Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Algeria's Real War: Ending the Cycle of Violence

One boy's tale offers a look at the brutal clash between Islamic terror and an Arab regime

Every day the boy walks half a mile across valley farmland.

He never wants to forget what happened here.

About these ads

Abdurahim Menaour looks like any 12-year-old Algerian farm boy, with dusty hair and worn shoes. But with a face empty of emotion, he tells a visiting reporter about an attack last month by Islamic extremists that killed his mother and two siblings.

His hamlet lies in the heart of the so-called "triangle of death," a zone south of Algeria's capital that is the most gruesome battleground between Islamic militants and their opponents.

Abdurahim's tragedy is a study in the extreme brutality and terror waged for five years between armed Islamists and government forces. A cycle of violence drives a civil war that has riven this North African country - the size of Alaska, California, and Texas combined - leaving 60,000 dead and Europe and America worried about possible spillover of refugees or Islamic extremism.

The war that came to Abdurahim's hamlet began in 1992 when the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) appeared to be winning a national election called by Algeria's military-led government. Fearing that the FIS would impose an Islamic state, the government annulled the election, forcing Islamic extremists to wage guerrilla warfare that targets officials and soldiers, journalists and teachers alike. Civilians not choosing sides can easily be made victims. Western journalists rarely visit Algeria, and if they do, are seldom able to visit the front line.

Here 34 people were killed on the night of May 14. Following the typical pattern, the masked attackers came late at night, armed with knives and axes. They killed for two hours, Abdurahim recalls. He hid in a closet, hearing the screams of the victims and their murderers.

"They were blaspheming God," he says matter-of-factly.

When he dared to open the closet door again, he found a grisly scene: His mother and two of his siblings were among the bodies. "They cut off their heads," he says, his voice catching at the memory.

About these ads

The military-backed government insisted last year that only "residual terrorism" remained in Algeria. In January, President Liamine Zeroual vowed to "finally eradicate ... the bands of criminals, traitors, and mercenaries manipulated by external circles who are using savagery to serve foreign interests."

But a tour of the "triangle of death" requested by Western journalists requires movement in a bulletproof armored vehicle, in convoy with three others packed with rifle-toting soldiers.

Though by all accounts the situation has improved since 1994 and 1995, it is clear that the killing continues by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and other extremists. During the "holy" month of Ramadan in January, more than 350 people were killed by car bombs and attacks in Algiers alone. Bombs are often packed with nails and razor blades to maximize carnage.

Use of terror may backfire

But even Algerians sympathetic with some goals of the FIS have lately shown signs that they are weary of the violence and are no longer willing to support it.

The West is hopeful that such a turning tide of public opinion will at least temper the conflict.

In elections early this month, two moderate Islamic parties were allowed to participate, with the military government clearly hoping that this would undermine support for the FIS and more hard-line Islamic groups. Despite opposition allegations of fraud, newly elected deputies will take their seats in the new parliament.

Aside from obvious humanitarian concerns, Western observers point to Algeria's vast natural gas reserves and its potential as a launching pad for terrorism in Europe as reasons to want political stability.

For now, evidence of the fighting is all around. The neat single-file rows of pine trees that divided the fertile Mitidja plain into plots during the French colonial era are sometimes cut down today to give a wider field of view and to prevent ambushes of security forces.

Stumps still burn beside the road, their acrid smoke lending immediacy to the violence. This triangle sits in the shadow of a low mountain range to the south, where Islamist rebels keep their hideouts.

Several "wanted" posters are plastered upon police station walls, offering rewards of nearly $1 million for top Islamist "terrorists," also known as barbus, the "bearded ones."

Caught in a cross-fire

The promise once daubed in victims' blood in the countryside - "Blood, blood; Destruction, destruction" - still applies to the stated GIA aim of toppling the military regime and installing an Islamic government.

The violence is not as random as it first appears. Though car bombs in Algiers kill indiscriminately, officials, security agents, politicians, journalists, and members of rival families have been targeted. In rural areas, hamlets that have sons in the "patriot" self-defense groups or army are victimized.

Most Islamic scholars note that killing is forbidden by the Koran. They caution that any so-called "Islamic" zeal for the slaughter may have another source. There are rumors that local authorities may be responsible for some attacks, hoping to push people off the richest farmland.

Others say that villagers are often "punished" for not secretly supporting the rebels enough. This Haouche Fanir massacre was carried out when the people had nothing left to give. They refused to give their dinner, says one local journalist, and they were killed.

Patriot units armed by the regime now keep guard with double-barreled shotguns and hunting rifles. Two of them are Abdurahim's brothers, based at a nearby patriot camp.

Despite government denials, human rights groups say that security forces and the patriot militias are also responsible for abuses and killings.

"Many Algerians do not understand who is being targeted or by whom," notes a recent report by Human Rights Watch. "The identity of those carrying out the violence is difficult to establish, as the security forces and the armed groups often conduct themselves in similar ways: The former often wear civilian clothes and do not identify themselves, while the latter sometimes disguise themselves as security forces...."

In 1994 and 1995, the rebels who ransacked villages would stay all night killing and looting. A saying went that there was a "government by day and an [Islamist] government by night."

Now attacks rarely last more than a couple of hours, though they often occur within a stone's throw of police stations or militia camps - a fact that has puzzled observers.

"Repression works," says a Western diplomat. But such a tough response may only provide a short-term solution that ultimately feeds the cycle of violence.

The FIS is now outlawed, and its leaders in prison or exile, but it says it wants dialogue with the regime. The GIA and other extreme groups, however - which are constantly feuding among themselves - reject any contact with the authorities. They have killed FIS officials as heretics along with less-Islamic targets.

A ranch complex on the outskirts of nearby Bougara was the site April 21 of one of the worst massacres yet recorded. Security sources say the death toll has so far reached 109.

The cluster of farmhouses is now empty - their metal doors were said to be blown open with exploding butane canisters - but graffiti marks one wall: "Terrorists are wild dogs."

For Algerian journalists, many of whom are close to the regime, the ferocity of attacks since November, when a new Constitution gave the president sweeping powers, is a sign of rebel desperation.

A cycle of revenge

"The GIA is like a hunted animal, when he is sure that he will die," says Salima Tlemamci, a reporter for the El-Watan newspaper. "It is doing crazy, final things like directly charging the hunter."

The bloodshed has reached a point at which some say that dialogue is no longer possible.

"Can you discuss with these people who are killing children?" she asks. "What do you do in the United States when someone is killing children? You kill them. It is the same in Algeria. Do you think we can live with these people?"

The question is especially poignant in the Haouche Fanir hamlet, which barely exists anymore, and where Abdurahim's emotions have yet to register the loss of his family.

Each day when he comes here, Abdurahim dreams of joining the patriots. But for his two surviving brothers, who are both militiamen, that seed of revenge is already growing - pointing to a cycle of violence that will be difficult to break.

"If I kill 1,000 terrorists, it won't be enough for my one brother," says a brother named Arabah, cradling a gun and wearing a clear-plastic waist pouch stuffed with colorful shotgun shells. "Do I look for revenge? Of course," he says. "Of course."

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.