Algerians asked to forgive past crimes

Algerians asked to forgive past crimes

By Daikha Dridi in Algiers, Algeria, Al Jazeera, 01 October 2005,

As Algerians overwhelmingly approved a referendum which grants amnesty to those involved in acts of violence in the country’s 13-year civil war, one town caught in the crossfire relived the memories of warfare and death.

Within 24 hours of the referendum on 29 September, Algerian officials announced that up to 80% of 18 million eligible voters participated in the vote, but in the capital Algiers and throughout its rural surroundings, polling stations were almost deserted.

Asked by their president Abdelaziz Bouteflika to forgive crimes and killings during Algeria’s civil war, citizens of the capital, small towns and villages in the central part of the country answered with the same indifference they showed during the build-up to the vote.

« I don’t vote and I can’t forgive those who killed my young brother, he was only 19 years old… The terrorists killed him just because he didn’t want to be on their side, just because he didn’t accept to pray, » says Fatma, a 37-year-old janitor who lives in Haouch Gros, 40km south of Algiers.

She refused to give her last name for security reasons.

Centre of violence

In 1992, Haouch Gros became a centre in the war between Islamist groups and the military after the government cancelled parliamentary elections which would have guaranteed a victory for the leading political Islamic group – the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut – FIS).

The FIS had grown in popularity over promises to bring about economic revival and end years of military rule. Following the cancellation of the elections, the FIS fractured into moderate and extremist factions, chiefly the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).

The fertile agricultural town of Haouch Gros also became famous as the birth place of GIA leader Antar Zouabri.

Caught in the crossfire between the regular army and Zouabri’s GIA guerrillas, Haouch Gros witnessed massacres of unarmed civilians and police. This was further exacerbated by the Algerian government’s alleged brutal retaliation by security services members against the families and friends of the Islamists.

In 1997, the armed wing of the FIS – Armee Islamique du Salut (AIS) – declared a truce but the civil war did not end.

Today, the town, a former French farming colony, is a geographic manifestation of the civil war: one main road in the centre separates the two distinct parts. On one side live families of Islamists and GIA members while the other side is inhabited by families of security service personnel.

« We live together, we know each other, but we avoid interacting, » Fatma explained.

« We do not attend each other’s weddings. Our young boys sometime play ball together, but we never really meet.

« Only in the cemetery, » she added.

Going to vote

But some families braved the memories of warfare and loss and voted in the referendum.

« I voted ‘yes’ for peace; I want Algeria to live forever in stability. I voted hoping that this charter will convince those who are still in the mountains to come back and stop killing, » said Saida Chikh, 51, a housewife.

Because her three sons were in the army, she says, she was threatened by GIA members who demolished her house in 1995. Chikh and her husband fled to a nearby town, but her mother was gunned down, in a bus, in front of several passengers.

« We found my mother’s body, thrown by the side of the road. They shot her in the head and the chest; I can never forget the sight of her body, » recalls Chikh.

In a sign that the government’s charter of peace and reconciliation may be working, Chikh says she has forgiven her mother’s killers and encourages families of other victims to forgive.

« Islam teaches us to pardon those who took the wrong path, » she says.

Forgive and forget

Bouteflika and supporters of the charter used religion as a means of encouraging Algerians to vote yes in the amnesty referendum.

The government recently took to labelling the civil war the fitna, a term meaning conflict or trouble, usually in a religious context.

« I am convinced that Algerians, as a good Muslim people, will choose the path of peace and brotherhood, and you are free to vote for or against peace, » Bouteflika told several thousand supporters at an Algiers meeting before the referendum.

Many Algerians distrusted the intense government campaign to vote for the amnesty charter but headed to the polls in the hopes it could afford some semblance of justice returning to the war-ravaged country.

« I don’t trust this government, but nobody here wants to see the terrorists back, » said Chakir Khaled, 23, an employee of a sweets shop in Boufarik, 35km south of Algiers.

The town, once known for its local semolina and honey sweets, also became a battlefield between government security forces and the GIA during the 1990s.

In February 2002, government security forces killed Zouabri in Boufarik.

Prison release

Khaled, newly released from prison where he had been serving five years for a terrorism-related charge, says the amnesty could finally bring justice to many he says were jailed on trumped up anti-government charges.

« My cousin and two of his closest friends are still in jail and I hope they will be released after the referendum.

« I voted for personal reasons, I want my friends out and all the other innocents too, but I am against pardoning those terrorists, nobody in Boufarik wants them back.

« None of us will ever forgive the hell we lived through because of them », he said, his anger quietly turning to sorrow.