Only the women survive
Algeria Interface, March 22, 2002
Since the death of feared GIA leader, Antar Zouabri, the only surviving Zouabris are the womenfolk. His mother and two sisters look back at the years of violence that claimed the lives of all their menfolk.
Algiers, 22/03/02 – Khalida bears an uncanny resemblance to her younger brother Antar Zouabri on the « Wanted » poster of him that had been placarded on all the walls of Algeria since 1997. She is short and stocky and has a dark, heavy face whose sombre expression is softened by her eyes. But Khalida is incensed, her voice only drops to burst out in renewed anger.
Next to her, like a silent shadow, is 70-year old Aicha, Antar Zouabri’s mother. Withdrawn and with dark circles ringing her eyes, she is the antithesis of her daughter. She watches as Khalida rages.
They are joined by Messaouda, Antar’s 56-year old half-sister. The three women are all that is left of the Zouabri family since the death of Antar.
They security forces came for Aicha and Messaouda to identify his body on the very day they killed him. « I was astonished when the security forces came. I thought he’d been dead for a long time. But it was him alright, I recognised him, » says Aicha almost calmly.
Messaouda , though, confesses to doubting: « How can this toothless old man be my brother, I thought. He had changed so much, I hadn’t seen him for over ten years. I only recognised him when I covered his jaw that had been split open. When I saw his eyes and his forehead, I thought yes, that’s the face of a Zouabri. » She sighs and adds, « He’s dead, it’s all over now. »
Aicha was Mohamed Zouabri’s second wife; she gave him five sons and one daughter. The family house on the Haouch Gros farm, an old colonial domain outside Boufarik, opens on to a small courtyard holding parched vines and a broken mirror on one wall. The large rooms are empty, as if the house was uninhabited.
Khalida, 36, is the widowed mother of a little girl whose father she describes as a « irhabi » (terrorist). She is keen to tell her family’s story – « the true story, not the lies the reporters write… Why do they say that my father was a harki, that we’re paupers and my five brothers were thieves? »
« We were all FIS at first, » she says. « But so what? The whole of Algeria was FIS. During colonial rule my father was just an labourer. Later on he became a building site foreman. »
Mohamed Zouabri’s five sons were Ali, Ramdane, Achour, Toufik and Antar. It was his oldest son, Ali, was most involved in the FIS. Before the cancelled parliamentary elections of December 1991, he ran a « souk errahma » – markets organised by the FIS where the poor could afford the food. Antar, who quit school when only eight, used to give him a hand before leaving for his military service.
Then, one day in 1992, Ali disappeared. He had gone to join the Islamist insurgents in the mountains. That left Ramdane, Achour and Antar. Then, in the same year just a fortnight before the end of his military service, Antar followed suit.
The military police came for Achour, a civil servant working in the tax office. « They tortured him for two weeks, » recalls Khalida. « He was sentenced to three years in prison. He served half his time at Serkadji, the other half at Berrouaghia. »
Ramdane worked for a publicly owned construction company. In 1992 a killing in the village brought in the army looking for Antar and Ramdane. When Ramdane came home the neighbours told him the soldiers had been. He, too, vanished into the mountains. Since then the three women say they have never heard from their menfolk since.
Locals, however, say they saw the Zouabri boys. « They used to come with their Kalashnikovs, » says one old man « Patriote ». « They killed a police officer in 1992 and it was Antar who blew up my son, he tried to force him to kill a cousin of his who was a policeman. I used to mind my own business, but when they killed my son I joined the Patriotes, » he adds.
The old Patriote, a 72-year old pensioner, remembers Antar’s father well. When he hears young militiamen saying Mohamed Zouabri was a harki, he pulls a face. « I knew Mohamed Zouabri well, he was never a harki. I hate his sons, I want to avenge our people they’ve killed, but the truth is the truth. Under the French the land here belonged to a Frenchman and he employed 800 Algerians. Old man Zouabri worked the land like the others, he never did anything else. »
By 1994, Khalida, Aicha and Mohamed only have Achour left. They had visited him in Berrouaghia Prison. That winter Achour had completed his prison term. He asked his mother to come and meet from prison on the day of his release.
« I had clean clothes for him and I went to meet early in the morning, » recalls Aicha. « I waited and waited, but I didn’t see him come out. The guards told me he’d left very early and I’d find him at home. But when I got back nobody had seen him. I returned to the prison the next day, but there was no more Achour. I’ve never seen him again, I don’t know what they did with him. »
I heard I’d been captured
A year later the 82-year old Mohamed was shot at home. Says Aicha: « He got up at five o’clock to say his first prayers of the day. Someone knocked at the door and he went to open, » remembers Aicha. She followed her husband to the door. Three shots rang out. All the villagers of Haouch Gros remember that day and they all know the Patriote who, that morning, was out of his mind with grief.
Khalida explains: « He was crazed because the day before he’d found his mother and father with their throats slit. He came to where we lived and he killed our father first, then eight more people who had relatives who were irhab. »
Standing over Mohamed’s body, the Patriote said: « If your terrorists touch anybody else, I warn you, I’ll leave no survivors next time. » The entire neighbourhood emptied and Khalida and her mother fled. They ended up in an apartment in Algiers in the overcrowded high-rise estate of Annassers.
Messaouda fled with her husband and children to Medea where she went to ground in a tiny hamlet until the Civil Harmony Act was passed. She remembers how she was listening to the radio one day in 1996 and heard that she had been captured. « I was supposed to be in battle dress carrying a Kalashnikov and knives… I couldn’t work it out. »
The sister who wasn’t
But Messaouda was not the sister who got the most media coverage. In 1997, following the massacres of Rais and Bentalha the television exhibited « Nacera Zouabri, throat cutter by trade ». Her cruelty was said to be legendary: her brother decapitated his victims or slit their throats and she was said to strip the bodies of their valuables.
There is hardly an Algerian who does not remember Nacera’s terrible deeds and her lack of remorse before the cameras.
Yet there is no record of a Nacera in the Zouabri family. Says Khalida: « She was a girl from Baraki who had no connection with us. They must have tortured her so badly that she admitted everything. I know how they torture. My mother and I have been through it. »
In 1997 the army traced Khalida and Aicha, took them away and for nearly three weeks subjected them to torture and degrading treatment. Khalida has developed an almost pathological fixation on the humiliation they were put through, while Aicha only says « they beat me so badly I was like a little black olive ». Finally there were sentenced to three years in prison for supporting terrorism.
You just don’t know
On their release in 2001 they returned to Haouch Gros, only to find their house occupied by the communal guard. « The gendarmes had to come from Boufarik to force them out, » says Khalida.
Since then mother and daughter have lived on Mohamed’s pension. Life is quiet: they speak to some local people, not to others.
Khalida says that there has been a constant stream of visitors at the house since Antar’s death. « People are always coming to offer us their condolences, everybody misses him, everyone in Boufarik is in mourning, » she bursts out.
Her mother is uneasy at her daughter’s outburst; she goes and sits by the vine out of earshot of her deranged daughter. « Everyone knew Antar, he was brave and generous, he was no haggar, nobody believes he was a killer, » bawls Khalida.
Her sister Messaouda cuts in, confusing and unsettling Khalida. « You knew Antar until his military service. Afterwards you just don’t know. How can you say what he was up to? Were you with him? Did you see him. Don’t talk when you don’t know. » Khalida’s eyes brim with tears.
Antar Zouabri, 32, leader of the Armed Islamic Groups (GIA), was killed on February 8th in a shoot-out with security forces in his home town of Boufarik, some 20 kilometres south of Algiers. The much-feared Zouabri’s group has been blamed for a number of bloody massacres of civilians.