It is not necessary to be an Islamist to be brutalised and killed by security forces

It is not necessary to be an Islamist to be brutalised and killed by security forces

Lara Marlowe, The Irish Times – October 30, 1997

Lara Marlowe investigates the moral void caused by the civil war which has claimed up to 100,000 lives in Algeria, where the authorities are matching the atrocities of Islamic fundamentalism

You don’t have to be an Islamic fundamentalist to be among the thousands of Algerians believed to have been kidnapped, and in many cases tortured and killed, by the security services.

None of the women in human rights lawyer Mohamed Tahri’s photo album of the disappeared wears Islamic veils. There is pretty Amina Benslimane; in a 1993

snapshot, she has just washed her hair and smiles at the camera, wrapped in a pink terrycloth bathrobe. Ms Benslimane would be aged 28 – if she is alive.

After she disappeared in December 1994, there were vague allegations that she had taken photographs of cemeteries and houses. Her mother believes she died under torture. Mr Tahri has heard that Saida Kheroubi (21) is imprisoned in the infamous

Chateauneuf police station, with a plaster cast on a broken foot. Ms Kheroubi, who disappeared last May 7th, does not look like a fundamentalist either. She wears her frosted hair in a bouffant Diana style, heavy eyeliner and gold earrings. But in her case, the reason for kidnapping is clear: Ms Kheroubi’s brother belonged to an armed group. When the Algerian authorities cannot get at their enemies, they settle for those closest to them.

Two sisters, Naima (23) and Nejoua (27) Boughaba, both court clerks, were kidnapped in front of an Algiers tribunal last April. They are truly innocent bystanders. Nejoua was the assistant to an investigating magistrate in a case that embarrassed the government. A Swiss policeman had sold a list of suspected Algerian fundamentalists to a general in the Securite Militaire. Using that

list, the authorities arrested and tortured a certain Ghedab when he arrived at Algiers airport. His family in Switzerland made such a fuss that the Algerians were forced to open a court case. After a medical examination, the magistrate disqualified Ghedab’s confession on the grounds he had been tortured. So the judge was fired, and his assistant Nejoua and her sister Naima disappeared.

One of the most shocking things about Algeria’s conflict is the way seemingly civilised middle-class government supporters not only acknowledge that the government kidnaps and tortures, but approve.

« People who have done wicked things, you have to torture them, » a prosperous restaurant owner told me. « Do you think they don’t torture in England and France? The little shopkeeper who does nothing wrong is not tortured in Algeria. « 

The restaurant owner would doubtless applaud the disappearance of Djamila’s husband Mourad, aged 33. Of dozens of relatives of disappeared people I spoke to, Djamila was the only one who admitted knowing why her loved one was taken. « They were searching for him for a long time, » says the beautiful 29-year-old woman in a blue Islamic headscarf and long blue-grey coat.

Mourad worked in an Algiers office of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), the party that was outlawed in 1992 after it won the first round of parliamentary elections cancelled by the army. « It was clear they would come for him, » Djamila says. « We went into hiding with (their eldest daughter) Sarah on August 29th, 1993. » Two other daughters would be born in hiding, one in Algiers, the other in the western city of Oran. « He continued his political work. He’s a politician – not a fighter. He’s not with the GIA (Armed Islamic Group). »

We were inching towards the edge of Algeria’s moral void; Djamila admitted that Mourad was a member of FIDA, an Islamist death squad that tracked down and murdered journalists and intellectuals.

But FIDA carried out assassinations, I said. Djamila gave a pained smile. « I don’t know. His job was information. » She only wanted due process of law. « If my husband did something, I am convinced the only way out is through the justice system. If they want to imprison him, let them show he is alive, and try him. »

On April 20th, Mourad left the family’s apartment in Oran at 6 a.m. « I think he had an appointment with other people in his group, » Djamila says. « He never told me what he was doing. I think the person who had an appointment with my husband was captured by the Securite Militaire and he told them. Two days later, they came back to arrest me and to take the documents my husband was working with.

« They asked me to pull my scarf over my eyes so I wouldn’t see where I was going; I think it was the Oran central police commissariat. They kept asking me where we had been, where my husband went, how long we stayed in different places. I told them he was my husband and I had to be with him. They asked what clothes he was wearing when he left the apartment – as if they hadn’t taken him. I was so afraid they would kill him. They held me for 12 hours and let me go. I was very lucky, but I am still very, very frightened. »

Djamila has heard conflicting reports that her husband is held at Chateauneuf, or that he died under torture.

Houria Shehab’s sad tale is almost identical to those told by other mothers of disappeared sons. About two dozen policemen in civilian clothes and uniformed soldiers surrounded her home in the Algiers district of Harrach at 6:45 on the morning of March 18th, 1994. « Does Salim Shehab live here? » they asked Houria. « I said ‘yes’. They said, ‘we are just going to ask him a few questions and he’ll come back’. He was sleeping with his brothers in the bedroom. The cops went in and woke him. He got dressed, and took his identity papers and army deferral with him. They wouldn’t let us talk to each other. »

Houria is crying. She pauses to wipe her eyes and nose on her brown headscarf. « They said, ‘if you don’t shut up, we’ll kill your son in front of you’. They took him away. Since then I have no word whatsoever. I look everywhere, in the prisons, in the cemeteries, in the mosque. Every time I go to the police commissariat, they insult me and chase me away. I know who took him; it was the police commissioner for the region. »

The security forces took 15 young men from Houria’s neighbourhood that morning. None has been heard from. « We don’t know whether they are dead or alive, » she says. « I don’t understand why they would do this. » If Salim is alive, he is 24 now. « He was studying accounting at Ain Taya. He had no contacts with Islamic groups. He never spent a night outside. »

Most of the men in Mr Tahri’s photo album of the missing are in their 20s, but some were as young as 15 when they were kidnapped. If he is alive, Ahmed Abdoun, who disappeared last February, will be 75 tomorrow. Moussa Maddi, kidnapped last May, is a cripple in a wheel chair. From time to time, a disappeared person returns. Usually they are too frightened to talk about the dark basements where they were held, or the torture they suffered.

« They want illegality, » Mr Tahri says of those who seize civilians. « We want to stay in a legal framework. Even if they disappeared illegally, we will persist in going to the authorities and asking ‘where are our children?’ «