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.
And so one bleak December morning Smain stood in a little room in a dirty building in downtown Algiers in front of a small crowd of newspaper journalists and pushed the play button on a VCR. There it was: jerky footage of bleached bones emerging from loose soil. The footage was amateurish, the video camera clearly new to the cameraman. But when Smain stopped the tape, leaned over the plastic shopping bag by his feet and pulled out the rotted woolen cloak of one of the victims, it was the gesture of a born showman, bringing the stink of premature death into the room.
By the time he wheeled out, red-eyed and shaking, the son of the man whose bones had fallen from the decaying cloak it was clear–Smain had something of a bombshell on his hands.
The son, Ahmed Saidane, fumbled with the pockets of the cloak and withdrew a dirty yellowish cigarette lighter. “I remember as if it were today,” he said later. “The night before the militia came and took my father, we were both trying to connect gas to the stove, and we needed a lighter. I remember that yellow lighter my father had. I remember how he put it in his pocket.”
The Algerian press didn’t really do the announcement justice–a few paragraphs buried in the back pages–but it did not go without notice. It was, at least, an opening for a national discussion of the way Algeria and other regimes defeated Islamist uprisings.
American officials have held the Algerian regime up as an example of how to fight the terrorist menace. During a visit to the country in 2002, the State Department’s counterterrorism chief called Algeria “one of the most tenacious and faithful partners of the United States.” Tenacious it might have been, but a closer look at the regime’s recent history shows the kind of brutal methods American officials are willing to countenance in the name of fighting terrorism.
There was a period in the 1990s when it was by no means clear that the Algerian state was going to hold out against the Islamists. Portions of the country had essentially been abandoned by the army, and Western observers had begun preparing for what seemed to be an inevitable switch to another “fundamentalist state” in this OPEC country of 33 million.
At the beginning of the decade, a majority of voters had picked the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), an Islamist political party that appropriated much of the symbolism of Algeria’s war for independence but promised to cure the country’s ills with the Koran. The military, always the real power behind the facade of the National Liberation Front government, “interrupted” the electoral process, jailed the FIS leaders, replaced the president and eventually banned the party.
The inevitable cycle of arrests and repression followed by violence sent many of the FIS sympathizers into the ranks of armed revolutionary groups, which started by killing policemen and soldiers but gradually moved to indiscriminate bombings and murdering whole villages with knives.
The state lost control in places, effectively ceding power to the militants until it hit upon the strategy of forming “self-defense” groups, often headed by veterans of the independence war. Arming the villages proved to be an effective, although ultimately extremely bloody, way of reasserting control. Survivors frequently implicated the paramilitaries in forced disappearances and massacres.
One story has a rural paramilitary leader who found his mother and father murdered taking his revenge through the town of Boufarik, knocking on the doors of known Islamists, including the aged father of one Antar Zouabri, and shooting them on the spot. Zouabri went on to fame–and, like all his predecessors, to violent death at the hands of security forces–as head of the Armed Islamic Group, the most brutal of all Algeria’s Islamist armies. Whether the murder had anything to do with Zouabri’s later madness–which included directing the murder of 400 villagers in one particular night and finally announcing that he had excommunicated the entire country–is debatable, but the story illustrates how the cycle of civil violence was partially escalated by the introduction of paramilitaries into the villages.
The bones that Hadj Smain pulled from that decaying cloak in Sidi M’hamed-Benaouda tell a similar tale. Score-settling and greed by armed groups in a vacuum of state power played a role in many disappearances.
Ahmed Saidane says his family was not Islamist. His father was killed, he says, because he’d accused a local mayor of embezzling money from his town. The mayor unfortunately did side work as head of the government’s antiterrorist militia, and on the morning of September 9, 1996, the militia came for Abed Saidane.
“Fear,” Algerian Prime Minister Redha Malek said after a particularly vicious Islamist attack in 1993, “must change sides.” And indeed it did. But it often fell on the backs of men like Djamil Fahassi, a moderate Islamist and radio reporter for a state broadcaster, who was twice imprisoned, in 1991 and 1992, for publishing articles the government deemed threatening or libelous to the army.
Even the victims who did engage in revolutionary politics were often the least deserving of violent repression. The tragedy of many of the Islamists who were snatched by security forces and paramilitaries is that they were trying to play by the rules: They didn’t “go to the mountains,” as Algerians say. They stayed in their cities and towns and tried to enact their radical program without violence.
Each time he was released, Fahassi returned from the desert prison camps to his job in Algiers. One day in 1995 he went out, leaving his wife and infant daughter, and never came home. He was picked up, witnesses say, in a police sweep. His wife, Safia, has campaigned unceasingly for his release ever since.
Safia, young, attractive, a teacher and fluent speaker of French and English, became a visible spokeswoman for the disappeared movement. She believes that the disappeared will forever haunt the state’s supposed victory in the war against the Islamists.
“The mistake of the government is that in order to fight the terrorists, they did what a terrorist would have done,” she said. “But the state, with its institutions, cannot do what the terrorists do. Until the disappearances are admitted and the survivors are released, this war will not end.”
Safia believes, perhaps improbably, that her husband is still alive, and speaks of government sources who tell her he’s being held in a military prison in Blida.
“They cannot kill everybody,” she said. “The missing are about 10,000 people. The number is terrible. If they have just killed all of them, it’s craziness.”
But craziness and a sense of near hopelessness drove the disappearances, and it seems likely that if the disappeared are ever found, it will be in unmarked graves in places like Sidi M’hamed-Benaouda.
During his last election campaign (which he won easily after all the other candidates withdrew the night before the election), President Bouteflika was accosted onstage by a number of mothers of the disappeared.
“I can’t just pull the disappeared out of my pocket,” he shouted, enraged at their temerity in raising the issue. If Hadj Smain and others keep pulling them out of bags, though, their survivors won’t be so easily dismissed this time.