Families of Algeria’s « disappeared » search for truth

Families of Algeria’s « disappeared » search for truth

Reuters By Paul de Bendern ALGIERS, Dec 27

(Reuters) – Fatma Zohra Boucherf has looked for her son at police stations, prisons, morgues and cemeteries since he was taken away by policemen in 1995 at the height of Algeria’s Islamic militant uprising.

« I have searched for the truth and for those responsible for my son’s disappearance, but each time I come back heartbroken and empty-handed, » she said at the office of SOS Disparus, a group she works for which campaigns for families demanding justice.

« I hold out hope Riad is alive after all these years. »

Boucherf, like thousands of others, saw relatives suspected of supporting rebels rounded up by the authorities, taken to police stations across the North African country for questioning to later vanish without trace.

The government was fighting militants bent on creating a purist Islamic state who indiscriminately killed civilians by the tens of thousands each year.

The violence began in 1992 when a holy war or « jihad » was declared by the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS) after the army, fearing an Iranian-style revolution, cancelled an election which the hard-line Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) party was set to win.

No one really knows how many disappeared. Most were men aged between 14 and 80. SOS Disparus says it could be up to 8,000. The issue has haunted the government for years.

« My story is like so many others. My son was taken away along with two neighbours who were released after 16 days of torture. But he was never seen again, » Boucherf said.

For a decade, dozens of mothers have held sit-ins once a week outside the government human rights body headed by Farouk Ksentini to demand the return of their loved ones or information about their fate.

« I understand their suffering and pain. They have a right to know the truth about what happened to their family members, » said Ksentini, who has so far investigated 5,200 cases.

Since 1992, between 150,000 and 200,000 people are feared to have died, human rights groups say. The government believes the figure is 100,000. The bodies of thousands of rebels have never been identified.

TRUTH BE TOLD

President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, credited with ending much of the violence which ravaged the oil-rich former French colony with an amnesty in 1999, is promising to uncover the truth.

He has ordered Ksentini to investigate the disappeared and offer compensation to the victims’ families. The commission is due to report its much-anticipated findings in late March.

Talking publicly about the disappeared and who may be responsible has long been taboo in Algeria, a country with a strong military past which is in the process of building its own democracy.

Comments by Bouteflika, national police chief Ali Tounsi, among others, suggest Algeria is now serious about shedding some light on the past even if not the whole truth.

But women’s rights campaigner Meriem Belaala said: « the political courage for the real truth like what South Africa experienced (after apartheid) is absent in this country.

 » Ksentini believes that security forces fighting a gruesome war were probably responsible for the disappearances and consequent deaths but says that they acted individually.

« They fought terrorism with terrorism, » he told Reuters. « You must understand that the excesses committed by state agents were not done on the order of the state but on their own. »

He has promised to offer his files to the families if they want to take the cases to court.

« But I think the majority of the families will turn the page and look to the future, » said Ksentini.

SOS Disparus, which the authorities say does not legitimately represent the families, remains sceptical. It demands trials for the culprits and an apology. Each day, more families come to its cramped offices in central Algiers, where walls are lined with pictures of hundreds of missing people.

AMNESTY

No independent investigation has been carried out into allegations of human rights abuses committed by Islamic groups, state-armed militias or the security forces. The main independent rights group wants an investigation into possible crimes against humanity and whether leaders were involved.

As part of a « national reconciliation » drive to bring final peace to Algeria, Bouteflika is proposing a second amnesty for the hundreds of militants still fighting.

This amnesty, expected in 2005, would benefit members of the security forces, such as the police, and rebels willing to surrender who had no blood on their hands, Ksentini said. « We must turn the page because too much blood has been spilt in this country. We lived through a Khmer Rouge-style war where people killed just to kill, » he said.

« Algerians don’t want revenge, they want peace and a future. » But many directly touched by the violence oppose an amnesty.

« My husband, a journalist, was assassinated outside our home because he was on the AIS hit list, » said 38-year-old nurse Keltoum Larbes. Rebels killed 58 journalists between 1993 and 1996.

« I thought the assassins would be judged and I could go on with my life, like so many other families. Instead AIS members were pardoned by the 1999 amnesty and now live cosy lives. How can I favour another amnesty for more killers? »