‘I cannot remain silent’

‘I cannot remain silent’

The role the Algerian army played in the massive killings of innocent
civilians during the last 10 years is exposed by a former officer

By Daniel Ben Simon, Ha’aretz (Israel), April 20, 2001

« La Sale Guerre: le Temoignage d’un Ancien Officier des Forces
Speciales de l’Armee Algeriennes, 1992-2000″ (« The Dirty War: The
testimony of a former officer of the special forces of the Algerian
army, 1992-2000″), by Habib Souaidia, preface by Ferdinando
Imposimato, La Decouverte, 203 pages, 95FF.

This book contains shocking testimony about what is happening inside
a country where, according to reliable estimates, more than 150,000
of its citizens have been slaughtered during the past decade.

« My name is Habib Souaidia, and I am 31, » writes the author at the
beginning of the book. « I served as an officer in the special forces
of the Algerian Army. When I enlisted in the army in 1989, I never
imagined that I would be a direct witness of the tragedy that has
befallen my country …

« I have seen my colleagues set fire to a boy of 15, who burned like a
living torch. I have seen soldiers slaughtering civilians and
blaming ‘the terrorists.’ I have seen senior officers murdering in
cold blood simple people who were suspected of Islamic activities. I
have seen officers torturing Islamic activists to death. I have seen
too many things. I cannot remain silent. These are sufficient reasons
for breaking my silence. »

There is a huge argument raging in Algeria and elsewhere about the
identity of those responsible for the killings, the massacres and the
mass liquidations. It is hard to believe, but the fact is that even
after more than 150,000 people were massacred, there are only rare
cases in which the identity of the killers has been made known. The
army claims that armed Islamic fighters associated with the Islamic
Salvation Front (FIS) are the ones who have perpetrated the mass
killings of innocent people. The Front claims that it is the army
that is behind the horror that has been raging in the country for
over a decade.

Habib Souaidia’s book is the first to expose the part the army has
played in the work of liquidation. The testimonies that could
embarrass the military regime in Algeria and undermine the
international legitimacy of the regime headed by President Abdelaziz
Bouteflika. Immediately after the book came out in France in February
of this year, the heads of the army hastened to deny its contents,
and defined the author as a criminal and traitor who is not to be
believed. Even before the book came out, the fleeing officer was
granted political refuge in France.
Fighting his own people
When he was young, Habib Souaidia dreamed of enlisting in the army.
The smartly pressed uniform and the respect accorded military service
sparked his admiration for the army. There was an additional reason
for a young man like him to enlist: In 1980 the country suffered an
economic crisis that threatened to paralyze it. Unemployment
skyrocketed to rates unprecedented since Algeria received its
independence.

« The army, the police and the presidential guard looked to us like a
lifesaver against unemployment, » he writes. « This is the reason many
of my friends chose to go into uniform immediately upon completing
school. »

Habib comes from a different background. According to him, he did not
need the army’s money. It was his patriotic sentiments and the love
of his country that impelled him to volunteer for the army in the
hope that one day he would become a fighter in one of the special
units. He never imagined that his intensive training would qualify
him to fight to the death against members of his own people, the
Islamic fighters.

This happened faster than expected. In October 1988, a few months
before he was inducted, bloody demonstrations took place in the
capital, Algiers. At the end of the week of demonstrations, it turned
out that 500 young demonstrators had lost their lives to army
bullets. The mass killing shocked the nation. The religious
background of the victims led to the strengthening of the status of
the religious leaders. Not five months went by, and in March 1989 the
birth of the Islamic Salvation Front was declared.

According to the author, the appearance of the Islamic movement in
the public arena stirred the emotions of millions of inhabitants.
Many of them, especially young people, were sick of the blunders of
the Algerian National Liberation Front (FLN), which headed the
country after Algeria won its independence from France. The discourse
of the FIS « conquered » the poor suburbs, the distressed neighborhoods
where the inhabitants were barely scraping together a living.

« The poor behaved as if they had been bewitched by the preachers and
speakers of the FIS, » the author explains.

A year later, in June 1990, an incident occurred that could have
changed the history of the country that had been ruled by the French
for more than 130 years, until Algeria became independent in the
1960s. The FIS ran in the elections for local authorities and won a
sweeping victory in many parts of the country. Immediately
thereafter, plaques of the former ruling party were ripped off the
facades of municipal buildings and new signs along the lines of
Baladiya Islamiya (Islamic Municipality) were affixed.

Barely a day had passed and the new local authorities, wearing white
robes, hastened to inform the nation that it was their intention to
prohibit women from bathing at the beaches, and that men had to wear
bathing suits.

After the people of the FIS proclaimed their victory, Algerians
walked the streets stunned, as if stricken by lightning. Though they
were glad that the regime of the partie unique – the sole party – had
come to an end after 30 years of rule, they feared the atmosphere of
chaos that hovered in the air.

« One thing was clear, » writes Habib. « The Islamists were determined
to go all the way and take political control in the general elections
as well. To many citizens it was clear that the era of freedom in the
country was about to end: Women would stop going out to work,
studying and advancing their liberation; men would have to change
their habits and learn to live without smoking cigarettes and without
drinking alcohol. »
‘Pillars of the homeland’
The seeds of the civil war began to sprout at every street corner.
The army did not intend to sit idly by and see Algeria march along
the Islamic route on its way to becoming a north African version of
Khomeini’s Iran. The day after the Front’s victory in the local
elections an alert was declared in the ranks of the army.

« The country must not fall into the hands of the Islamists, » General
Mohammed Bousharab exhorted cadets at the officers’ academy. « Algeria
is relying on you. You are the pillars of the homeland and you must
save it from its enemies. »

Second Lieutenant Habib Souaidia stood at attention with his friends
and took the words of the senior officer to heart: « The truth is that
we didn’t really understand what he was talking about, » he
writes. « They prepared us for a war against a foreign invader and now
we found ourselves getting ready for a war to the death against
Algerians, members of our own people. »

In 1992, the year the army revoked the FIS’ victory in the general
elections, there was a hunt for any sign of religion in army bases.
Any soldier who held secret or open sympathies for the Front movement
was immediately discharged from the ranks of the army or put in
prison. Soldiers and officers were forbidden to pray at the mosques
on their bases. According to the author, the army command operated
mercilessly against any evidence of hesitancy or doubt regarding the
iron fist policy against the Islamic party. Officers and soldiers
were thrown in jail and harshly tortured. Others were murdered.

« Suspicion poisoned the atmosphere at the army bases, » he
writes. « Everyone was afraid for his life, everyone was afraid he
would be informed against, everyone was afraid to talk to his fellows
lest it turn out he was an agent of military intelligence. »

This dirty war knew no limits. Hundreds and thousands were slain
using brutal methods reminiscent of the regime of Pol Pot in
Cambodia. The slayers showed no mercy toward old people, women,
children or infants. Throughout that period, the big question
reverberated: « Who is behind these shocking killings? »

Second Lieutenant Habib Souaidia acknowledges that most of the acts
of killing were carried out by Islamic Front people, but in his story
he also relates the part the army played in this bloody scenario. He
became aware of this directly. « It happened one night in March,
1993, » he relates. « After I finished my shift I was summoned to my
commanding officer, Major Daoud. He ordered me to take my people to
guard a truck on its way to one of the villages. I went outside and I
saw the truck. I peeked inside and saw the silhouettes of dozens of
commando fighters from one of the special units. They were carrying
knives and grenades. I was told that they were on their way to
a ‘special mission.’

« I drove behind the truck until it stopped in the village of Dawar
Azatariya where the inhabitants were suspected of supporting the FIS
movement. I was asked to remain with my men outside the village. Two
hours later the truck came back. One of the officers took a blood-
stained knife that he held near his throat, making a sweeping side to
side motion. I didn’t need any additional signs to understand what
had happened in the village. Two days later there were headlines in
the Algerian press: ‘Islamic attack in Dawar Azatariya. Dozens killed
in the massacre.’ I couldn’t believe my eyes. I felt that I had been
an accomplice to a terrible crime. »
Soldier, not murderer
On his way to a military opearation against Islamic activists in the
city of Tiz-Ouzu east of the capital, the writer received explicit
instructions from General Mohammed Laamri: « The Islamists want to get
to Paradise, so we’ll help them get there as quickly as possible, »
the general said. « I don’t want prisoners, I want dead people only. »
This order gave Second Lieutenant Habib Souaidia no rest: « I realized
that I had nothing more to do in the Algerian army, » he writes. « I
wanted to be a soldier, not a murderer. »

But events followed one another at a dizzying pace. Dead and wounded
every day in a horrendous cycle of violence. The author admits that
he was shocked by the death-lust that filled the « armed fighters for
Islam, » which is the military wing of the FIS. « They were not afraid
of death, » according to his account. « They even hastened toward it.
That was their belief. They were sure that their death would bring
them to Paradise. As for us, we were trapped in hell. »

The author documents the reciprocal slaughter with surgical
precision. There is no torture that was not tried by both sides. The
Islamic liquidators slew entire villages, and eradicateurs from the
army cruelly eliminated anyone suspected of belonging to or aiding
the armed Islamic groups. The behavior of his fellows in the army
disturbed him so much that Souaidia began to think of deserting to
the West to expose what he calls « the dirty war. »

Things reached their peak when his fellow soldiers arrested a 15-year-
old cigarette seller. He was suspected of passing information to
Islamic activists in the city of Sidi-Bal-Abbas, which is to the west
of Algiers. Lieutenant Abdelhak ordered him to kneel. He poured fuel
over him, pulled a lighter out of his pocket and set the boy on fire.

« No, I said to myself, » writes the author. « I don’t believe that he
is going to do this. »

In 1995, Second Lieutenant Habib Souaidia was sentenced to four years
in prison, after he was convicted of stealing spare parts from army
stores. At first the officer denied the charges, but he quickly
realized that he was being punished because he had criticized the
murders under the auspices of the army and the cruel behavior of his
fellow men in uniform.

« They arrested me to silence me, » he writes. The author swore that
after he was released he would expose to the free world what his
state had been doing. A year after he was released with the rank of
private, he obtained a passport and flew to France. He tried to
interest journalists in his story. Some accused him of spreading
lies, others believed him and published things that he said. Within a
few months a publisher was found who agreed to publish his memoirs.
In November 2000 the French authorities granted his request for
political asylum.

With its appearance, the book precipitated a fair amount of
embarrassment in the corridors of the government of France. During
the past decade, Presidents Francois Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac
stood behind the Algerian administration and backed its war against
the Islamic fighters. Any time rumors spread in France about
slaughter committed under the auspices of the army, the two
presidents denied them and described them as « Islamic propaganda. »

Now along comes this book to fortify these rumors: « I wanted to write
about the dirty war that was directed against innocent civilians,
whose only crime was that they were well-disposed toward Islam, » he
writes. « This war is still going on. Thus far more than 150,000
people have been killed, and those responsible for this crime are the
generals who head the army. They are fighting to defend their rule
and the enormous amount of property they have accumulated. »

At the top of the list of countries who are aiding the generals he
places France. « France has given me political asylum, » he
writes, « but this cannot prevent me from declaring that it has
abetted the murderous generals to protect its interests. »

If he were to be asked about a possible solution, he would say that
his country’s problem is not religion, nor is it Islam.

« The main problem is injustice, » he states at the end of the
book. « If an end is put to the injustice, peace will come to Algeria.
Therefore it is necessary to stop the corrupt individuals who are
continuing to rob the huge assets of the Algerian people.

© copyright 2001 Ha’aretz. All Rights Reserved
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