Europe turns blind eye to Algeria’s dirty war
« We brought back the heads of the terrorists we killed … The rest we left to the vultures » A book by a former special forces officer has focused attention on the savagery of Algeria’s dirty war and Europe’s knowledge of atrocities there, writes:
Lara Marlowe Tuesday, Irish Times, February 13, 2001
It is only a two-hour flight from Paris to Algiers, but a trip by the French Foreign Minister, Mr Hubert Védrine, today will be one of the most challenging of his career.
First there is the blood-letting: more than 130 civilians massacred this year, 27 of them on Saturday night alone, including 13 children. Nine years have passed since a generals’ coup deposed President Chadli Benjedid and annulled Algeria’s only democratic election. By most estimates, between 150,000 and 200,000 people have died in the slaughter.
The last hope, the election of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika two years ago, was stillborn. « President Bouteflika has no margin of manoeuvre in dealing with the military, » Mr Védrine has said privately. »
Then there is the book. Written by a former special forces lieutenant, Habib Souaïdia, The Dirty War was published by Éditions La Découverte in Paris on February 8th, just in time to make Mr Védrine’s trip a misery.
The Dirty War is prefaced by the Italian judge Ferdinando Imposimato, who investigated the assassination of Aldo Moro and the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II. « There has always been a hidden centre of power in Algeria, » he writes. « It has acted with extreme cynicism to shape the course of events. It has locked up society, it has liquidated opponents, within and outside the system. »
One hears similar comments in background briefings in EU capitals. Yet, as Judge Imposimato points out, last month the EU gave Algeria euro 8,000,000 to assist in « international co-operation in the anti-terrorist struggle ». The aid was attributed « almost on the sly », without the stipulation that human rights be respected.
Last month the French Minister for Tourism visited Algiers. A week ago it was the turn of the French Interior Minister, Mr Daniel Vaillant. France will train Algerians « in modern crime-fighting and civil security techniques, » Mr Vaillant announced. French assistance was, he added, « much appreciated » in the fight against « money-laundering and other mafia-like practices. »
It seems to have escaped the French Minister’s attention that the chief mafiosi are the Algerian generals.
Defecting Algerian soldiers have spoken before, including to The Irish Times, of the army’s role in massacres and disappearances. But this is the first time an officer has allowed his full name and photograph to appear in print. Two days after his book was published, the Algerian Securité Militaire interrogated Lieut Souaïdia’s relatives and neighbours in Tebessa, and his brother’s shop was ransacked.
The Dirty War should be required reading for every European minister travelling to Algiers. « I’ve seen colleagues burn a 15 year-old child alive, » Lieut Souaïdia writes in his introduction. « I’ve seen soldiers massacre civilians and claim their crimes were committed by terrorists. I’ve seen colonels murder suspects in cold blood. I’ve seen officers torture Islamists to death. I’ve seen too many things. I can no longer keep silent. »
Lieut Souaïdia gives names, dates and locations in the hope, he says, that war crimes trials will take place one day. « I am myself prepared to testify before a tribunal for what I have done. »
In 1993 Lieut Souaïdia was posted to an old colonial villa known as COPAWI, near the Islamist stronghold of Lakhdaria. All semblance of military discipline vanished. `It wasn’t like a normal barracks. No drills, no timetables. We forgot to shave. It was the jungle. »
The basement of the COPAWI villa was a torture chamber, « to the right of the entrance, the torture equipment: chains, a basin of foul water, detergent, electrical wire, tools etc. »
Lieut Souaïdia watched as three other lieutenants brought the local mayor and five others out of their cells one evening, their hands bound with wire and blindfolded.
« They pushed them, like animals being taken to slaughter, into a Toyota truck with a tarpaulin . . . I was ordered to go with a Jeep to protect them from a distance. I saw them stop at the edge of Oued Isser. They made them get out and kneel and they killed them one after the other with two Klach [Kalashnikov] bullets in the neck. They left the bodies there. In the 27 months I was in Lakhdaria, I was an eyewitness to these kinds of killings at least 15 times. »
Lieut Souaïdia tells the story of Mohamed Moutadjer, a 60-yearold man whose sons were wanted by the army. After he had been tortured, the commander of Souaidia’s regiment dragged Moutadjer through the courtyard of the villa, urinated on him and shouted: « Tell your dogs of children to help you now! » The officer and two soldiers then shot Moutadjer dead and threw his body in a field.
Another time, a Lieut Chemseddine forced two prisoners, a 15-year-old boy and a 35year-old man, to kneel, doused them with fuel from an armoured vehicle and set them on fire.
‘Our officers made many of us into professional throat-slashers, » Lieut Souaïdia writes later. « I don’t see much difference between the behaviour of the terrorists and that of the soldiers . . .
« We brought back the heads of the terrorists we killed. The rest of the body we left for the vultures and wild animals. Our bosses . . . often said things like, `Don’t waste a day bringing the bodies back to the command post. Just bring the heads.’ »
The Dirty War has been compared to Gilles Perrault’s Notre Ami Le Roi, the book which discredited King Hassan II of Morocco in the early 1990s. On the day it was published, a group of 10 French and north African intellectuals published an open letter in Le Monde demanding an international commission of inquiry into the violence in Algeria.
When the Algerian authorities are asked to respect human rights they complain of intervention in their internal affairs, but « they don’t hesitate to accept foreign aid and support to impose their policy of eradication », the authors noted, accusing the French government of « complicity in crimes against humanity » by maintaining such cosy relations with Algiers.