MASSACRES OF CIVILIANS: NO ONE IS SAFE
Ausschnitte aus dem neuen AI-Bericht zu Algerien
Im November 1997 veröffentlichte Amnesty International einen Bericht über Menschenrechtsverletzungen in Algerien. Wir präsentieren hier den Ausschnitt über die Massaker an der Zivilbevölkerung, um damit die Forderung nach einer internationalen Untersuchungskommission zu bekräftigen. Der vollständige Bericht findet sich bei Amnesty International: Algeria.
MASSACRES OF CIVILIANS: NO ONE IS SAFE
Over the past year the civilian population has been targeted in an unprecedented manner, with the emergence of a pattern of massacres of large numbers of civilians, many of them women and children, in rural areas. The pattern has become increasingly widespread – often a daily occurrence. Villagers have been massacred in the most brutal ways; slaughtered, decapitated, and mutilated with knives, machetes and saws; some have been shot dead and others burned alive as their homes were set on fire.
The massacres have systematically been committed at night, by large groups of men who attacked the inhabitants, often in their sleep, killing entire families and villages and pursuing and killing whoever attempted to escape. No one is safe from the brutality. Men, women, children, small babies and elderly people have been hacked to death, decapitated, or mutilated and left to bleed to death. Pregnant women have been disembowelled. Survivors, relatives of the victims and medical personnel are traumatized by the horror they are forced to witness.
Some survived only because their attackers left them lying injured, believing they were dead, while others managed to escape in spite of their wounds. Dozens of women are reported to have been abducted by the attackers, raped and then killed.
As a result of these massacres thousands of people have fled their villages, some because their homes were destroyed or burned down, but most from fear of further attacks. Their numbers add to the thousands of others who have been displaced by the conflict in the past few years.
Several thousands are reported to have been killed in these massacres, but there are no accurate figures. In the majority of cases the government does not comment and issues no information about killings and when it does, the figures are considerably lower than those figures given by other sources. In the wake of the massacres the sites are often sealed off, preventing access to journalists and others. Survivors, relatives of victims, medical personnel, ambulance drivers and cemetery workers who give figures and other details to journalists usually do so on conditions of anonymity to avoid problems with the authorities. Because of these restrictions, the exact figures and details of the massacres are in most cases impossible to verify, and the information published by the heavily censored Algerian press often varies from one newspaper to another, while many killings go completely unreported in the press.
Who is behind the killings? State negligence or complicity?
Most of the massacres have taken place around the capital in the Algiers, Blida and Medea regions – in the most heavily militarized part of the country. In many cases massacres, often lasting several hours, took place only a very short distance, a few kilometres or even a few hundred metres’ away from army and security forces barracks and outposts. However, in spite of the screams and cries for help of the victims, the sound of gunshots, and the flames and smoke of the burning houses, the security forces have not intervened – neither to come to the rescue of those who were being massacred, nor to arrest those responsible for the massacres, who got away on each occasion.
Survivors and neighbours have told of telephoning or running to nearby security posts seeking help, with the security forces there refusing to intervene, claiming that they were not mandated to do so. In at least two cases, several survivors described how people who had tried to escape from villages where a massacre was taking place had actually been turned back by a cordon of members of the security forces who stood by while the villagers were being slaughtered and did not come into the village until after the attackers had left.
That army barracks and security forces outposts are located next to the sites of several massacres is an undisputable fact. That the security forces have not intervened during the massacres is also a fact, which is not disputed by the Algerian authorities. The question which remains unanswered is why was there no intervention? The Algerian authorities have not commented officially on any specific incidents, but newspapers close to the authorities have often reported that the security forces could not intervene because the terrain around the villages where the massacres were committed had been mined by those who committed the massacres to prevent the security forces’ intervention. However, this seems to be unlikely given that during the massacres villagers managed to flee from the villages and after the massacres survivors, ambulances, helpers, and security services have gone in and out of the villages without stepping on any mines. If such movements have been possible both during and after the massacres, it should also have been possible for security forces to go into the villages to stop the massacres.
The largest massacre of civilians reported to date was committed during the night of 28 August 1997 in Sidi Rais, south of Algiers. According to a wide range of sources, including medical personnel, up to 300 people, many of them women and children, and even small babies, were killed and more than 100 injured. The authorities did not issue any information on the massacre until late that afternoon, when they announced that 98 people had been killed and 120 injured. Sidi Rais is located in close proximity to the army barracks of Sidi Moussa, about three kilometres away, the army barracks of Baraki, about six to seven kilometres away, the security forces outpost of Gaid Kacem, about four kilometres away, and other security forces posts a few hundreds metres away. Survivors told Amnesty International that in addition to the security forces barracks nearby, security forces’ units were also stationed just outside the village, and were aware that the massacre was being committed because those who were able to flee at the beginning of the attack had gone to seek help and refuge with the nearby security forces. Yet the security forces never intervened, either to stop the massacre, or to prevent the attackers from getting away. A survivor of this massacre told Amnesty International:
« Why did this happen? Why didn’t anyone stop it? There is no law any more. The army and the security forces were right there; they heard and saw everything and did nothing, and they let the terrorists leave…. They [the army] waited for the terrorists to finish their dirty task and then they let them leave. What does this mean to you? …… I had been threatened by the fundamentalists but I almost got killed by the army. Even my friends in the army don’t understand anything anymore these days… ».
Testimonies of survivors gathered by Algerian journalists, some of which were cited in Algerian newspapers, have also emphasised how massacres have occurred close to army barracks.
« …People banged on my door screaming. Frightened neighbours wanted to pass through my house to run to the army barrack, which is not far – about 100 metres – to alert the army and seek their protection. Many neighbours were thus able to get away and be safe. Just as I was letting through an elderly woman a terrorist shot me and wounded me in the shoulder but I managed to run to the army barracks… »
In the evening of 5 September 1997, more than 60 men, women and children were massacred in Sidi Youssef (Beni Messous), on the western outskirts of Algiers. Many of the victims lived in makeshift homes built next to the residential district of Beni Messous. According to testimonies received, people from a nearby neighbourhood, who were alerted by the screams and banging of pots and pans (a means of attracting attention for those in danger), telephoned the security forces to alert them but were told that they could not intervene as the matter was under the mandate of the gendarmerie. They called the gendarmerie but received no reply. Beni Messous hosts the largest army barracks and military security centre of the capital, as well as three other gendarmerie and security forces centres from which the site of the massacre is clearly visible. The army barracks of Cheraga is also only a few kilometres away. However, as with all the other massacres, there was no intervention by the security forces to stop the massacre and the attackers left undisturbed. The authorities did not issue any details about the massacre nor did they provide information on the number of fatalities.
In the night of 22/23 September 1997, more than 200 men, women and children were massacred in Bentalha (Baraki), south of Algiers. Bentalha is near five different army and security forces outposts, including the army barracks of Baraki, about three kilometres away, the army barracks of Sidi Moussa, about five kilometres away, the Gaid Kacem security forces post, less than one kilometre away, the communal guard barracks about one kilometre away, and the security forces posts at the entrance of Bentalha. Survivors have told Amnesty International that at the time of the massacres armed forces units with armoured vehicles were stationed outside the village and stopped some of those trying to flee from getting out of the village. Similar reports have been received from journalists who have interviewed survivors. A survivor told Amnesty International:
« I don’t understand; the army was surrounding Bentalha but they did not intervene; we had been worried for some time, and especially since the massacre at Rais a few weeks before. We had asked the authorities for weapons but we were told we had to wait. When we realized that we were being attacked we tried to resist, we got onto the terraces and rooves and threw stones and objects at them, whatever we could find. Some patriots [local militias] came from Baraki to help us when they heard that the massacre was happening, but the army did not let them into Bentalha. The terrorists had lists of people to kill, but they also killed at random. It’s beyond comprehension. The massacre went on for several hours and then the terrorists left and no one stopped them; then the ambulances came in and cleared the bodies. I don’t know what is going on, but I know it is not safe. After the massacre the authorities gave us weapons; I’ve now got a gun, but we don’t envisage going back to live in Bentalha for the time being; I’ll stay with relatives and try to keep my family safe. Even talking about it is risky; my neighbour who lost all his family in the massacre was telling a journalist what had happened and a policeman told him to shut his mouth or else he’d see. Who can help us? Nobody cares. »
Amnesty International is gravely concerned by such testimonies, which add further weight to reports that armed groups who carried out massacres of civilians in some cases operated in conjunction with, or with the consent of, certain army and security forces units. The scale, frequency and geographical concentration of the massacres in the past year raise serious questions about the apparent inability or unwillingness of the military and security forces to take adequate measures to protect the civilian population, and about the lack of investigations into such incidents. In the absence of thorough, independent and prompt investigations in accordance with the minimum international standards for such investigations, such as the UN Principles on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-Legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions, it is difficult to establish responsibility for these massacres.
The massacres fall within a pattern whereby large groups of men have been able to come from their supposed hiding places in the mountains and forests into the villages, which often entails crossing main roads, carry out killings lasting several hours, and leave to return – undisturbed – to their hiding places. The sound of gunfire and bomb explosions, the screams of the victims, and the flames and smoke of the houses on fire are audible and visible from a distance.
The lack of response by security services to calls by residents alerting them to night-time attacks taking place is not new. Over the past three years scores of individuals have reported to Amnesty International that the security forces had either not responded or refused to intervene when they had called at night, either by telephone or in person, to report attacks on their homes, killings of their relatives, attacks on neighbours, or shootouts. Daytime roadblocks, checkpoints and patrols are withdrawn at night, when the population is most vulnerable to attacks and when massacres are committed. The army and security forces usually do not come to the site until several hours after the massacres, and often not until the following morning. The reason most frequently cited in the past for their lack of response is the security forces’ fear of being trapped by a false alert and ambushed. Understandably it may often not be possible for them to intervene in time to stop individual attacks, which tend to happen very quickly, or to arrest the attackers, who may easily hide and escape. However, the situation of massacres is fundamentally different in so far as the massacres often last for several hours, during which nearby security forces should have ample time to intervene to stop the massacres and to apprehend the attackers, who up to now have always been able to leave undisturbed.
Whether or not certain units of the army and security forces have been actively involved in the massacres must be investigated. In the meantime it is clear that there has been a conscious abdication by the Algerian authorities of its responsibility to protect the civilian population in areas whose position and security and communications network should make such protection possible.
Reasons alleged to be at the origins of the massacres
According to the authorities and security services all the massacres have been committed by the GIA and other such groups with the aim of terrorizing and punishing the population hostile to them, or who formerly supported them but who had recently withdrawn their support, or relatives and current supporters of rival armed groups.
Many massacres have taken place in areas where a large percentage of the population had voted for the FIS in the 1990 municipal elections and in the 1991 legislative elections. Amnesty International has received reports that many of the victims of recent massacres were relatives of members and supporters of armed opposition groups, people who had in the past been detained on charges of « terrorist activities » and their relatives, and people who had in the past refused to take up arms and set up militia groups. Members of the security forces and militias are reported to have said to local inhabitants and journalists that the victims of some of the massacres had met the fate they deserved because they had supported the « terrorists », and thus deserved no protection.
Many massacres are believed to have been carried out by armed groups with the aim of eliminating supporters of rival groups, or supporters of the FIS, which has increasingly often condemned killings of civilians and other abuses by these groups. However, there have been allegations that some of the massacres have been committed by groups acting on instructions, or with the consent, of certain army and security forces units and paramilitary groups, with the aim of eradicating the grassroots base of armed opposition groups, which continue to maintain a presence in these areas in spite of repeated armed action against them by the army and security forces over the years.
The victims of the massacres seem to have been mostly ordinary people, often poor and living in makeshift homes, including people who had settled in the area in recent years after having fled their homes elsewhere because of the conflict. The FIS’ armed wing, the AIS, does not appear to have been present in any significant way in the region (the AIS is reportedly present mainly in the east and west of the country, but not in the centre), whereas GIA groups have reportedly been based in the area. However, it is not known to what extent the local population really supported such groups, and if so to what extent it did so willingly or out of fear.
The pattern of large-scale massacres has developed against a background of years of escalating violence. Security forces killed members of armed groups, their relatives and people known or suspected of supporting such groups; while armed opposition groups targeted relatives of security forces’ and militias’ members, as well as families and supporters of rival armed groups. In this context, some believe that certain massacres have been committed as a vendetta, in retaliation for previous massacres and killings of relatives or communities by rival forces. In addition, there are allegations that part of the violence is the result of rival government factions’ interests and power struggles linked to economic issues, including the forthcoming privatization of agricultural land and state-owned enterprises, exploitation of oil resources and corruption.
The sharp reduction in the level of violence at the time of important events such as the presidential elections of November 1995 and the legislative elections of June 1997 – in spite of increased threats issued by armed opposition groups against civilians who participated in the election processes – indicates that the Algerian authorities have the means to ensure a higher level of protection for the civilian population throughout the country when it is necessary for them to do so.
Whoever the perpetrators of these massacres may be, and whatever logic they may use to justify such atrocities, urgent and concrete measures must be taken to stop the unprecedented level of violence and brutality, and to protect the civilian population, especially those who are most vulnerable to such attacks such as women, children, the elderly and the poor. As a first step, a full and independent investigation must be carried out to establish who is responsible for these killings and other crimes which continue to be a daily occurrence, and to ensure that those responsible be brought to justice.
PUNITIVE STRIKES VERSUS PROTECTION
Armed groups who have carried out these massacres have mainly used weapons such as knives, axes, machetes, saws, metal bars, some light firearms (shotguns, hunting rifles, Kalashnikovs) and home-made bombs. The army and security forces possess far more sophisticated weapons and equipment, including armoured vehicles, rocket launchers, heavy artillery and combat aircraft – which they regularly use in large scale « clean-up, anti-terrorist » operations in different parts of the region and elsewhere in the country.
The Algerian government rarely issues information on military operations, but they do allow the Algerian press to publish, regularly, information which quotes un-named security forces sources saying that scores or hundreds of GIA members were killed in the course of military and security operations. However, in the absence of independent sources it has not been possible to establish the number and identity of those killed or the circumstances in which they were killed and media reports are often contradictory. Two large-scale operations were reported in Atatba and Thala Acha, in July and September 1997. As is customary, the Algerian government issued no information directly, but allowed the Algerian media to report the operations, saying that, according to un-named military and security sources, between 100 and 200 GIA members were killed in Atatba and more than 100 in Thala Acha, including those who had been responsible for recent massacres. However, the media gave different versions of the same event; for example, at the end of July 1997 some newspapers claimed that Antar Zouabri, presented as the GIA leader, was killed in the Atatba operation (different newspapers gave different versions of his killing), a piece of information which could not be confirmed, and which was subsequently denied by a communique reported to have been issued by the GIA, and by other media reports. At the beginning of September 1997, Algerian newspapers again reported that Antar Zouabri had been killed, this time in the Thala Acha operation, but the information was again subsequently denied. A month later, in the first military operation which some Algerian journalists were invited to cover, an un-named army officer was quoted as saying that Antar Zouabri was still alive.
Announcements by the authorities officially, or via the Algerian media, that the perpetrators of certain murders, massacres, or other crimes have been killed by security forces form part of a regular and long-standing pattern. In recent years similar announcements have been made that the killers of the most well known victims – journalists, intellectuals and foreigners – had been killed by the security forces. To date not a single individual has been arrested and prosecuted for any of these assassinations which received widespread media coverage in Algeria and outside. Similarly, to date no one has ever been prosecuted for the massacres committed in the past year.
Thus, according to official information, the security forces – who have often swiftly caught and killed the groups responsible for murders and massacres – have consistently been unable or unwilling to intervene to stop and prevent the massacres of civilians.
This pattern whereby the « killers of X » are regularly reported to have been killed, and no one ever arrested and prosecuted, raises serious questions – especially given that the Algerian authorities consistently refuse to provide the information on the basis of which their conclusions were reached, and do not allow independent investigations to be carried out.