Algerian Program Offers Amnesty, but Not Answers About Past

Fatmazora Mokrane holds a photo of her son, Berouichi Billel, who was kidnapped by extremists in Algeria in 1995.
Fatmazora Mokrane holds a photo of her son, Berouichi Billel, who was kidnapped by extremists in Algeria in 1995. (By Ouahab Hebbat -- Associated Press)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, September 17, 2006

BLIDA, Algeria -- For nearly a decade, this city nestled at the foot of the Atlas Mountains anchored one corner of Algeria's "triangle of death," a killing field overrun by bomb throwers, throat-slitters and masked gunmen during an apocalyptic civil war that killed an estimated 200,000 people.

Peace has gradually returned to Blida, an oasis of orchards and fields north of the Sahara. Stability has been restored as well to most other parts of Algeria where a military-controlled government fought Islamic radicals, although clashes are reported almost daily in remote areas.

Now, in an effort to bring a final end to violence that began in 1992, the Algerian government is pinning its hopes on an ambitious national reconciliation program, which grants official forgiveness to combatants if they set aside their weapons.

Under terms of the reconciliation, which expired Aug. 31 but might be extended, about 2,500 prisoners convicted or accused of terrorism have gone free. Also covered by the amnesty are members of the Algerian security services, blamed for the disappearance of 8,000 civilians and accused of systematic torture. The only people not eligible: rapists and those responsible for mass murder or planting bombs in public places.

Reconciliation and amnesty programs have been embraced by other nations plagued by enduring conflicts. After the end of apartheid in South Africa, a Truth and Reconciliation Commission pardoned human rights violators who confessed their crimes in public. In Morocco last year, a similar commission collected testimony on more than 22,000 documented cases of political repression that occurred under the reign of King Hassan II. The Moroccan and the Algerian programs both include provisions to compensate victims and their families.

More recently, some government officials in Iraq have raised the prospect of offering an amnesty in a bid to end the sectarian warfare that followed the U.S.-led invasion.

Although Algerian voters overwhelmingly approved the terms of their national reconciliation in a referendum last year, few people are predicting that it will heal the rifts and psychological wounds that run deep here.

In dozens of interviews, Algerians said they hoped the amnesty would stop the lingering violence. But many lamented that it would not provide any accountability or answers regarding the countless atrocities that occurred.

Fatima Yous, president of SOS Disappeared, a group that investigates missing persons believed to have been abducted by the government, called the reconciliation an attempt to bury the past. She said she still aches to know what happened to her 20-year-old grandson, who was detained by police in 1997 and has not been seen since.

"All we want is the truth," she said. "We are ready to forgive, but we want our families back and we want the truth. We are not going to sue the guy who killed him. But I do want to know if they killed him, why they killed him and where his bones are."

No one here will be able to forget what happened anytime soon.

Mass graves are still exhumed in sandy ditches and dry outdoor wells. Houses remain pockmarked by bullet holes. Razor wire and uniformed patrols are omnipresent.

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