April 1998

Fighting the fanatics

While the state negotiates peace with ‘islamic’ extremists, ordinary Algerians refuse to concede ground to butchers

Algiers, October 17, 1997.

Dear Friend,

I had planned to write to you earlier but life is busy as always, more so in these difficult times. "Difficult" is rather an understatement given the drama and horrors I have been confronted with lately. But, despite everything, I have every reason to believe that we will succeed in getting out of this trap - thanks to the courage and dedication of all those that I meet daily. Despite the horrors they face, these people convey an incredible strength — the strength of life. I am thinking especially of those teachers, women and men, living in martyr areas who really deserve our admiration.

For sure, you have ‘seen’ images, heard descriptions, read commentaries on the massacres that have taken place recently in some areas in the periphery of Algiers. The day following the genocide of Hai Rais (August 29, 1997)— more than 500 victims, the majority of them women and children —, Princess Diana was killed in a car crash and her death was on the front pages of every media. I am referring to her on purpose because our painful memories could not believe that nobody mentioned our own little princesses.

However, hundreds of images were captured by our photographers, dozens of testimonies collected by our journalists who, as always, have shown incredible courage and commitment to "talk, testify", to prevent the isolation of the population. "Break the wall of silence, testify on the very facts": It is this motto that brought Ouahab, the tireless photographer of Le Matin, Salima Tlemcani from El Watan, Said N. from El Khabar (daily newspaper in Arabic) as well as other journalists of the independent press to force the "reluctance" (resistance?) of the authorities in reaching the site of the drama immediately.

One continues, here and there, to hear that "this war has no face." However, it is certainly not the faces of the victims, or of the survivors, or even the ones of the terrorists that are not known! Those who really want it can obviously gather information from those who have been affected by the massacres. I can testify that not a single woman, man or child who I have freely gotten in touch with — simply by stating my identity and the reasons of my being here. Our presence was not only appreciated but the victims understood it as a solidarity gesture. For me, the victims of the massacres at Bentalha and Hai Rais bear names and are not faceless. The wounds will take time to heal — but above all the survivors convey an amazing will to live and the refusal to be confined to the margins of society, the very place where fundamentalism wants them to remain.

"We need to relearn how to live normally, to shake the hand of a woman, to look at her in a fraternal way even if she does not cover her head or her arms. For the last five or six years, we have forgotten these rather normal attitudes," a young man from Hai Rais told me.

I wish you to know that our anger is not directed only towards some of the media abroad but also against our government–controlled television. This television reached the highest stage of criminal stupidity when it kept silent in the face of this genocide, which was followed a few days later by another one in Bentalha (September 23, 1997, more than 250 victims). At the very moment Fatiha, a woman teacher in Hai Rais, helplessly witnessed the murders of her husband and her three–year–old son being burnt alive in their home, our television was seized of the "Diana syndrome".

Who has even heard of Fatiha? A few days later she went back to her workplace "because I cannot leave these children without education." That’s what she told me when I met her.

I guess you can imagine the pain, the anger I felt when I went to those two villages a couple have days after the massacres were perpetrated with incredible bestiality by the islamist armed groups. Never would I have dreamed about finding myself at home, in Algeria, in circumstances where, once having entered burned-down houses, the only visible traces of life left behind were remains of burnt shoes, children’s text books and some family pictures — which by miracle did not burn — as well as broken dishes, burnt mattresses or clothes. And blood, blood everywhere, not even fully dry yet.

And the eyes of the men! Oh, how difficult it is for me — who was raised in a culture where men hide to cry — to see them struck by pain, by rage because of their helplessness, their guilt at being still alive while their wives, their children had their throats slit in front of their eyes. Ahmed saved 35 people, his neighbors, by helping them to reach the house of a patriot while his own wife and three children ran in another direction and were slaughtered. There was this father who took me to what had been his humble house. He managed to escape the murderers’ knives by hiding with one of his sons in his tiny garden. He witnessed, totally helpless, the massacre of his wife and three younger children who got their throats slit open and then were burned.

He could see it "live" since one of the terrorists was holding a torch to facilitate the criminal acts of his accomplices. When I entered this house I saw on the floor the remains of hair held together by a hairpin. All burnt. My only reaction was to bend and pick what remained of this martyr woman. The poor man could only burst into tears because he did not have the courage to do the same. I cried too and pledged to show all those who continue to pretend that "no one knows who kills in Algeria" the signature of those who not only claim responsibility for their crimes but also commit them without even hiding their faces.

I have never heard, not even once, a survivor in any doubt about the identity of his or her murderers. The victims know them, they recognize them and can name them. The fact is each time these terrorist groups came, they were guided by people —including women — from the neighborhood. They arrived, bare faced, pretending to be from the army. The first terrorist group always comes dressed in military uniforms. Then, once the population trusts them and opens their doors, the horror begins. Those who hide in their houses have their doors blown open by explosives.

The leaders of the massacre in Bentalha are known to everyone. They are Laazaraoui and Ould Hamrane, whose sister Nacera, also a terrorist, was arrested the day after the massacre by the patriots in the village. Her testimony is very important for what it reveals about the politico–military organization of the islamist parties and armed groups.

Together with other women, she took part in the massacre and was responsible for identifying which families should be murdered and the accomplices who should be spared. Later, she and the other women looted the gold and cash of their victims. On the day of her arrest, her testimony was made public before photographers and the press. The majority of the terrorists identified by the inhabitants of Hai Rais, Bentalha, Larbaa, Sidi Moussa, are activists of the FIS.

I also heard a lot of the inhabitants bitterly criticizing the vacuum left by and invisibility, for a long time, of state institutions. These people were "abandoned" for years to the mercy of the islamists. "We lived under their control. Everywhere, they were the dawla (the state). They were the ones who watched over the kids coming to school every morning. They came to our school to check how we were teaching our classes and whether the girls were veiled and dressed according to their will. One day, I was wearing a "Lacoste" T–shirt. So they stopped me at the school entrance to threaten me and to tell me that they will take care of my own education before I could take care of the education of my pupils..." These are the words of a male teacher from Hai Rais school who, despite the terror in the region, has chosen to stick to his school.

Nowadays, there are about one dozen, all with university qualifications, to take responsibility for the education of the thousand of children in their village. The government’s incompetence and under–estimation of the fundamentalist phenomena is in striking contrast to the maturity and awareness most Algerian men and women are showing.

Correct ‘Islamic way’ to cut a throat

ALGIERS: The correct way to cut a person’s throat was the topic of discussion at a school in the city of Cherchell, 100 kms west of Algiers, the independent daily newspaper Le Matin has reported. The religious teacher at the school gave pupils the task of defining precisely what significance (in Islam) cutting throats has, the report (March 23) said. The teacher was said to have shown pupils beforehand how throats were cut. Islamic indoctrination in the obligatory religious instruction in Algeria’s schools has for a long time been the subject of dispute between democrats and representatives of Islamic parties. A religious teacher was dismissed recently in the city of Tizi Ouzo, 90 kms east of Algiers, after he instructed a class of 13 year olds to consider the significance of leaflets issued by the extremist Armed Islamic Groups (GIA).

When the massacres happened, the number of terrorists on site was, according to all testimonies, far exceeded the number of military persons posted in the area. It is precisely this under–estimation by the state of the potential power of fundamentalist terrorism that led to the government’s decision not to concentrate all its power in guaranteeing the security of people. At the very moment our prime minister refers to ‘residual’ terrorism, and the government is negotiating with the "criminal" FIS leader, Abassi Madani, fundamentalist troops who have undergone ideological hate training are organizing themselves. They are preparing to act as extermination troops, getting ready for more genocide.

The "dialogue" that many political forces in Algeria and abroad wish to impose as the ONLY solution is already taking place on the ground. Hasn’t the compromise that so many here and elsewhere want us to reach already been put into practice? When one listens to the discourses of the current ministers (which include the seven representatives of the islamist party of Nahnah), or reads the decrees regarding the generalization of the Arabic language, when high representatives of the state testify about the recommendations given to them by conservative leaders of the FLN and the RND (presidential party)— well, then we are absolutely in islamist politics!

For 15 days a large military operation has been taking place in this region of the Mitidja known as the "Triangle of death" where the worse massacres have occurred. Unbelievable discoveries have been made: the armed terrorist groups, all factions together, have for several years built an underground city with labs designed to produce explosives, hospital units, food supplies and very sophisticated communication channels.

This military operation is reported on a daily basis by the press as there are journalists in the area. Many documents have been found such as correspondence between various GIA leaders (emirs), financial reports, fatwa regarding how terrorists should "treat" the young girls they have kidnapped, etc. These documents reveal that this organization is not simply a mafia type organization as some wanted us to believe but truly a politico–military organization which has been preparing itself and strategizing for years in order to conquer political power by any means.

I started writing because I wanted to tell you about the schools, teachers and pupils that I met. I wanted to tell you about their thirst for knowledge and the lack of means. When I met the principal of a primary school in this area I thought I was meeting a Mohican — not the last one though for there are many. Imagine the responsibility he is assuming by accepting to be the headmaster of a primary school in an area totally under the control of fundamentalists. Here, teaching and attending school invites a death penalty! For a whole year in 1994, the teachers, mainly women, taught in classrooms without doors. While the classes were taking place, the headmaster kept watch in case there was "a bomb attack or a terrorist group." The school did not close its doors even for a day. The female teachers did not abandon their pupils even for a day. Today, in this school where hundreds of beheaded bodies were exposed, life goes on because of tremendous will power.

The school staff has been performing a magnificent role. "Before we start our lessons, we listen to the kids tell us about the drama they have lived through. There are no psychologists available so we have to take care of that. We are not trained for such a role and we are traumatized ourselves, but the children have to come first". These are the humble and admirable words of those who chose light rather than darkness.

Now you understand why I say that we have the strength and the will to win, to get out of this trap, to restore the values of the Republic, of secularism, of citizenship —here in our country. We do not need U.N. peacekeepers, nor any "strong intervention" from outside.

Our consciousness, our souls have learned to measure the extent of what we refuse — au prix du sang. The majority of Algerian women and men refuse the ideology imposed by islamists, they refuse to see their religious belief manipulated and demand a rupture with the political system that has brought us where we are — a dead end street. How? That’s another issue. But the "keys" are here, at home, already blossoming. That is my strong belief. n

Zazi Sadou

RAFD (Algerian Assembly of Women for Democracy)

(We are greateful to the network Women Living Under Muslim Personal Laws for offering to share this letter with the readers of Communalism Combat — Editors). )

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