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.
But supporters of the amnesty warn that tougher measures -- anything designed to seek justice or dig up the past -- could easily backfire and drag the country back into civil war.
"What we survived was just horrible, terrible," said Mustapha Farouk Ksentini, a lawyer in Blida who serves as chairman of an official human rights commission that has advised the government on the reconciliation plan. "The country is tired. The national unity is very fragile."
"We know that this national reconciliation will forgive a lot of criminals, but it's the price we have to pay to turn the page," he added. "Algeria doesn't have the means to press ahead with trials. We made a choice and said the national interests of Algeria are more important than this."
The reconciliation is only the latest attempt by the Algerian government to bring stability to a country that has suffered greatly over the past half-century.
The second-largest country on the African continent, Algeria won independence from France in 1962, but only after a war that lasted eight years. Three subsequent decades of a military-led government and socialist policies failed to modernize the economy.
In 1992, after Islamic fundamentalists appeared on the verge of winning power in national elections, the military intervened and dissolved the government. That led to civil war, as Islamic radicals took up arms.
The conflict spiraled as rebel factions embraced terrorism and targeted civilians, annihilating entire villages as part of a strategy to weaken popular support for the government. Government security forces also showed little regard for human rights, relying on torture and other tough tactics to break the rebellion.
By 2000, the violence was starting to ebb. Voters in a referendum that year approved a "civil concord," Algeria's first attempt to end the conflict by offering amnesty to those fighting the government. While thousands of Islamic guerrillas accepted pardons, many continued to fight because the measure effectively disenfranchised Islamic political parties.
More disasters followed, both natural and political. In 2001, ethnic Berbers rioted for weeks to protest their treatment by the government. A few months later, several hundred people were killed by floods in Algiers. Another low point was reached in 2003, when more than 2,000 people died in a massive earthquake.
"We lost 15 years of our history," said Aboudjerra Soltani, chairman of Movement of Society for Peace, a party of Islamic fundamentalists that professes nonviolence and is part of the ruling government coalition. "Our economy crumbled. We lost a lot of confidence. It takes a lot of strength to recover from this."
Since then, however, signs of hope have emerged. A global rise in energy prices has lifted the economy and has helped Algeria, the world's second-leading exporter of natural gas, erase foreign debts and invest billions in public works projects.
In 2004, in an election that international observers judged as legitimate, Algerian voters gave a second term to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika. Soon after, he announced another amnesty program, which took effect in March.
According to government officials, about 300 Islamic fighters have accepted the new deal. They estimate that another 800 to 1,000 guerrillas remain at large, down from about 50,000 in the mid-1990s.
While the amnesty offers reconciliation to terrorists and others with blood on their hands, opponents say some provisions in the law are far from conciliatory.
For instance, the measure clamps down on public debate over what happened during the civil war, making it a crime to criticize government actions of that period "or to tarnish the image of Algeria internationally." It has been assailed for those reasons by rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Mostefa Bouchachi, a human rights lawyer in Algiers, said it was unrealistic to expect Algeria to prosecute large numbers of people. "It would result in another bloodbath. But at least we would like to know who did what, and why, and who is responsible. In the Algerian reconciliation, they just tell you to turn the page. We think it's a culturalization of impunity for both camps: the security forces and the Islamists."
Some military officials, however, have complaints of their own. After struggling for 15 years to win the civil war, they questioned whether it made sense to release 2,500 enemies of the state from prison.
Gen. Fodil Cherif Brahim, the army commander in charge of the region surrounding the capital, Algiers, until he retired in 2004, predicted that many former prisoners would return to the mountains or the desert and resume their fight.
"These people are fanatics to the extreme," he said. "They don't know anything about the real Islam. This is what they did: They committed horrible crimes. They put knives in the bellies of pregnant women."
"These people, you have to kill them," he added. "They will never give up."
Such sentiments are common in Blida, where few families escaped the violence of the war.
Zohra Khelafi, 51, said her husband was killed by Islamic radicals in a 1997 firebombing because he worked for the local government as a municipal guard. That same year, militants murdered two dozen other members of Khelafi's family, including a 3-year-old niece who was stuffed into a giant kettle and boiled alive.
"I want the government to punish them, to kill them, just like they did to us," she said. "Instead, the government has released them and they are back on the streets."