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Amid Algeria's Massacres: Conquering Fear to Help Children

EU met yesterday to debate how to intervene. In Algeria, activists help victims overcome trauma.

A surge of violence in Algeria was not unexpected. The Muslim holy month of Ramadan has always been considered an auspicious time for jihad, or holy war. This time, extremists have killed some 600 civilians in just 10 days.

But less predictable are the new grass-roots Algerian efforts to rise above the violence. Almost hidden beneath the layers of alarming headlines and horrific tales of barbarism is an Algerian effort to cope with the trauma of the atrocities.

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For child survivors - many of whom have witnessed their family or friends massacred - the challenge is particularly acute.

"We are trying to preserve the 'family,' to prevent a breakdown," says Fatima-Zohra Karadja, a psychologist who runs a center for traumatized children in the capital, Algiers.

Speaking during a recent interview in Algiers, she said: "We know there is an SOS call from children, and we must help them now, immediately. We see a resilience, especially with kids."

Algeria is the latest, if highly delayed, example of a post-cold-war phenomenon: the world weighing its responsibility for dealing with internal conflicts that impact civilian populations.

In former war zones from Angola to Bosnia to Cambodia, children have lost their homes or families in the past decade, United Nations experts say. More than 1.5 million have been killed and 5 million maimed - a worldwide tragedy some Algerians are trying to stem in their own country.

Still, Algerian authorities have been slow to recognize the need for such efforts - and have rejected all calls from outsiders for either political or humanitarian aid. They say the latest massacres are the "last gasp" of terrorist insurgents trying to overthrow the government.

Algerian newspapers urged President Liamine Zeroual to act to prevent more attacks and warned this week that the country was "facing the genocide of its own people."

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But Mrs. Karadja and others spend much of their time trying to persuade the Ministry of Health to approve and support projects such as hers.

Citing the risks of working in Algeria - where some 65,000 people have died in six years of violence - almost no international relief organizations are stationed there. Even the International Committee of the Red Cross in Geneva, which worked in Rwanda throughout the 1994 genocide, says the nature of the current conflict makes useful work almost impossible.

The unrest began in early 1992, when the military-backed government annulled democratic elections that the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front party was about to win. Thousands of Islamists were rounded up and held in Sahara camps, and violent underground resistance against military and government targets began.

Since then, moderate Islamic voices have given way to militants of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which exclusively targets civilians, has massacred entire villages, and was behind a series of bombs and attacks in the capital that killed 400 during Ramadan last year.

Security forces, in turn, have also been responsible for widespread human rights abuses, thousands of disappearances, and were accused of secret involvement in some attacks.

Authorities reject American and European calls for dialogue as "meddling" in Algeria's internal affairs, though in Brussels yesterday, Britain sought to persuade EU nations to send a fact-finding mission to Algeria.

German Foreign Minister Klaus Kinkel on Sunday said the West can't remain "silent and impotent" in the face of "fanatical acts," and called upon the government "to seek dialogue with all acceptable Islamist forces."

Short on solutions

Western efforts so far, though, have been short on creative solutions and long on rhetorical disgust. As the casualties of Ramadan mount - including a massacre last week of as many as 412 people in the Relizane region, 150 miles southwest of Algiers - the impression has grown outside that security forces could prevent such attacks if they wanted to.

The atrocities have always been a dilemma for the government. On one hand, the violence justifies a continued iron-grip rule; on the other, they illustrate the limits of Algeria's all-pervasive security and military apparatus.

But for ordinary people like psychologist Karadja, who heads the National Association for the Support of Children in Difficulty, such high-level musings mean that the only way to really help is one-on-one. For her, Algeria's conflict boils down to cases like that of one boy in Bouinam, a village south of Algiers in an area called the "triangle of death."

This little boy, or petit garon - the only name she will give for him - was the sole survivor among 11 school children when their bus was attacked by gunmen in September.

Children traumatized by war, when asked to draw, often create disturbing images in black crayon of people with guns shooting at others, or killing with machetes. Many of them have been forced to fight themselves. Boys as young as 7 in Mozambique were trained to assassinate their own relatives.

Violent images drawn on paper are considered therapeutic by trauma specialists. But this little boy from Bouinam, Karadja says, drew trees and flowers - a sure sign that he needed undivided attention.

"He never talks about what happened, or draws anything about the massacre," she says. "But he is living with something incredible and tough.... He is always tense and wakes up every night and is terrified."

Boys like him are taken care of at Karadja's center, which also deals with the growing problem of young women who have been abducted and raped by the militants. The need for such work became clear to Karadja in December 1994, during the highjacking of an airplane in which her daughter and sister were on board.

"They lived through this 54 hours of terror, and afterwards I thought: How are they going to be able to live with that?" says Karadja. "So I observed them, and we did everything we could to help."

Overcoming fear

Now, she says, her work with children is often uplifting and positive. She knows that something is being done to make the return to normal life, when it comes, more easy, and is not put off by the widespread pessimism that often greets mention of the word "Algeria" both inside and outside the country.

"It's not impossible, we don't give up, and we still live here. We don't want to leave Algeria," she says. "We have overcome our fear and are working. They [GIA militants] threaten people who send their kids to school, but schools are open. And whenever there is a massacre, people line up at blood banks to give blood. It wasn't this way before."

For Karadja, one of the most striking examples of care came during a car bomb that exploded last year. A woman was screaming the name of her son to see if he was among the wreckage, but she stopped and saw another child crying. She picked him up and - before she knew if her own son was dead or not - comforted him.

"This was magnificent, marvelous," she adds. "People often say that death has become trivial in Algeria, but it is not. We still do the ritual for each death, and this is very important for every survivor. It shows that the horror, the terror, can never win.

"Everything is possible if we believe we can do it. Love and life are still here - the love of living still exists."

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