Berber revolt quelled with 62 deaths in four days

Berber revolt quelled with 62 deaths in four days

Algeria: Little hope of justice for nation’s ancient people despite government promise of ‘full investigation’ into police killings of protesters

By Robert Fisk, Middle East Correspondent, The Independent, 03 May 2001

The Berbers wrecked the Byzantine rule of north Africa. Justinian the Second’s prefect was defeated by the Berber Garmul. The Berbers ­ the men of Kabyle ­ fought the Romans, the Arabs, the Turks and finally the French, who took 29 years to subdue the mountains around Tizi Ouzou. In the independence war of 1954-62, the Berber names of Amirouche and Ramdane were synonymous with the National Liberation Army’s « Wilaya 3 » resistance to colonial rule. Little wonder, then, that Algeria’s President, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, has announced a « commission of investigation » into the killing of up to 62 Berbers by the police in just four days last week.

In the hill towns south-east of Algiers, they are talking about an « intifada », a rebellion against government rule, a Palestinian-style stones-against-bullets insurrection which ­ after the death in police custody at Beni Doula of Guermah Massinissa, a teenage student ­ threatens to open all the carefully concealed divisions in Algerian society.

The Berbers, with their own distinctive culture and language ­ tamazight ­ hoped their participation in the war against France would give them recognition; but President Ben Bella destroyed their aspirations in 1962. « We are all Arabs, » he said. And that was supposed to be that.

This week, they are recalling the « Berber Spring » of 1980 when the government refused to permit the writer Mouloud Mammeri to give a lecture on 16th-century Berber poetry; but the thousands of arrests that followed this revolt are insignificant compared with the deaths last week. Whole areas of the Kabyle capital of Tizi Ouzou were taken over by demonstrators while police stations in outlying towns were assaulted by hundreds of youths. The provincial gendarmerie, having run out of tear-gas grenades, began shooting down the protesters with live rounds.

Needless to say, Europe ­ so swift to condemn Israel’s killing of Palestinian stone-throwers ­ remained silent. Algeria’s « Islamist » war ­ with its own toll of perhaps 150,000 lives ­ has frightened the French so much that only a massacre of Sabra-and-Chatila proportions will provoke a squeak from the Quai d’Orsay. With its own massive Algerian population, France does not want another immigration of refugees from the Maghreb. Better to let the Algerian government ­ the pouvoir ­ handle the problem. But is it capable of doing so?

On Saturday alone, 30 Berbers were killed around Tizi Ouzou as youths attacked police stations, set up barricades of burning tyres on the main roads from Algiers and demanded an end to the « injustice » in their lives. Unemployment and despair ­ two of the three sicknesses of Algeria ­ drove them to revolt against the country’s most malevolent infection: the corruption of the pouvoir. Hundreds of police were among up to a thousand wounded in four days of violence.

Even the local political parties that normally speak for the Berber people ­ the Front des forces socialites (FFS) and the Rassemblement pout la culture et la democratie (RCD) ­ found their offices burnt to the ground. « You cannot kill us ­ we are already dead! » the demonstrators shouted at police.

Many claimed that the murder of the famous Berber singer Lounes Matoub, shot dead by Algeria’s familiar « unknown » gunmen in 1988, was the work of the government.

Equally familiar was the televised statement of President Bouteflika on Monday night. « These events did not happen by chance, » he announced. « There are people who are deliberately fomenting divisions and separatism ­ we know who they are and they will be unmasked. » Good socialist stuff. But Algeria’s « commissions » of inquiry ­ whether investigating the most grotesque massacres or the murder of a former president ­ traditionally fail to unmask anyone; which is why so many Algerians suspect that the government and its all-powerful army have a hand in the violence that has torn Algeria apart. Recent claims by former army officers that soldiers were themselves to blame for extrajudicial killings and torture have only increased these suspicions.

On the campus of one Algiers university on Monday, students shouted « pouvoir assassin »; the Interior Minister, Yazid Noureddine Zerhouni, insisted the police had « kept their nerve » and « only used firearms as a last resort ». Which means there were a lot of « last resorts » around Tizi Ouzou last week. Indeed, the towns of Maatkas, Aazazga, Tizi Rached and Boudjima appear to have been taken over by protesters, many of whom demanded the replacement of the local police by other security forces. At Tizi Rached, demonstrators rammed a truck and a bus into the police station before the occupants opened fire.

On Saturday, the FFS, whose leader Hocine Ait-Ahmed is one of the braver Algerian politicians, called off a protest march because, according to local party officials, « those in the pouvoir are looking for an excuse to transform this into a bloodbath ». An Algerian army officer responded by warning that « elements of the GIA [the « Islamic Armed Group » blamed by the government for many massacres of civilians] want to infiltrate the march … You will carry the burden of a bloodbath. » But bloodbath there was. And now a commission of inquiry. And continued despair.