Robert Fisk: It took decades for truth to be revealed in Algeria. How long will it take Syria?

Algeria’s ‘timid’ historians shy away from revealing the ugly reality about war

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Major General Jamaa Jamaa was not a popular man in Beirut. One of Syria’s most senior intelligence officers in Lebanon until the withdrawal of Bashar al-Assad’s troops in 2005, he was headquartered in the run-down Beau Rivage Hotel in west Beirut and also in the Bekaa town of Anjaar, where Lebanese men would be taken for interrogation and later emerge – or not emerge at all – sans teeth or nails.  He was a loyal, ruthless apparatchik for Bashar’s father Hafez, and his mysterious killing last week in the Syrian war provoked no tears in Beirut.  The UN had interviewed Jamaa about the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri whose 2005 assassination brought about the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon.  But how did Jamaa die?  Syrian state television would say only that he was “martyred while carrying out his national duties to defend Syria and its people and pursuing terrorists (sic) in Deir el-Zour”.

All kinds of rebel groups – including, of course, the equally ruthless al-Qa’ida affiliates – wanted to add his name to their “kills”.  He was shot in the head by a sniper in the eastern Syrian oil town.  Jamaa was also killed, we were informed, by a booby-trap, and blown up by a suicide bomber.  All that we can be sure of is that his remains, such as they were, were taken for burial in the village hills above Lattakia where he was born.  How long before we know the truth?

I am brought to this question by the secrecy which still smothers the 1954-62 Algerian-French war of independence where a cruel French regime of occupation fought a war against an equally cruel and determined Algerian resistance, primarily led by the National Liberation Front, the FLN. French officers indulged in an orgy of torture while their Algerian opposite numbers slaughtered each other – as well as the French – in a Stalinist purge of thousands of their own followers suspected of collaborating with the French occupation. For decades, the French refused to discuss this most dishonourable of wars – censoring their own television programmes if they dared talk of torture – while the subsequent FLN dictatorship only published infantile accounts of the heroism of their “martyr” cadres. The French, you see, were fighting “terrorism”.  The FLN were fighting a brutal, Gaullist regime.

The parallels are, of course, not exact. But over the past months, a remarkable phenomenon has made its appearance in Algeria.  Dozens of elderly Algerian maquisards from the conflict that ended just over half a century ago, have turned up at small publishing houses in Algiers and Oran with  private manuscripts, containing frightening accounts of the savage war in which they fought and in which their officers tortured and massacred and assassinated their own comrades. Rival Algerian resistance groups – not unlike the “Free Syrian Army” and their Islamist rebel enemies in northern Syria today – also slaughtered each other.

Take, for example, the death of Abane Ramdane. The “architect” of the Algerian revolution, a friend of the French philosopher and revolutionary Franz Fanon, organizer of the Soummam congress which created the first independent Algerian leadership in 1956, Ramdane – a man almost as keen on his own personality as he was on the classless revolution he helped initiate – was assassinated in Morocco the following year, allegedly by the French.  For decades, he was extolled as a martyr who had “died under French bullets”.  But now a former member of the FLN has dared to suggest the names of his real killers:  Krim Belkacem, head of the FLN’s third wilaya (district) and later a minister of defence and foreign affairs in the newly independent government of Algeria;  Abdelhafid Boussouf, the vicious “father of intelligence” in all the Algerian wilayas, who condemned many of his own comrades to death;  and Lakhdar Ben Tobbal, a guerrilla leader who later negotiated with the French at Evian.

Then there’s the sinister figure of Si Salah, head of wilaya 4, who was persuaded – by French intelligence, although he did not know this – that hundreds of his own men were collaborators. On Si Salah’s personal instructions, almost 500 of his comrades were tortured to death or executed. But Si Salah, fearful that the FLN’s military wing might be defeated by the French, secretly opened negotiations with De Gaulle – and was then himself assassinated, supposedly by the French, but almost certainly by the FLN. The French investigative journalist, Pierre Daum, has spoken of the “extreme timidity of Algerian historians”, and recounted how one Algerian publisher said he lacked the courage to print a book on the infiltration of the FLN. 

“In 2005, this guy came to see me,” the publisher told Daum. “I refused his manuscript because it was filled with names, ‘X tortured Y’, and so on.  Imagine the children of a ‘martyr’ – who believe their father died under French gunfire – discovering that he perished under Algerian torture!”

The real story of the much more recent Algerian war – between the Islamists and the government in the 1990s (total deaths 250,000, a hundred thousand more than in Syria today) – still cannot be told by Algerian historians.  It has been left to today’s Algerian novelists to cloak facts in fiction in order to reveal the truths of this terrible conflict. One such tale – a real incident – is recalled in a novel. A junior officer in the Algerian army, it seems, was discovered to have betrayed his comrades to Islamist rebels. His wife and children were summoned from their village and taken by military helicopter to the barren hillside where the captured soldier was being held.  And there, in front of his family, the man was tied to a tree, doused with petrol, and burned alive.

How long must we wait, then, for the secrets buried beneath the rubble of the Syrian war?

From the same report: Slow going by UN in probe on murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri

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