« No, Algeria, it’s not an « internal affair »

« No, Algeria, it’s not an « internal affair »

Robert Fisk, The Independant, Thursday, 5 Nov. 1997

« Accomplice » is the word I hear most in Algeria. Accomplice – as in collaborator, enemy of the people, friend of « terrorists ». Ask why the army has not intervened to protect the villagers from the throat-slashers, and those Algerians loyal to their government reply in identical words. « The villagers voted for the FIS – they used to feed the terrorists in their homes. » So they deserved it. Just because they voted for the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front. Ask about the thousands of young men and women « disappeared » by the security authorities and I hear the same word. They are « accomplices ». In his testy letter to The Independent last week, the Algerian ambassador to London made a similar remark. « The ‘disappeared’ have in fact, in most cases, joined the terrorist gangs, » he wrote.

But they are Algerians. The villagers, the « disappeared », the FIS, the armed gangs, the guilty and the innocent. They are Algerians. They are part of the same great nation which fought with such endurance and bravery against French rule. The young « disappeared » women whose photographs were published on the front page of The Independent last week are – or were – Algerians. The women who have been gang-raped in police stations are Algerians. So were the women and children slaughtered so viciously by the « Islamist » murderers of the Islamic Armed Group (GIA). And the terrifying thing about listening to the word « accomplice » is that those who use it are destroying the very unity of the country which they wish to maintain.

I put this point to an Algerian official the other day, a decent, highly educated man, a loyal servant to the military-backed government. Yes, he too lamented the use of the word « accomplice ». He saw the danger which its use represented to the unity of Algeria. But when I asked him about police torture, he disagreed. « Look Robert, you must realise that there are people who have lost wives and children. They are angry. And if you find one man and you think he knows of plans for a massacre in a village, well, do you not think it may be necessary to be ‘against’ him – if you can save all those lives? » For ‘against’, read ‘torture’.

But that, I said, is Israel’s excuse – indeed, the very same appalling reason given by the Israeli government to endorse Israel’s « shaking » torture of Palestinians: that such methods may be necessary to save lives (albeit that a thousand Palestinians have now been « shaken » for very few lives saved). My Algerian friend had no reply to this. He merely pointed out that we Europeans had no right to lecture Algeria about morality. And, up to a point, I had some sympathy with him.

Take France. The Jospin government isn’t above lecturing Algeria on human rights. But in the 1954-62 war, the French massacred tens of thousands of Algerian civilians. In 1961, the Paris police force – under the command of Maurice Papon – massacred hundreds of Algerians by trussing them up and throwing them into the Seine. Of course, the Algerians were fighting and killing Frenchmen in their battle for independence. But one reason the French loathed – and I suspect in many cases still hate – the Algerians is because Algerians are not a backward, ignorant people. They are intelligent – far too intelligent for most Frenchmen to tolerate. The Francophone veterans who fought the French read Camus and Moliere. Tragic though their circumstances have since become, Algerians are a quick-witted, bright, discerning people. They deserve better than to be lectured to by us.

But. And it’s a big but. It is time that the Algerian government stopped shrugging off foreign intervention as « interference in the internal affairs of Algeria ». It is time that human rights groups were welcomed into Algeria. It is time for Algerian ministers to open their arms to the UN when its representatives offer help – not snub them, as the Algerians did to Mary Robinson. The revelations by lawyers and former security force personnel in The Independent last week that thousands of Algerians have been « disappeared » and that torture is now routine in police stations cry out for an international response. Even General Mohamed Lamari, the armed forces chief of staff, admitted last week that « some excesses may have taken place on the part of individuals acting alone » – far short of the reality, perhaps, but a remarkable statement, all the same.

I can understand the anger of Algerians faced with a shrill and moralistic audience of Europeans and Americans. I can understand the anger of the Algerian ambassador to London, even if some of his statements were factually incorrect. To say that The Independent did not deem « victims of terrorism » in Algeria worthy of our front page – when page 1 of our edition of 22 October was taken over entirely by the story of massacre survivors – was, to put it mildly, being economic with the truth.

But Algeria needs our help. The eradicateurs in the government have signally failed to eradicate anything; while President Zeroual talks of « residual terrorism », General Lamari is warning of a long struggle ahead. And to what end? When an FIS leader appeals to the UN, he is slapped back under house arrest. When Europeans convened a peace conference in Italy – in which the FIS and opposition groups appealed for dialogue – it was dismissed out of hand by the Algerian government.

Soon – very soon – the West is going to have to link the purchase of Algerian oil and gas exports to human rights improvements. The sale of military equipment – Italian pistols, American flak jackets and tear gas, German police vehicles – will have to be granted only after independent investigation of human rights. In Algiers, we are now told that the Denel company of South Africa plans to sell military helicopters to Algeria for use by the army in anti-guerrilla operations. Does President Mandela approve of this?

In the Middle East, the Europeans were asked to fund the now-dead Israeli-Palestinian « peace process » but ordered by the United States to keep their mouths shut. In Algeria, we are asked to provide the arms and buy the gas – and are again expected to keep our mouths shut. But why should we? One of the great nations of the world – the 18th oil exporter, the 7th gas exporter – is suffering 25 per cent unemployment and 47 per cent illiteracy, and is tearing itself apart on the edge of Europe. Its unity is in danger. And it is no longer an « internal affair ».