Violent past haunts Algeria’s fresh start
By Jeremy Bowen, BBC News, Algiers, 1 october 2005
Algerians have overwhelmingly approved a government peace plan aimed at ending its civil war which began in 1992. In the capital, Algiers, Jeremy Bowen discovers the legacy of what Algerians refer to as « the black decade ».
Algiers has a lot of sadness, but there is something irresistible too. It took a particularly savage war to dislodge the French colonialists who went in 1962. But they left behind a beautiful city.
The old buildings in the centre are whitewashed, and gleam in the Mediterranean light, with narrow, tall windows and blue slatted shutters.
Some people hang blue and white awnings over the balconies to keep the sun out and they billow in the wind that comes off the bay in the afternoons.
I went to a small town called Rais, where around 800 people were killed in a single night
Algiers is a sad city, because of what happened here, and in the outlying towns during the 1990s.
Their war started in 1992, after the military cancelled elections that an Islamist party was about to win.
At least 150,000 people were killed.
The war has been more or less over for a couple of years although there are still pockets of killing. The government still provides armed bodyguards for visiting journalists, if you tick the box requesting protection when you apply for your press card.
But although this is not a normal country it is starting to look like one.
Most Algerians are poor but a litre of petrol in this oil rich place only costs about the same as a bar of chocolate.
Driving out of Algiers is a slow business because the roads are choked with cars.
During the worst time in the war the same roads were very empty.
In the summer of 1997 and the winter of 1998 there was a series of massacres of civilians, and people were too terrified to move.
Then, I went to a small town called Rais, where around 800 people were killed in a single night. Some were shot, some had their throats cut, the heads of babies were severed.
A group of extremists who claimed to be motivated by Islam carried out the killings, but there were always dark whispers about the role of the security forces in what was happening.
The claim was that the insurgents had been infiltrated by the military and pushed even deeper into brutality to discredit them.
There was an army base close to Rais, but local people complained that no soldiers had arrived in the town until the killers had gone.
The massacre eventually made the Islamist insurgents look so bad that some of them gave up their fight, but the killing left deep wounds among the survivors.
One of the big drawbacks of the president’s peace charter is that he has chosen not to establish a truth commission as they did in South Africa
Rais this week, 8 years later, still feels stunned.
Thirty seconds into every conversation I have with people there, in two visits, the rawness of their pain and anger became very obvious.
The two men who run a small grocer’s shop at the top of Tariq Hussain Street were furious when I asked them about President Bouteflika’s plan to pardon Islamist insurgents.
« I don’t believe in reconciliation. » One of them spat, angrily. « I’m 20 years old and I lost 10 years of school. Because of the war, I have no education. »
Half a dozen members of his family were killed in the massacre, along with his future.
When I pointed out to them that the president’s charter for peace and national reconciliation says explicitly that those responsible for massacres, rapes and the bombing of civilians would not get pardons, they dismissed it as a lie.
The eyes of the other man, who was in his mid-30s, filled with tears of rage. « The president said on TV, » he insisted « that the charter would make the fighter in the hills the same as the victim. »
Whether or not the president meant it like that, it is not a comparison they like in Rais.
Tariq Hussain Street is dusty and straight with small houses behind high walls and gates.
Seventy of its residents were killed in the massacre and their families are still waiting for justice.
One of the big drawbacks of the president’s peace charter is that he has chosen not to establish a truth commission as they did in South Africa.
However painful or difficult, South Africans needed to know what happened, why and how people died.
It is hard to escape a conclusion that there are events here that powerful Algerians want to keep secret
Former fighters and repentant killers had to make a full confession before they could get an amnesty. That is not considered necessary in Algeria.
Perhaps it was easier in South Africa because the old regime had gone. There was a new ruling elite. That is not the case here.
The generals are still powerful, though they have stepped back from politics. It is hard to escape a conclusion that there are events here that powerful Algerians want to keep secret.
But the great mass of Algerians are exhausted by war.
Even though it is flawed, the charter for peace and reconciliation is what they have now. They are ready for a new start.
No-one wants to fight, and in a country that has had so much sadness, that is good.