Algeria’s phantom thousands
Investigations and eyewitness accounts show security forces are behind many « enforced disappearances ».
Algiers, 06/04/01 — Among the atrocities he describes in a recently published book that aroused the wrath of Algeria’s military establishment, its author, former NCO, Habib Souaidia, tells of abductions. He also states that he was both witnessed and participant.
He nevertheless rebuts accusations from Houria Allouache that he was in charge of an army unit that abducted her husband and son in 1994.
Ms Allouache, who takes part in the weekly demonstrations in Algiers by relatives of the missing, claims she recognised Habib Souaïdia on French TV. She alleges he led a squad that arrested her husband Ahmed, 54, and son Mohamed, a 33-year old father of five on July 22, 1994.
Reached by telephone Habib Souaïdia denied leading the army unit, though he did admit he remembered her. « She came to see me in the old colonial villa at Lakhdaria where we were based, » he said. « I even talk about her in my book because she remembered that the French used to torture Algerians in the same place. »
He clearly remembers what happened to Ahmed and Mohamed Allouache. « They were killed after being tortured for two weeks in a row in the Copawi villa. » The villa stands on the edge of the town of Lakhdaria and is well-known locally. The army was billeted there in the early 90s and it is now used by the military, the gendarmes and communal guard.
Souaidia states that Ahmed and Mohamed Allouache were held there. « They were arrested, tortured and executed on the orders of Colonel Chengriha. He gave the order in the presence of Benaiche and Ben Ahmed who were both in charge of my unit, Reconnaissance Unit 25 based in Lakhdaria. They were arrested by DRS intelligence service officers, Belkbiche Abdelkader and Ramdhane Khaled. Lieutenant Bouziane Mounir from my unit was with them. »
Habib Souaïdia affirmed that he had taken part in abductions in the local villages of Bouderbela, Ouled Chalabi and Ouled Mehdi and claims he saw more than 100 people spirited away in the same way.
Souaïdia adds that detainees from surrounding villages were also held in the Copawi villa. Most were arrested and taken away on the same grounds — supporting terrorists.
Souaïdia’a detailed descriptions add grist to the mill of lawyers of the families of the missing. They contend that although terrorists are indeed behind disappearances, the security forces are also implicated. One lawyer, Mahmoud Khelili, has accused the authorities of direct involvement.
It is the thrust of a report* on enforced disappearances in Algeria commissioned by Germany-based human rights group Algeria Watch and published on its website.
Written by lawyers and groups representing the relatives of the missing, it stresses how most « enforced disappearances » can be traced back to the years 1994 to 1996 when the Algerian regime was waging a major offensive against terrorism. Statistics show that only 0.2% of the 3,088 disappearances between 1991 and 1998 were reported in 1992 at the start of the troubles.
The figure climbed steeply in the ensuing years — from 5.3% en 1993 to 36.9% in 1994. Most abductions following security force raids after curfew, with Algiers accounts for 32.8% of all disappearances.
Habib Souaïdia’a first-hand experience of abductions is disturbing reading for all those directly or indirectly affected by enforced disappearances. It chillingly confirms the state machinery’s involvement.
As a result, human rights activists are no longer asking whether it was the security forces or Islamists, but simply whether the missing are dead or alive.
Until there is an answer, thousands of phantom will continue to haunt the country for a long time to come.
* The report was written by the lawyers Mohamed Tahri and Mahmoud Khelili and the following groups representing the families of missing people: the SOS Disparus committee of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights (LADDH), the Association des Familles de Disparus (ANFD), the Collectif des familles de disparus en Algérie.
It is available in French on the Algeria-Watch website
Amnesty International’s website addresses the issue of disappearances in Algeria:
The wall of silence begins to crumble
Enforced disappearances a crime against humanity