Middle East: Conscript tells of Algeria's torture chambers

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The Independent Online
Reda, a conscript in the Algerian army, says he felt no emotion as he murdered a man at his checkpoint earlier this year. But watching men tortured with an electric drill left him distraught. Only when guerrillas recognised him, he reveals, did he decide to seek asylum in Britain.

"They gave us vaccinations in our backs and then told us to inject each other before we went out on sorties. It was an off-white liquid which we injected into each other's arms. ... It made us feel like Rambo ... We were on a road-block, stopping anyone we suspected of being a terrorist. If a man had a face like a terrorist, if he had a big beard, he was shot. There was a man with a beard walking by the petrol station. I told him to stop. He said 'Why should I stop?' "

Reda was in London now, but his memory was on a road 20 miles from Algiers. He had been on military service, part of a commando unit outside Blida. "The man was rude, so I killed him. It's like I was dreaming and it wasn't me. I didn't remember it till my friends told me ... The bullets hit him in the chest. When he died, he cried: 'There is only one God but God.' I hope God will forgive me and that all humanity will forgive me."

Knightsbridge may be an odd place to seek forgiveness but from time to time Reda wept - for the killings, for the torture he witnessed, for the soldiers he believes were murdered by his own army. He began his military service in the town of Skikda, then moved to Biskra for weapon training. "We were told that all people were against us. We were taught how to recognise terrorists - by their beards and khamis robes, their Islamic clothes."

On 12 May this year Reda was flown to Blida, south of Algiers, for active service in the anti-guerrilla war. On his first sortie into the village of Sidi Moussa on 27 May, he and his comrades ordered families from their homes and while searching their houses he says they stole all the money and gold they could find. Reda says the soldiers beat the people with rifles and then took 16 male villagers away for torture. "There was an underground room at the Blida caserne called the katellah - the "killing room" - and the prisoners were all given names by the interrogators, names like Zitouni. The men were bound and stripped and tied to a chair and hosed with cold water. Two soldiers stood in front of each prisoner and asked questions. Then they started with the electric drill."

Reda fidgets with his hands as he tells his awful story. The drills were used on the prisoners' legs. Reda says he saw one army torturer drill open a man's stomach. It lasted four hours with each prisoner - if they lived, they were released after a week. At one point in his story, Reda asks his younger brother to leave the room; he doesn't want his family to know what else he has seen. "There was a cable about two inches in diameter and they put it in the ears or anus of the prisoners. Then they threw water at them. Two of the men began cursing us ... And the torturer would shout 'Yarabak - God damn you - so much for your God.' The torture went on 24 hours a day. I was only a conscript. I watched but I didn't take part."

Three men died during the torture session, Reda says. The soldiers told their families they would have to give them 50,000 dinars (pounds 300) if they wanted the bodies. "The women scratched their faces (in grief) and we said the men had died of heart attacks but they didn't believe us. The coffins were sealed. They knew we'd killed them."

In June, Reda was asked to participate in a protection force around the same village during a raid by regular troops. "We had to go in if there were flares sent up - but there were no flares and we went home after two hours. Next day ... we heard that in this same village a massacre had taken place and 28 villagers had been beheaded. And that made us start thinking about who did it. I started to think that our people had been the killers."

Two days later, Reda says, he and fellow conscripts were cleaning the barracks and searching the clothes of regular troops for cigarettes when they found a false beard and musk, a perfume worn by devout Muslims. "We asked ourselves, what were the soldiers doing with this beard?" Reda concluded that this army unit may have carried out the Sidi Moussa massacre but his alarm worsened when 26 of his fellow conscripts were driven off to another barracks at Chrea. "They later brought all their bodies back to us and said that they had been killed in an ambush but I am sure they were executed because they weren't trusted any more. There had been no wounded in the 'ambush'. Maybe they talked too much. All our soldiers knew these men had been eliminated - because earlier, before they were taken away, we were told not to talk to them."

The end of Reda's military career was not heroic. His teeth were kicked out by colleagues, he says, and he was imprisoned for a week after he was seen giving bread to prisoners. Then, ambushed while on roadblock duty on the edge of Blida, he was recognised by two armed Islamists. "They were friends of mine and they saw me in my paratroop uniform and my green beret. One of them shouted at me: 'There is plenty of time left in the year to get you. Take care of yourself and your wife and child.' I and three of the other conscripts ran away with the help of locals who gave us civilian clothes. Now I am a deserter and I am between two fires - between the terrorists and the government."

Reda turned up at Heathrow a few weeks later, pleading for protection. The Algerian authorities claim they know him - and that he fabricated his story of military atrocities to gain asylum in Britain. But why would Reda seek asylum in Britain in the first place, along with dozens of other members of the Algerian security services? Reda's last news from Algeria speaks for itself: eight relatives in the suburb of Boufarik - not far from Blida - have had their throats cut.

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