Have you been granted political asylum?
Yes. I can’t go back to Algeria, but that’s my choice. I’d never have left if my wife and children hadn’t been threatened. I might have stayed and taken up arms in a war where sides were clearly drawn up. But the deliberately planned horror, no. It was sickening. On the night of the massacre the killers came hunting for my children. Then afterwards they came and warned me to watch out. I left Algeria for my children’s sake. I’m ready to go back on my own and face the military. But I want my children left in peace.