Algeria’s Shameful War

Algeria’s Shameful War

An ex-army officer tells a shocking tale of atrocities committed by
soldiers against their own people

BY NICHOLAS LE QUESNE, Paris, Time, April 16, 2001 Vol. 157 No. 15

Habib Souaïdia is 31 years old, but you wouldn’t know it to look at
him. Since its recent publication, his book The Dirty War (La
Découverte; 204 pages) has been making waves in France and Algeria.
The back cover shows him in 1992 as a fresh-faced young second
lieutenant, proudly wearing the uniform of an Algerian parachute
regiment. The man sitting with an overflowing ashtray in a Paris
publishing house is haggard, with sunken eyes and a faced gouged by
deep lines. The interval between then and now has been eventful. It
includes two and a half years in the Algerian army’s
counterinsurgency operation against Islamic terrorists – and four
more years in a military prison.

Officially, Souaïdia was jailed for stealing spare parts from a car
pound – a charge he has always vigorously denied. He maintains that
his real crime was voicing doubts about the missions he was ordered
to carry out. His book provides a firsthand account of life within
the Algerian army as it wages a brutal civil war. For the first time,
a member of the special forces – which, along with the secret
service, have had exclusive responsibility for anti-terrorist
operations since the outbreak of hostilities in 1992 – provides
detailed corroboration of rumors that have been circulating for
years: that many crimes attributed to Islamic terrorists were in fact
the work of the armed forces. « The generals are up to their necks in
killing, and their motive is to hang onto power and the oil revenues
and business commissions that go with it, » Souaïdia claims. « The real
problem in Algeria isn’t Islamic fundamentalism, it’s injustice. »

Souaïdia’s story is that of an idealistic officer’s descent into a
murky netherworld of torture, murder and terrorism. As a volunteer in
the Algerian army’s airborne élite, he found himself drafted into the
newly formed « anti-subversion » forces late in 1992. The country had
been rocked by terrorist violence after the military high command
that year canceled the second round of legislative elections to block
an inevitable victory by the Islamic Salvation Front (f.i.s.).
Souaïdia arrived at his new posting at Béni-Messous near Algiers
resolved to serve his country by combating a terrorist threat to
public order.

He soon discovered that the reality of army operations was far
removed from his ideals. He describes how one night in March 1993, he
was ordered to escort a truckload of paratroops to the village of
Douar Ez-Zaatria, a pro-f.i.s. stronghold. Souaïdia and his men
waited for the truck on the outskirts of the village and escorted it
back to base when it returned an hour later. A soldier he knew
climbed out and, seeing Souaïdia, drew a bloodstained dagger across
his throat. In the morning, the papers announced that a terrorist
attack had left 12 dead in Zaatria that night.

At the end of that month, Souaïdia’s unit was transferred to
Lakhdaria – 70 km east of Algiers – and a new billet in a villa
dating from the colonial era. Five cells had been installed on the
ground floor. In his book, Souaïdia paints a grisly picture of
suspected Islamic sympathizers being systematically arrested,
tortured and killed. Their corpses were left in the surrounding
countryside and the crimes were attributed to terrorist violence.
Souaïdia claims to have watched as a 15-year-old boy was drenched in
fuel and burned alive. « Everyone taken there was tortured and
liquidated, » he says. « They were forced to drink bleach, tortured
with electricity, set upon by dogs and attacked with axes. As far as
the generals were concerned, all Islamic sympathizers were terrorists
and had to be physically eliminated. »

The Dirty War is more than an account of army brutality. It includes
descriptions of heavy losses inflicted on Algerian forces. Souaïdia
describes how one unit of 40 inexperienced recruits was abandoned by
its officer during an ambush. After running out of ammunition, they
were forced to hand their weapons over to their assailants before
being executed. He claims that military commanders sometimes allowed
such attacks to happen to encourage greater ferocity in their
soldiers. « When you’ve seen your friends killed, you end up hating
the people who did it, » says Souaïdia.

He alleges that terrorist groups are infiltrated and manipulated by
the Algerian secret service, enabling the military high command to
portray itself as the last rampart against bloodthirsty lawlessness.
That thesis may sound farfetched, but it has convinced respected
figures like Ferdinando Imposimato – honorary vice president of
Italy’s High Court of Appeal – who contributed a preface. Now a
political refugee in France, Souaïdia says he is ready to return to
Algeria to testify to the crimes he witnessed. But so far, his
country’s leaders are not prepared to delve too deeply into the dark
secrets of the war against Islamic fundamentalism.