Campaigners say 22,000 disappeared in Algeria




Relatives accuse the security forces of abductions

By Mark Huband in Algiers

Financial Times, 17 June 2000

The solemn photograph of a young man depicted against a studio backdrop is probably all that remains of Dalila Kouidri’s son Jellal.

The image she carries has frayed since he disappeared four years ago, but the memory she keeps is stark.

Her living nightmare is shared by families of as many as 22,000 people who have disappeared since Algeria collapsed into violence and terror eight years ago.

“For me the horror is to live all these years without knowing if he is alive or dead, if he is eating, if he has clothes,” Mrs Kouidri said, unable to admit that the truth is she will probably never see her then 23-year-old son again.

There are 7,023 disappeared being dealt with by the National Association for the Families of the Disappeared (ANFD). However, lawyers believe 22,000 vanished at the hands of Algeria’s various security forces after violence erupted. In 1992 the military cancelled elections which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was expected to win, and armed Islamists launched a war which has left 100,000 dead.

“They picked him up outside his favourite pizzeria,” said Safia Fahassi, whose husband Djamil had worked at the national radio station until he disappeared in May 1995.

“I thought he had been taken by one of the armed groups. But then we received an anonymous telephone call saying he had been taken by military intelligence. I think he perhaps disappeared because he was seen as a little dangerous by the state. Everybody who didn’t say things in favour of the state, was assumed to be against it,” she said.

Despite sporadic violence, the war is on the wane. One of its most startling legacies is the issue of those who disappeared without being accused of crimes, but were suspected of either Islamist sympathies or challenging the authorities.

“It all started in 1994 when Redha Malek, the former prime minister, announced that ‘fear must change sides’,” said the father of a 22-year-old man last seen in 1997.

“That was when they began taking people away. Now, we are the living dead. It’s a suspended death. We are dangling. My wife has more or less abandoned our other children, in the search for information about our son,” he said.

As he talked, caring little whether his comments were being noted down by the policemen who accompany all foreign journalists, a tiny, aged woman arrived from the eastern city of Constantine.

“My husband died as a martyr in the war against the French. Now, I have sold the house to get the money to look after my six grandchildren. My son was an accountant, and he was taken away six years ago. I am sure he did nothing wrong; and if he did, let him go before the court. All I want to know is if he is alive or dead,” she said.

The ANFD has persisted with campaigns and sit-ins with such determination that the authorities have had little choice but to allow it to operate, despite curtailing its activities and ignoring its accusations. At a public meeting last year, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika angrily rejected the families’ demands for a hearing.

“If I talk about the unemployed, you talk about the disappeared. If I talk about the disappeared, you talk to me of terrorism. What should I do?” he asked. For the families the answer is clear.

“We know who the authors of this situation are. It’s a daily nightmare. Here, in this room, we can show our tears, but most people are too frightened even to cry in their sadness,” said Layla Ighil, ANFD president.

The pressure the organisation has built up has exposed the rigidity of political life. Most striking has been the sidelining of the issue by most news outlets, much of which are either loosely attached to factions within the security establishment or allied to political parties.

“The disappearance of people amounts to a crime against the citizenry. There is a group of criminals who are exercising public functions in the Algerian state, whom the state is protecting. The state institutions have the mandate to protect us. Instead, they have stolen our children,” said Mahmoud Khelili, ANFD lawyer.


© Financial Times