World

A brutal bloodletting

Algeria's vote brings little hope of ending the war

NOMI MORRIS November 3 1997
World

A brutal bloodletting

Algeria's vote brings little hope of ending the war

NOMI MORRIS November 3 1997

A brutal bloodletting

Algeria's vote brings little hope of ending the war

NOMI MORRIS

SUSIE MORGAN

World

Six-year-old Randa left one small memento before Islamic militants slit her throat and hurled her off a balcony during a mid-September massacre in Bentalhah, her village south of Algiers. It was a snapshot of herself, a smiling girl with long brown hair who was about to start school. The photo is already creased and worn because Ali, father of Randa’s best friend, keeps pulling it out of his wallet, where he keeps it “so I will always remember that terrible time.” The little girl was one of more than 200 victims of a savage orgy of killing that lasted five hours. The pattern has become horribly typical for the Mitidja Plain around Algeria’s capital, a region now known as the “triangle of death.” Dozens of robed men, their faces hidden by Afghan-style head scarves, swarmed through the village after midnight, murdering everyone they could find. The attackers bludgeoned or hacked civilians to death with hammers, axes and knives. They looted and burned homes, and took more than 30 young women away with them. The assailants are believed to repeatedly rape the women before murdering them.

It is no wonder the people of Bentalhah—and other stricken villages across Algeria—were not much in the mood for voting in local elections last week, the first in seven years. Officials claimed two-thirds of the 16 million eligible voters cast a ballot, but foreign journalists allowed briefly into the country gave the figure little credibility. Disenchantment with the electoral process was even greater this time than during two previous government exercises—the vote for President Liamine Zeroual in November, 1995, and for the lower house of parliament in June. “Me, vote? What for?” asked Algiers taxi driver Djamel Benyahiya angrily. “We all know the results beforehand and anyway, they’ll change nothing. I voted two years ago because Zeroual said there would be peace. But there isn’t. We were cheated.”

The strife has, in fact, worsened. The toll in five years of conflict— commonly by shootings and decapitations of civilians—has exceeded 100,000, according to human rights workers inside Algeria, making it among the bloodiest insurgencies now raging anywhere. The current wave of murders—as many as 1,000 since August alone— has led to a chorus of calls for international intervention. European governments have proposed mediation and investigation of abuses, and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has ordered a review of Washington’s long-standing policy of tacit support for the oil-rich country’s secular government. Like France, the United States fears the alternative to Zeroual: an Islamic regime that could turn into an Iranian-style haven for international terrorism. But the government’s failure to put down the insurgency is leading to a new assessment. ‘The truth is little has been achieved, few terrorists have been captured,” says Mohammed, a reporter who would not give his last name for fear of sharing the fate of 60 Algerian journalists who have been assassinated. (More journalists are murdered in Algeria than anywhere in the world, says the Committee to Protect Journalists.)

Predictably, President Zeroual’s supporters last week took the most seats in more than 1,500 councils and 48 provincial authorities. They in turn will elect 144 representatives to the upper house of parliament. But as conditions have deteriorated, people have grown to view true democracy as more remote than at any time since the military-backed government suspended a 1992 parliamentary election, fearing that Islamic parties would win. That sparked the civil war. “There was a window of hope in 1991, but now there is none,” said one man voting at a polling booth in central Algiers.

It is not just the ballot-rigging, voting irregularities and intimidation of opposition candidates—10 were assassinated during the most recent campaign. There is a growing sense that “The Power,” as the government is known, lacks either the ability or the will to end the violence.

Algiers’ official line is that all the killings are carried out by shadowy Islamic terrorist groups. But opposition politicians say the terror threat has become a handy catch-all for a corrupt government intent on perpetuating its repressive control— at any cost. “The regime’s aim is to consolidate its grip still further, while trying to improve its tarnished international image,” said Hussein Al-Ahmed, a spokesman for the secular, pro-democracy Front of Socialist Forces. “The regime does everything it can to snuff out peaceful opposition. Violence serves its ends.”

As the war has escalated, confusion has grown over just who is behind the carnage. Along with terrorism, there are also criminal attacks, personal and political vendettas, and bloody intrigues among the various militant rebels. Although it is virtually impossible to confirm, rumors have emerged that factions within the government itself—comprised mainly of the same generals who have been running Algeria since it gained independence from France in 1962—may be perpetrating some of the violence. Now, many Algerians say they simply do not know who is committing the massacres, and why. “You’re like an animal in a sack that is being attacked, but you can’t see where the blows are coming from,” says 21-year old Moustafa Bahri, an assistant in a variety store.

One thing is sure. Mass atrocities on the scale Algeria has been experiencing in recent years can no longer be pinned solely on the Islamist militants who took up arms after they were prevented from gaining power in 1992. In fact, the officially outlawed Front for Islamic Salvation, or FIS, declared a unilateral ceasefire on Oct. 1, leading the government to blame a spate of attacks since then on the more extremist Armed Islamic Group. There has been speculation that the stepped-up attacks prior to last week’s election may have been aimed at sabotaging secret negotiations between the FIS and the government. But the government has vehemently denied any such talks.

Some point to a more sinister trend of government complicity in the violence. Survivors of the Bentallah massacre described how army tanks stationed a mere 100 m from the village did nothing to stop the all-night attack. Similarly, in Sidi Rais 12 km to the south, the army waited three hours before taking action against a massacre there three weeks earlier. “We don’t say the regime was responsible, but it isn’t preventing the massacres,” says Samir Bouakir, another spokesman for the Frçnt of Socialist Forces. Army sources counter that the terrorists lay mines as they head into a village and ambush those who attempt to intervene.

Western diplomats dispute the notion that the Zeroual government is encouraging bloodshed. They cite the difficulty of rooting out Islamic rebels hiding across the second-largest country in Africa, most often in thickly wooded hills. Still, they say the government will continue to founder until it enters a dialogue with its Islamic rivals. “Attacks, massacres and further violence are inevitable without a real political initiative,” said one Western diplomat in Algiers. To produce such a breakthrough, opponents of the regime are begging the outside world to get involved. “The West cannot stand by—crimes are being committed against humanity,” said a senior secular opposition politician. “This is not an internal affair. We

must have impartial international involvement and an investigation of who is really responsible for the massacres.”

Such help may be a long time in coming. Foreign Minister Ahmed Attaf categorically rejected international intervention again last week, claiming the elections are further proof of the country’s ability to manage its own affairs. Last month, Algeria rebuffed UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s offer of mediation as “internal interference.” Not that foreign capitals are beating down the door to help. Already murky and complex, the conflict has been further obscured by the absence of foreign media coverage. At the same time, many diplomats in Algiers argue that undermining the government could lead to even greater chaos.

It is a logic that rings hollow in the ears of those left to carry on in places like Bentallah. Signs of last month’s massacre are still oppressively present: burned-out cars, bloodstains on walls, and weeping children. An old woman began to cry last week as she described arriving to take care of her grandchildren after three of her daughters were murdered. For her and tens of thousands who have lost their loved ones in the past two years, small steps towards democracy like last week’s municipal elections are small consolation indeed.