The winter rains in western Algeria brought a strange harvest to the village of Sidi M’hamed-Benaouda.
When the water receded from a field in this village in the mountains between Algiers and Oran, it carried away a layer of dirt covering the bones of one or more people who had been kidnapped by a government-sponsored militia almost a decade ago.
A lot of bones are probably going to be found in Algeria in the coming years. Somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 people were disappeared by the government and its minions during the appalling civil war that consumed the country during the 1990s.
In the beginning, public sympathy favored the regime’s opponents; the poor and much of the middle class thought new leaders would shake up the system, reduce corruption and afford them new economic opportunities. But the increasing violence and greed of the Islamist armed groups that sprang up in suburbs and rural areas alienated the middle class, and as their support eroded, the armed groups drifted into irrational and self-defeating behavior.
By the middle of the decade, the government was fighting off a shadowy Islamist insurgency that butchered tens of thousands of innocents and eventually pronounced Algerian society as a whole to be unbelievers and worthy of execution. But along the way to winning the war against an execrable enemy, the Algerian state did and permitted things that are unforgivable, and until recently, unspeakable.
Ten thousand people don’t disappear without leaving many relatives behind, and the mothers and wives and sons of Algeria’s disappeared are organizing. They hope to use the occasion of the first presidential elections since the civil war ground to an ambiguous halt, to be held on April 8, to force the state to acknowledge its role in the disappearances. Last year President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who is running for a second term, announced that he was forming a new commission to investigate the thousands of cases documented by local groups.
Activists have little faith that the new commission will display any more teeth than the one it replaces, and they note the absurdity of the regime’s appointing commissions to investigate disappearances. The commission’s true purpose, they say, is to reduce pressure for real, independent investigations. There is almost no democratic opposition in Algeria–the election is expected to be a competition between the two men now trying to nail down the nomination of the former governing party, Bouteflika and former Prime Minister Ali Benflis. Parliament member and presidential candidate Louisa Hanoune and her relatively small Workers Party are one of the few groups in Parliament seen as a genuine opposition party; not coincidentally, she has been one of the few real voices for reconciliation with the vanquished Islamists and for recognition of the vanished victims of the war.
When the bones sprouted in the fields of Sidi M’hamed-Benaouda, villagers knew whom to call: Hadj Smain, a local bureaucrat and veteran of the independence war who is a regional leader in Algeria’s disappeared movement. Smain’s greatest fear was that the bones would be turned over to the military and vanish without a trace.