Algeria: Organised intergenerational transmission of trauma in Algeria

Marieme Hélie-Lucas
The vote of the Charter of Reconciliation.
On September 29 2005, Algeria was bound to seal its fate for decades and veil its hidden trauma. President Bouteflika is seeking his third mandate by promoting what he calls the Charter of Reconciliation, a Charter that will put a final end to the pursuit of truth and legal redress for all the crimes committed by Islamist armed groups for the past two decades.
This is supposed to put an end to years of what we, the democratic opposition in Algeria, call a 'war against civilians', rather than a civil war. For in a civil war, civilians are fighting with one another, while in this war against civilians, the population has been taken hostage by terrorist Islamists and sandwiched between an undemocratic and corrupt government on the one hand and a fascist taliban-like threat on the other.

Unlike what the international press usually publish on Algeria, Islamist violence started shortly after independence (1962). In the late sixties the first armed groups sabotaged electrical installations, attacked military cantonments to rob armaments and attacked quarries to rob explosives.

Throughout the seventies, they trained their future troops, continued with sporadic attacks and started individual murders of symbolic figures. The first individual murder was committed against a very famous gay poet. In the eighties, attacks intensified against representatives of the State, police officers, drafted young men in the army, and civil servants. It culminated in the late eighties with a youth uprising that was promptly taken over by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), our first Islamic party, legalized in 89 together with other parties; this put an end to the one party system that governed Algeria for nearly 30 years.

And of course, violence exploded against the civilian population after the cancellation of the elections in 1991 that would have seen FIS in power: Islamic armed groups announced in advance which sector of the population they will target, and they proceeded: intellectuals, artists, journalists, women and foreigners successively fell under their knives and bullets. Women were slaughtered for no other reason than being women, they were mutilated, their heads paraded on swords, their pregnant bellies slit open to extract their foetuses, etc. No horror was spared to the population which nevertheless resisted and opposed the armed groups, after having briefly listened to their promises and lies during the 91 elections. And for taking that political distance from fundamentalists, the population was branded "kofr" and condemned to death by fundamentalists.

This is the part of our history that has made the headlines in the international press, but indeed we started facing fundamentalist violence decades earlier.

So much violence, for so long, has left open wounds and scars of all sorts. These bleeding wounds and scars need to be talked about; families need to know the truth in order to grief and mourn. We cannot skip this stage without dramatic consequences in future.

Instead of putting an end to violence, this proposed Charter is likely to put a veil over history, with all the consequences that one can forsee, having learnt from the example of other countries which have undergone similar traumatic violence.

This Charter is in keeping with previous attempts by successive Algerian governements to pacify Islamic armed groups by giving them a blanket amnesty for all the crimes they committed against the civilian population. Already under President Zeroual in 1999, a law on Rahma (pardon) was passed, which, "in the name of peace" granted pardon to all those "who had no blood on their hands". Officially labelled "repentants", unrepentant soldiers from AIS ("islamic salvation army" the official armed branch of FIS, the "islamic salvation front"), the first religious party in Algeria, GIA ( islamic armed group), FIDA (which specialised in urban guerilla and slaughtered intellectuals in Algiers) were supposed to give back their arms to government forces, confess and be pardoned. It was assumed that, unarmed, Islamists will become peaceful.

Interestingly enough, only 5000 guns were given back, usually old hunting guns, while modern armaments remain in the possession of Islamic armed groups. For future use.

The Commissions that were instituted in order to listen to their confessions actually witnessed triumphant Islamists publicly praising their "military" actions.

They gained total impunity and their vicitms had no more right to seek the truth from tribunals. No complaint can be accepted.

Meanwhile we had numerous cases of Islamic "repentants" parading, and sometimes even parading in arms, in the streets of their villages and terrorising the survivor families of their previous victims, threatening they would be the next ones. They started again to terrorize shop keepers who played music in their shops, etc.

It was later followed by the law on National Civic Concordia, passed by the next President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, which extended a pardon to those who had blood on their hands.

And it culminates with this proposed Charter which extends impunity to all criminals except those that committed mass crimes, massacres and rapes. All individual crimes are now "forgotten", without any investigation of the truth. No facts, no figures, no Commission or Jury any more, no responsibility being established, and no pardon, since the perpetrators are not even asked to repent anymore, even if fictively.

One can expect that even mass crimes, massacres and rapes will not be investigated, families of victims will have no information on what exactly happened to their kin and no redress.

Meanwhile, former terorrists are granted financial help for reinsertion, either a lump sum of money, a shop, a job, etc. Their orphans are taken care of by the state at par with the orphans of their vicitms.

Meanwhile army officiers and soldiers who have been identified as having perpetrated extrajudicial killings against terrorists or supposed terrorists are judged by military tribunals.

In a country that counted 100 000 dead during the nineties only, and about 15 000 women raped by Islamic armed groups, victims and families of victims are appalled. Women's organsiations massively protested but in vain. At the forefront of the protest were Rafd (Algerian Assembly of Women for Democracy) and Djazairouna (which gathers families of victims of terrorists).

The "campaign" for the vote of the Charter looks like a monologue of Bouteflika. No other political formation actually campaigns. Some have made their positions known through leaflets, but those face harrasments, they are arrested by night, intimidated, and face trial for "troubling public order". In this political vacuum, the Charter is likely to pass and Bouteflika is likely to be re-elected, after making the necessary changes in a Constitution that does not allow the President to seek a third mandate.

Uncured wounds will be buried again, a permanent source of future violence and revenge will lie in the secret of hearts of the Algerian society.

Written on 28 September 2005