At first glance, the glistening city of Algiers, nestled on the Mediterranean, hardly seems like the centre of a vicious civil war and a potential base for international terrorism. Couples stroll along the city’s busy water-front. Mercedes-Benzes and beat-up Renaults jockey for position in the jarring flow of traffic. Women—some draped in veils, others wearing Western-style skirts—line up for fresh baguettes at the ubiquitous bakeries. But a closer look at the raucous street life of the Algerian capital quickly suggests that something is wrong here. Soldiers with Kalashnikov rifles slung over their shoulders guard almost every intersection. Cars arriving at the opulent Hotel El-Djazair are carefully inspected by security guards who make sure that no bombs are hidden underneath. And the Casbah, the magical old city whose labyrinths confounded French troops during Algeria’s independence struggle, has been sealed off as a terrorist stronghold.
For five years—ever since the military regime cancelled legislative elections that a fundamentalist party, the Islamic Salvation Front, was poised to win—Algeria has been in chaos. A brutal conflict between security forces and armed extremists has left civilians the main victims. Women have had their throats slit; children have been decapitated, sometimes with chainsaws. By foreign estimates more than 60,000 people have died, and the violence has surged this year amid tensions over parliamentary elections held in early June. “In Algeria, anything can happen at any time,” says one university teacher, nervously looking over his shoulder. “Ordinary citizens can get killed either by the government or by armed groups.”
More than 400,000 Algerians have legally fled their country, according to government estimates. France is the most common destination for the French-speaking migrants, although Canada has taken nearly 5,000 since 1992. Inside wealthy Algiers, security forces maintain almost complete control. But in the squalid suburbs surrounding the capital, armed extremists—vowing to crush the regime—find plenty of support among the unemployed youth loitering on every street corner. These young men harbor intense hatred for “the Power,” the supreme security apparatus that is controlled by a tight-knit group of generals who run Algeria from behind the scenes. “There is a monumental sense of injustice,” says one Western diplomat.
Further into the countryside—in the “Tri-
angle of Death,” the vast Mitidja plain located directly south of Algiers—fertile orange plantations stretch all the way to the northern Atlas mountains. Heavily armed “patriots,” part of the 200,000-strong militia supported by the army, stand guard on top of bombed-out buildings, while barefoot kids play soccer below. Soldiers patrolling the deceptively sleepy communities have standing orders to shoot “anything suspicious.” In the small town of Bougara, about 30 km south of Algiers, Said Berkhouss, 34, describes how an armed gang recently attacked his isolated farming commune, killing more than 120 people, including his mother, two sisters and pregnant wife. He says the 100 or so assailants arrived on horseback, quickly circled the village and threw explosives into homes. Then the killing began. “They yelled to each other, ‘Don’t let anybody go, we must kill everybody,’ ” Berkhouss recounts. Most villagers were methodically slaughtered with a slash to their throats.
Diplomats and human rights observers in
Algeria say it is almost impossible to determine who is behind such raids. The Armed Islamic Group, or GIA by its French initials, has been mounting a fierce insurgency and has claimed responsibility for many attacks like the one in Bougara. But numerous GIA leaders have been killed by security forces, and much of the group’s weapons supply has been cut. Diplomats say that recent attacks may be the work of rival gangs, sometimes killing for killing’s sake.
The government maintains the attacks are just acts of desperation, that organized terrorism has been defeated. The regime has arrested and killed thousands of suspected terrorists in the past five years, all part of a strategy aimed at erasing Islamic radicalism. But while diplomats agree that the chances of Islamists taking over by force are slim, the ongoing attacks have also exposed the impotence of the military regime in containing random acts of violence.
Security forces prevent journalists from immediately visiting massacre sites, fuelling speculation as to what is really going on in the countryside. Algerian newspapers are not allowed to print “security-related” information, and special government “reading committees” inspect every story before it goes to press. Newspapers that criticize the government are roudecapitated finely shut down.
The GIA and other fundamentalist groups have targeted political and religious figures, businessmen and teachers, virtually anyone they say “represents the state.” And the GIA has vowed that “those who fight by the pen shall die by the sword.” Since 1992, more reporters have been killed in Algeria than in any other place in the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. The newspeople are often targeted on their way to and from Maison de la Presse, a fortified compound in downtown Algiers that houses the majority of the country’s main newspapers. “We know that we are being watched at all times,” says Omar Belhouchet, the soft-spoken editor of Algeria’s largest daily, El Watan, which has offices in Maison de la Presse. Three years ago, Belhouchet’s 32-year-old wife died of a heart attack, induced, he says, by the emotional exhaustion of being married to a journalist. Belhouchet himself has been attacked twice. In 1994, a man shot at his car just after he dropped his daughter off at school. “She still has nightmares about a man dressed in black, shooting at her dad,” he says.
Most of Algeria’s 29 million people live in poverty, while the rulers shuttle in and out of the country on shopping trips to Paris and Rome. According to diplomats and other observers, all major business transactions in Algeria have to be approved by the generals, who receive healthy cuts from each deal. “The regime has mismanaged the country,” says Mahfoud Bennoune, a retired political science professor who now lives in an attractive government security compound on the outskirts of Algiers. He says the people who voted for the Islamic Salvation Front, the fundamentalist party that gained massive popular support in the early 1990s, sought to exact revenge on a government that it held responsible for 30 years of corruption and mismanagement.
With massive natural resources, Algeria s economic performance should be better. In the past two years, the country has topped the list for most new oil finds in the world, and it is one of the largest exporters of natural gas. International consortiums have invested heavily, despite the political turmoil.
International governments, on the other hand, have remained reluctant to get involved in the war. The United States has ceded the issue to France, Algeria’s former colonial ruler. But the French, who have seen Algerian terrorism exported to their soil with bombings in the Paris metro system, have called the conflict a problem for Algerians to resolve themselves. Most observers say that both countries, worried that Algeria will become an international base for terrorism, have quietly sided with the repressive regime.
The leadership has slowly gained some legitimacy in its attempt to erase the memory of the 1992 coup. President Liamine Zeroual, widely considered to be a figurehead, was voted into office in 1995. The Islamic Salvation Front has been banned, and with the parliamentary elections on June 5, the government solidified its hold on the state apparatus. The results gave the newly created, pro-government National Democratic Rally a substantial lead with 155 seats out of 380, although both Algerian opposition parties and some international observers accused the government of vote-rigging. But regardless of the outcome, rules restricting the legislature’s role assured that real power would remain with the military regime.
Zeroual has portrayed the elections as a step towards ending the country’s long crisis. But among ordinary Algerians, resignation seems to have set in. “My motto is: forget yesterday, live today, don t think about tomorrow,” says the university teacher. For tomorrow, as he is well aware, may bring new violence—sudden, random and often too terrible to imagine.
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