One of the old veterans of Algeria’s war of liberation, known only by his nom de guerre of Commandant Ezzedine, snorts with disgust at the idea there are genuinely “moderate” Islamists.
“The only difference between the hard men and the moderates is that one group wants to eat us in mechoui (grilled) and the other prefers us in tajine (stewed),” he says.
This might seem a bit of black humor, but there is a grim near-literalness in the remark, made to the French writer and documentary filmmaker Bernard-Henri Levy in Algiers recently.
For in the remote, mountainous region of western Algeria, hundreds of people have been burned alive in their homes by Islamic extremists in recent days, according to the Algerian media. During the weekend, the killings spread back to the area around Algiers (where they were rife last fall) with 50 people killed in four attacks.
One of the most savage civil wars of modern times is intensifying, with more than 1,000 people killed in the past two weeks and a shocked international community finally being roused to try to intervene and stop the slaughter.
From the Algerian west come reports that have become all too familiar from the earlier massacres close to Algiers: People hacked to death with axes. Throats slit with knives. A fetus cut out of a pregnant woman and slaughtered.
The United States, the European Union, Canada and the United Nations commissioner for human rights have demanded the right to send in representatives to discuss with Algerian authorities what can be done to put a stop to this.
The U.S. call for an international inquiry drew a swift rebuff from the Algerians, who have long rejected outside intervention and are extremely sensitive to allegations that their own security forces either have participated in some of the massacres or turned a blind eye.
In the past, the Algerians have spurned intervention by friendly Arab governments, which no longer even try to influence them.
But the Algerians, not entirely immune to the growing international pressures, finally have agreed to let the European Union send a delegation to Algiers. In addition, Canadian and Arab League envoys are scheduled for separate visits to Algiers today.
However, the chances of such missions achieving much, beyond possibly arranging humanitarian aid, appear to be remote.
The Algerian civil war erupted six years ago after the country’s military-led government lost the first round of elections to Islamic parties and then canceled the second round to stave off defeat and declared a state of emergency.
Two armed groups, the Islamic Salvation Army (AIS by its French initials) and the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), since then have waged a war that has spread from Algiers to its surrounding towns and now to the remote west.
Estimates of the number of people killed range from 75,000 up to 500,000, with most experts placing the number at a little more than 100,000.
The killing always is intense during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and a sacred period of fasting from dawn to dusk. But it has reached unprecedented levels during this Ramadan, which began in late December.
The Algerian government virtually has admitted it cannot protect its own people. An army general in the western region was quoted recently as telling residents the army could not put a soldier in front of every house, and advised them either to arm themselves or flee to the cities. Thousands have chosen to flee.
“The government is unable to protect its citizens or is failing to do so,” said Kamal Samari of Amnesty International in London. “Only if a United Nations special rapporteur is admitted and allowed to do his work will it be clear who is killing whom, and why. That is the first step toward a solution.”
The Armed Islamic Group is widely believed to be responsible for the latest atrocities. An exiled Algerian journalist in Paris offered this explanation of why the guerrillas have carried their war to the poor and primitive western farming province of Relizane:
They might have felt the heat of increased security force patrols closer to Algiers. (There appears little to support that thesis, as many attacks last fall were conducted under the noses of troops and police who did not leave their barracks.)
The group wants to punish the people in Relizane, who voted overwhelmingly in the 1991 elections for the Islamic Salvation Front, the political wing of the rival Islamic Salvation Army.
The GIA is angry with the AIS for having declared a cease-fire in the fall.
Relizane is poorly policed and is rugged mountain country, ideal for a guerrilla force that hides out by day and strikes at night. It was a stronghold of National Liberation Front guerrillas during Algeria’s war of independence from France more than 30 years ago.
The exiled Algerian journalist in Paris said he believed that only the United States has the clout to force the Algerian authorities to take tougher measures against the terrorists ravaging their towns and villages.
“There is not the will in the government to protect the population,” he said. “The United States has vital interests in my country and if it doesn’t do something, the whole area could explode.”
Reports of what actually happens in the Algerian countryside are often fragmentary, and it is frequently difficult for foreign journalists to get visas for Algeria. Even when they do, they are not allowed to travel freely and always are under the supervision of security agents.
Bernard-Henri Levy, who was born in Algeria, is one of the few foreigners who recently has had fairly wide access in the country. He went there to make a documentary film and traveled to the west but was unable to get into villages that had been attacked recently.
However, in two articles for Le Monde, France’s leading newspaper, Levy provided some telling insights into the situation. There was this quote from a military officer, explaining why troops and police so often let atrocities take place and do not react:
“Tell me of an army that is ready to come out of its barracks like this, in the middle of the night, without an express order from its leaders and without knowing if an alert is a real alert, if it is not a trap that has been set, if one doesn’t go out … to fall into an ambush.”
Levy said he pressed the man on whether he believed an army worthy of the name does not have a responsibility to protect its population. He said the officer responded:
“You have to know the history of this army. It is a static army. It has a (Russian) Red Army culture. It never budges. Especially at night, facing savages who have the benefit of surprise and who know the terrain.”
The exiled Algerian journalist, commenting on this remark, noted that young Algerian officers mostly have been trained by the military in Russia. But the generals, he said, are nearly all French trained and many served in the French army, so such excuses appear rather thin.
Levy quoted one veteran of the independence war in western Algeria as saying police “tremble with fear in their barracks” while the population is slaughtered. “We have to take up arms or die,” he said.
Levy quoted survivors of an attack last fall on Bentalha, a village near Algiers where 300 people died, as saying the Islamists had killed two babies by putting them in a bakery oven.
He interviewed a restaurant owner who bore a hatchet wound on his neck and who told him he heard the leader of the terrorists say: “We kill the adults to punish them and the children to save them.”
xxxx DETAILS OF A MASSACRE Algerian-born documentary filmmaker Bernard-Henri Levy described a typical operation: The Islamists send men disguised as women into a village to reconnoiter beforehand. On the evening of the attack, a second group mines the approaches to the village to discourage the security forces. A third group is posted on the edge of the village to provide covering fire if security forces do try to enter, while a fourth group shuts down the electricity station, plunging the village into darkness just before the attack. Levy said the attackers usually are armed with axes and hatchets, swords, sawed-off shotguns and soda cans transformed into Molotov cocktails.