Massacres in Algeria Leave Little Hope for Democracy

Low turnout in elections Thursday shows doubts over government's role in ending Islamist strife.

The schoolyard echoes with the shouts of children, who play keep-away with a rubber ball. Among the throng is Saifi Saliha, their young teacher, who helps the students roil the dust and forget the rigors of the classroom.

But there is something else they would all like to forget: a massacre on Aug. 28 that left as many as 500 people dead - the largest yet recorded in Algeria's especially bloody conflict - including more than 25 pupils.

When asked about that night, Ms. Saliha is immediately transformed. Her students turn quiet, for they know that Saliha's father, mother, and two sisters were among the dead.

Her lips begin to quiver as her memories flood back. Her eyes stare toward the ground to ward off tears, and she starts: "My family..." and then stops. The children look on. "It's getting better," she says, finally. "I just can't speak. I can't."

Part of the collective trauma in Rais - the result of the attack by about 50 members of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) - seems due to a belief that this massacre may have been prevented.

The frequency and violence of attacks, combined with a perceived lack of reaction by the government, has left Algerians disenchanted. Local municipal elections yesterday were the latest step in what many here see as the government's plan to install a democratic veneer on an authoritarian regime. Voter turnout appeared to be low, however. Many people doubted the new system would ease the conflict.

Some 65,000 people have died since the military cancelled elections in late 1991 and early 1992 in which the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) was set to win. FIS remains outlawed, so it is unclear how much electoral support it might have won yesterday.

Despite allegations that the military-backed government of President Liamine Zeroual has played a complicitous role in killings like those in Rais - by tolerating, if not condoning them - survivors tell a different tale.

At Rais, part of the ever-growing "Triangle of Death" that now abuts the edge of the capital, Algiers, there is a military post practically within earshot. But no one intervened on that steamy night in August.

For those who survived, however, this grisly aftermath - underlined by rows of fresh graves - was not due to government negligence, but was the result of their own miscalculation.

"The army offered us weapons [prior to the attack], but we refused them because the terrorists told us to," says Boumamash Tyeb, a builder who lost 45 members of his family.

But instead of winning points with the GIA - in an area that has for years secretly supported the "Islamic" militants with food and cash - the GIA betrayed them and attacked anyway. Because the townspeople refused the army offer of weapons, he says, the army let them fend for themselves.

"Yes, if we had taken weapons we could definitely have saved ourselves. I wish we had," Mr. Tyeb says.

FIS militants declared a cease-fire in late September - in part to distance themselves from the atrocities of the GIA, the most extreme group that broke off from FIS. But the killing continued.

Western diplomats and many Algerians say they have seen "no evidence" of military collusion in the massacres. They instead point to their offensive against a known GIA stronghold at Oueled Allel as an example of action.

The town has been flattened, and an underground labyrinth uprooted. The army claims 35 terrorists were killed, but 30 others escaped.

During a visit to Rais, army helicopters were seen firing at targets three miles to the south. At night, artillery can be heard in Algiers.

Still, there are other credible reports that security forces did not intervene elsewhere because they are not well enough organized to carry out night operations, or were afraid of mines and booby-traps.

"There are two scenarios," says a Western diplomat. "The army carries on doing these kinds of operations, with more and more cooperation from civilians so the terrorists are limited to ... hit-and-run attacks, like in Egypt.

"Or when the army pulls out of Oueled Allel, the 30 people that got away come back and start the cycle all over again," he says. "It's too soon to say now which way it will go."

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