Thinking the unthinkable

The Economist, Nov 11th 2000

Will the truth behind the appalling brutality of Algeria’s long civil war ever be known?

AROUND 200 people are still being killed every month in Algeria. Somehow this has not prevented a radical transformation in the country’s international image over the past 18 months. The perception is no longer of a secretive military regime doing battle with a ruthless Islamist opposition, but of a country that has turned a corner, leaving behind a traumatic decade of bloodshed in which some 100,000 people died.

The chief architect of Algeria’s new image has been Abdelaziz Bouteflika, the former diplomat chosen by Algeria’s military décideurs to become president in April 1999. Its cornerstone is the amnesty Mr Bouteflika offered to some 5,500 Islamic militants who agreed to lay down their arms. Western capitals, long embarrassed by their inability, or even unwillingness, to do anything about the mayhem in Algeria, breathed a sigh of relief. They responded by rolling out the welcome carpet for Mr Bouteflika, ending the diplomatic isolation that started in 1992 when the same military men interrupted elections to prevent an Islamist party from winning.

Why then does a human-rights organisation, Amnesty International, want to undo all this? In a report published this week, the organisation calls on the Algerian authorities to declare Mr Bouteflika’s amnesty null and void because, or so it argues, it guarantees that no one in Algeria gets punished for their misdeeds. The report argues that impunity—a privilege that Amnesty opposed when it was enjoyed by the security forces and local militias armed by the state—has been extended to the armed militants. Worse, says Amnesty, successive governments have failed to carry out any impartial investigations into the thousands of killings, massacres, disappearances and abductions committed by both sides in the conflict.

The organisation wants the Algerian authorities to launch investigations into all past and present brutalities, and bring those responsible to justice. It is a tall order. In any circumstances it would be a vast and immensely complicated job. In addition, Algeria’s military-backed authorities have, from the start, pursued policies that deliberately obscured responsibility for acts of savagery.

Consider the issue of the disappeared. Amnesty says there are at least 4,000 cases of men and women who went missing after they were arrested by the security forces. Only in the past two years have the authorities agreed even to register complaints from the families of the disappeared—and so far not a single person has returned. The families are sometimes told that the disappeared person had been abducted by terrorists, or was himself a terrorist and killed by the security forces, but no details or evidence, much less dead bodies, have ever been produced to substantiate these claims.

A prominent lawyer in Algiers, who has handled 200 cases of missing people, without a single success, believes most of the disappeared have been killed. Mr Bouteflika’s own nephew is missing, but the president has urged the « mothers of the disappeared », who demonstrate every Wednesday in Algiers, to « turn the page ».

The Amnesty report drives home the general lack of interest in establishing the truth about the years of violence. The authorities have long made it their policy to say the least possible about the security situation. They confirm nothing, answer no questions, make few official statements and very rarely give figures.

Even the large massacres in 1997 and 1998, during which hundreds of people were slaughtered in night-time attacks, have somehow been consigned to a black hole of oblivion. Despite calls at the time for an international investigation, there has not even been a local one. Amnesty says politely that the authorities have not answered serious questions about their failure to protect civilians at the time. Several big massacres took place near Algiers, almost on the doorstep of army barracks, but inexplicably no one came to the succour of the victims.

One person who has now publicly uttered the unthinkable is Yous Nesrouallah, a small businessman and survivor of the massacre of Bentalha in which 400 people had their throats cut one September night in 1997. No friend of the Islamists, Mr Nesrouallah, who now lives in France, has just published a book in which he concludes that a special death squad attached to the security forces was behind the killing at Bentalha, a town on the outskirts of Algiers.

Like other survivors, Mr Nesrouallah says the army was on the scene the night of the massacre. Soldiers blocked access to the areas where the killings took place, preventing neighbours from coming to the aid of the victims; a helicopter circled the area during the slaughter. Over five hours, amid an infernal din of screams, none of the nearby soldiers intervened. When the scores of assailants finally left on foot, not a single shot was fired at them.

If Mr Nesrouallah’s accusations are correct, then some of the massacres may have been part of a complicated power struggle between factions in the ruling military circles. At least, that is what many experts have always believed. But the full story has yet to come out.

Little is understood about the workings of the secretive military clique that controls the country, known as le pouvoir. But for a glimpse of how it operates, the Internet offers a website set up by dissident Algerian intelligence officers in exile. Calling themselves the Movement of Free Algerian Officers, they post on their site accounts purporting to explain many of the unsolved mysteries. They reveal a shadowy world of assassination, corruption and manipulation. It is impossible to vouch for the truth of any of it, but experts say it is a more plausible picture of what goes on than the simplistic version that has gone largely unchallenged in the West.