The tragedy of
's 'disappeared' Algeria
The Algerian government is trumpeting the revolution that put an end to French colonial rule half a century ago. But what followed left its own deep scars, writes Robert Fisk in
Monday, 20 December 2010
They are all over the wall of Naseera Dutour's office, in their hundreds, in their thousands. There are cemeteries of them, bearded, clean shaven, the youth and the elderly of Algeria, veiled women, a smiling girl with a ribbon in her hair, in colour for the most part; the bloodbath of the 1990s was a post-technicolor age so the blood came bright red and soaked right through the great revolution that finally conquered French colonial power.
There's a powerful irony that Naseera's cramped offices – "SOS Disparu", it's called, in conscious imitation of the searches for the "disappeared" of Chile and Argentina – should be on the ground floor of an old pied noir apartment, beyond a carved wooden door and patterned tiles, at No.3 rue Ghar Djebilet, just off Didouch Mourad St. Didouch, too, was a martyr – of the first revolution, the one we were supposed to remember in Algiers this month – rather than all those faces on Naseera's walls. For Naseera, too, has a martyr to mourn.
No talk at
In theory, this was all staged to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the UN General Assembly's Resolution 1514, which demanded the right of independence to all colonised people (special emphasis in Algiers, of course, on the Palestinians and the Sahrawi refugees). But the real reason le pouvoir – "the authorities" – gathered these elderly ex-presidents in Algeria was to build a new foundation – wood or concrete I haven't yet decided – over the mass graves of the 250,000 "martyrs" of another conflict, the barbarous civil war of 1990-98, if indeed it has yet ended. Le pouvoir has invented a wonderful new expression for this bloodbath. It's called
Naseera Dutour's brave little team of girl volunteers tap away on their laptops, listing yet more families who seek the remains of those victims of the security forces for whom all hope is gone. The cops drop by the office from time to time for a spot of harassment, but they have no need to worry. Amina Beuslimane, a pretty 28-year-old civil servant, supposedly taking snapshots of cemeteries and blown-up buildings – perhaps for evidence of government crimes – was arrested by security police on 13 December 1994. Her family were told they would not see her again and she apparently ended up in the special interrogation and rape centre at the Chateauneuf barracks. The butchers of Chateauneuf can relax, however, because a post-war referendum that granted an amnesty to the "Islamists" also purged the security forces of their crimes. And besides, Amina's mum died a few days ago, so there's one less memory to worry about.
I walked through the laneways of
And some of the rapists from Chateauneuf, who knows, through trails of promotion, may have been guarding the equally old conference delegates at Sidi Fredj. And by the way, Jacques Vergès was there, he whose wife was so cruelly treated by the French and who defended the Nazi butcher Klaus Barbie. Ironies pile up here like old bones. And yes, the government won the civil war, didn't they, and anyway who would have wanted the bearded Islamic Salvation Front to have ruled back in the 1990s, imposing sharia law and veiling women and murdering every opponent and, besides, is not the pouvoir the real inheritor of the old National Liberation Front, the FLN? In
And so art comes to the rescue of memory. There is a spring of new books being published in
And then there's Adlène Meddi's novel of
What lies behind such writing? Meddi's hero is Sjo, a retired cop who goes back to work to pay off his debts and starts a murder enquiry that brings back all the ghosts of the 1990s. His journalist friend Ras, still mourning his professional colleagues who had their throats slit by the GIA, walks with him down an Algiers street, still fearful of the past. "Ras walked like Djo. One eye in front, the other behind his head... Followed by death for years, he had developed a strong sense of prudence and impending disaster. Everything leaves its traces..."
And that is exactly how le pouvoir feels and acts today, one confident eye to the future, one terrified eye to the past, acting with prudence and with fear that the nightmares of the 1990s may yet return. The earlier, great anti-colonial struggle of which all Algerian delegates spoke was fought against the French. Yet not once was the word "
Having stunned delegates with a speech of mind-numbing boredom ("undeniable progress after the heavy burdens of the colonial era", etc, etc), he sped off to the gaunt sepulchre of the newly restored French cathedral of Our Lady of Africa, consecrated at the height of French power in 1872, which still towers gloomily over the city of Algiers. Desecrated by Islamists, broken by a more recent earthquake, the whole place, once a symbol of French Catholic domination of Muslim Algeria, has been magnificently patched up and re-painted and re-tiled at a cost of more than £4m by the European Union, the French Embassy and numerous Algerian benefactors – and reopened, heritage-style, as a monument to coexistence. And there the man who had just condemned the heavy burdens of colonialism stood with the French to commemorate this great church – and refused to read his speech.
Because, for so it was hinted, he didn't think the French had given the Algerians enough credit for the restoration? Or because he was standing next to another ghost, the brave ex-archbishop of
The next Catholic edifice to be dusted off will be the basilica of
And all the while, the guns can be heard from Tizi Ouzou. Yes, sure enough, the Islamists are still out there, the GIA having long ago morphed into "al-Qa'ida in the Maghreb", currently fighting off a division of Algerian troops beyond the Berber capital, subject to a rattisage of armoured vehicles and helicopter attacks, the villages marooned without food and with all local mobile phones shut down by the government. "Twelve terrorists killed", a headline reads in Al-Moujahed.
And where have we heard that before? Why, in
And if rumour is correct, there's every good reason for this
And what, I asked Naseera Dutour, did she think when she heard US officers praising the security services who tortured and killed so many Algerians during the civil war? She pulls out an old photograph of her 21-year old son Amin, kidnapped on 31 January 1997 (he would be 35 today), never seen again, and holds it to her bosom like a shield. She speaks in French but only one word escapes her lips, loudly and with great emotion. "Scandale!"
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"The master class has always declared the wars; the subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and everything to lose--especially their lives." Eugene Victor Debs