A nation once left for dead is trying to blow its own brains out

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IT WAS WH Auden who wrote it, but now it has become a saying: "Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in their turn." Cruelty turns out so often to be the echo of older cruelty. The child abuser grows up to abuse children; the victim of racism shoulders others off the pavement. But today in Algeria, that irony has a new dimension. A nation mugged and left for brain-dead 30 years ago is now trying to blow its own brains out.

Day after day in the Independent last week, I have been reading Robert Fisk's terrible reportage from Algeria. It took high courage to go and work there, as the figures for dead journalists testify. But Bob Fisk also showed guts in his search for impartiality in a land so desperately polarised by fear and suffering. He finds the gunmen of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), slaughtering with bomb and bullet, mad and calamitous. But calamitous, too, is the government which aborted the elections three years ago because the FIS was winning, and installed a counter-terrorist dictatorship instead.

On Wednesday, Fisk tagged on to his story the Algerian government's breakdown of those killed in 1994. The total was 6,388 - not including civilians slain by the security forces. But it was not the total, awful as it is, which made my hair rise. It was the selection - the sort of people the Islamist gunmen are killing. White-collar workers: 2,207 (the biggest single group); school teachers: 101; "liberal professions": 670; civil servants: 689; journalists: 21; businessmen: 350 ... Yes, I had been there before.

When you see figures like those, you know what is going on. Somebody is trying to turn a society into a vegetable, by destroying its brains. When I was in Algiers, over 30 years ago, it was the OAS, the French terrorist group, which was doing this to the Algerians. But today they are doing it to themselves.

In March 1962, the French agreed to a cease-fire after an eight-year war which had cost a million lives. But the OAS (Organisation Arme Secrte), based on French settlers and ultra-right rebels within the French army, fought on. General Salan, the OAS leader, spelt out its aims in a communiqu: "... to destroy the best Muslim elements in the liberal professions". In February 1962, there were 553 killings, by French or Muslim terrorists. At times, there were between 30 and 40 murders a day in Algiers itself. In its attempt to blow Algeria's brains out, to leave a country so stripped of qualified people that it would be incapable of governing itself, the OAS included quite humble crafts. One Thursday they killed postmen. On Friday, it was pharmacists - I remember the broken mirrors and the bloody counters along the Rue Michelet. On Saturday, it was the tram and train- drivers, and later the turn came for the electricity and gas repairmen, then the hairdressers, then the doctors. An unspeakable day came when the elegant, silly strelitzia blooms nodded their heads over dead flower- sellers lying on the pavement.

In early March, they started kidnapping foreign journalists from our hotel. Then the OAS detonated over 120 bombs in a single night in central Algiers. My windows blew open, knocking over the silver wine-bucket in which I kept a strelitzia of my own - "Bird of Paradise Flower" - and the room was full of the wails of hundreds of women, the barking of thousands of dogs, between the pulse of plastic charges going off in the Casbah. On 15 March, only four days before the cease-fire, an OAS commando went to a social work centre at El Biar, on the outskirts of the city.

Here they found the sort of people they wanted. A conference about training homeless Algerian children was in progress; there were social workers, teachers, seven school heads. They took them outside and shot them.

Among them was a novelist named Mouloud Feraoun. The night before, he had written in his diary: "One can no longer tell the brave from the cowards. Unless, as a result of living in fear, we have all become insensitive and unaware. Certainly, I don't want to die, and I absolutely don't want my children to die. But I am taking no particular precautions ..."

The murder of Mouloud Feraoun appalled both Algeria and France itself. In his forties, he was already a celebrated writer; The Poor Man's Son (1950) and Land and Blood (1953), both written before the outbreak of the Algerian war, had made him famous. But he was also important for what he meant. He was a man of dual culture, a patriot who supported the national uprising for independence but also a French-speaking intellectual whose literary and philosophical models were Parisian.

That is why they had to kill him. With leaders like that - sophisticated, liberal, agnostic - Algerian independence might have been a success. And there were many men and women like Mouloud. No colonial country ever approached independence with a larger corps of qualified and highly educated people. The cadres of the FLN (National Liberation Front) formed the most impressive liberation movement I ever met. Where are they and their intelligence now?

Four days after Mouloud's death came the cease-fire. Next day the OAS mortared a crowded square and killed 24 people, turning a bus queue into crimson rags festooning the tree-tops. In the following weeks, they blew up the university library and burned the lyces. So did the OAS in a sense succeed, before its leaders gave up the fight and bolted a few months later? It certainly left behind a new nation whose technical and creative intellectual class had been decimated. But it was not just the loss of these talented people that did so much damage. It was the fact that their absence, at the critical moment of Algerian independence, allowed more primitive and fanatical men to take power and influence and to distribute it among their own followers.

This crime has no name. "Selective genocide" is too vague. And yet the idea of conquering a society by killing its educated and articulate minority (the chattering classes, as the English dismissively call them) is an old one.

Hitler ordered the extermination of the Polish intellectuals, and as early as 1939 the professors of Krakow University were sent to camps in which most of them perished.

The Soviet Union, in the part of Poland it seized in 1939, issued orders for the arrest and deportation of "Persons who have travelled abroad. Persons who are in contact with representatives of foreign states. Persons who are Esperantists or philatelists", as well as "aristocrats, landowners, wealthy merchants, bankers, industrialists, hotel and restaurant proprietors ..." This was not, be it noted, a Marxist programme for extirpating the bourgeoisie. It was the older, cruder belief that if you kill everyone who knows anything, the rest will be mindless and obedient.

So what is being done in Algeria is not new. The Islamist gunmen are simply doing what General Raoul Salan and the OAS did 30 years ago - killing everyone in civil society who has original ideas. They would have killed Mouloud Feraoun as surely as Salan's men did.

Mouloud, although he supported the rebellion against France, deplored its element of religious puritanism, and used to say that one cousin had been shot for smoking and another for drinking. And he prophesied, soon after the liberation war had begun, that "the indigenous people of Algeria, humiliated yesterday, now tortured and hunted, will end up in slavery - the worst slavery they have ever known".