The tragedy of Algeria's 'disappeared'

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 Algiers

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 Algeria's anti-colonialism conference of the 6,000 men and women who died under torture at the hands of the Algerian police and army and hooded security men in the 1990s. For across at Sidi Fredj – yes, just up the coast where the French landed in 1830 – le pouvoir was parading a clutch of ancient ex-presidents from the mystical lands of the anti-colonial struggle, to remind us of Algeria's primary role in the battle against world imperialism. There was old Ahmed Ben Bella – more white-haired skeleton than Algeria's first leader, coup-ed out of power in 1965 (although they didn't mention that). There was poor old Dr Kenneth Kaunda, who mercilessly tried to sing a song under the wondrous eyes of Thabo Mbeki. And then there were the Vietnamese whose victory at Dien Bien Phu taught the FLN (National Liberation Front) that they could beat the French here, which they did in 1962 at a cost of, say, one and a half million "martyrs".

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 Algeria's "National Tragedy", as if the government's suspension of elections and the brutal, family-slaughtering, throat-cutting war with the savage Islamists of the Armed Islamic Group, the GIA, was a Shakespearean play, Othello perhaps, or Hamlet in which, I suppose, Ben Bella stares at his own skull. More like Titus Andronicus, if you ask me.

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 Algiers for several days, in places a foreigner would not have survived 16 years ago. In the Casbah, I visited the spot where poor Olivier Quemener, a French television journalist whose camera sticks I had carried the previous day, was shot dead by bearded "Islamists" in 1994, his reporter colleague found lying wounded beside him, weeping over his dead friend. Compared with all the civilians beheaded and raped by the GIA outside Algiers, I suppose Quemener was spared the very worst. As for the tough old cops of the 1990s who used to blast water through men's throats until their stomachs burst, most must be dead themselves, a few en retrait, as they say.

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 Algeria, they have a phrase for these arguments. They call it "heating up old soup".

And so art comes to the rescue of memory. There is a spring of new books being published in Algeria, novels of great richness and beauty and sadness, the only way authors can confront those mass graves of the 1990s. A veiled woman in a bright new Algiers bookshop advises me to buy two of them. In Amin Zaoui's Bed of the Impure Virgin, old florist Momou – plying his trade, yes, on the same Didouche Mourad St – laments the 1973 murder of his old poet friend Jean Sénac. Believing that he will portray Senac in a movie, Momou – he loves only Algiers, flowers, wine and poetry – slowly goes mad, reciting Senac's verse in the streets and tea-shops, ending in a small city courtyard beneath a tree where he quotes night and day the words of Senac, a real anarchist and poet and friend (yes, again!) of that old phantom Ben Bella who made his return from the grave last week. But the courtyard is used for prayers by the Islamists of the 1990s and because Senac was a "homo" (their words) and because this is against Islam and because Momou might have been Senac's lover, they string up the crazy florist from the tree, and his body hangs there for three days and three nights as the bearded men say their dawn prayers beneath his corpse. Do I smell Camus here?

And then there's Adlène Meddi's novel of Algiers today in which two old soldiers (graduates of Algeria's Cherchell Military College) reminisce of the 1990s and one of them tells the other of a nightmare experience. In the Arab world, novels are often fiction dusted with truth. In Algeria, they are truth cloaked in fiction. Read then with appropriate horror Meddi's description of the fate of an Algerian army commandant, Djaafar Rahb, commander of the 2nd Armored Division at Tlegema, who deserts to the "terrorists" and is caught and tied to a tree. The army commander arrives from Constantine by helicopter, the soldiers are lined up, the man's wife and two children are brought to the scene and the soldiers pour petrol on Rahb and set him on fire, the cadets vomiting at the stench of carbonised flesh.

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 "France" mentioned at the Sidi Fredj conference. It cannot be, for while delegates were trucked off to the concrete ghastliness of the 1954-62 "Martyr's Monument" to the anti-French war of independence, another little journey – by a certain Abdelaziz Belkhadem, special representative to President Bouteflika, who couldn't quite make it to the conference – said a lot more about modern Algeria.

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 Algiers, Monseigneur Henri Teissier, he who received the phone call on 21 May 1996 that the seven monks of Tibherine – now immortalised on film – had been decapitated? "Three of their heads were hanging from a tree near a petrol station," he told me then. "The other four heads were lying on the grass beneath." Now the French suspect the Algerian army tried to free the monks from their GIA captors, killed them by mistake and covered up their disaster by burying the bullet-riddled bodies and leaving their heads behind as another GIA "crime".

The next Catholic edifice to be dusted off will be the basilica of Saint Augustine at Annaba. For, like it or not, the French have fallen in love with Algeria again – and the Algerians have fallen in love with the profits of a new relationship with France. Former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin has just been here to support long-term industrial projects – a new Renault factory is soon to open on the outskirts of Algiers – and Claude Guéant has been chatting up President Bouteflika on behalf of Nicolas Sarkozy. And, now that France can join in the famous "struggle against terror", ex-General Christian Quesnot has been visiting, while the Élysée has been busily handing over maps of French colonial minefields to the Algerian army. French and Algerian chiefs of staff regularly talk on the phone. Can this new affair last? In Blida, the ancient guerrilla fighters are trying to persuade the mayor to rename local streets after the seven Algerians killed by French troops in a July 1961 anti-French demonstration. Other guardians of the war – the one before the "National Tragedy", of course – have been moving the grisly old French guillotine to the Tlemcen museum so that "the youth of Algeria realise that their independence came not as a gift but at a price". In his last interview, the surviving French servant of this infernal machine explained the importance of speed when decapitating Algerians – for if the victim struggled, the blade might not cut his neck and it would be necessary to finish the job with a knife.

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 Iraq, of course. And in Afghanistan today. And throughout the "National Tragedy". Only "terrorists", mark you. The army is rumoured to have killed Abdelmalek Droukdel (alias Abu Mousaab Abdelouadoud), al-Qa'ida's top man in Algeria, and thus, according to the daily Liberte, "the operation ... constitutes a turning-point in the anti-terrorist struggle". But we've heard all this before too, after the government killed the "monster" Antan Zouabia and after they shot Droukdel's predecessor Nabil Sahrawi. No "embeds" with the Algerian army of course.

And if rumour is correct, there's every good reason for this: because US Special Forces officers from their camp near Tamanrasset are said to be "observing" the Kabyle operation. Why not? After all, only last week Washington's top military commander in the region, US Africa Command General David Hogg, was showering praises on the Algerian security services for their "impressive progress and leadership" in fighting "terrorism". He wants more co-ordination with neighbouring Arab states – which is why Tunisia's top intelligence spook, one of Tunisian dictator Ben Ali's most trusted acolytes, turned up to talk to his Algerian opposite number this week.

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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