Algeria's Village Vigilantes Unite Against Terror
Algerians who used to support Islamic terrorists now help the army hunt them.
ALGIERS, ALGERIA — Even by Algeria's extraordinary standards, the terrorists this time went too far.
Here the conflict has been shrouded in mystery since it began in early 1992, a war concealed by layers of darkness in which up to 65,000 people have died, driven by an impenetrable illogic all its own.
So it is rare when any light is shed upon the atrocities, and rarer still when it reveals a significant change on the ground.
So-called "Islamic" guerrillas have engaged in more and more ferocious massacres since July, including the largest at Reis, where up to 500 people died Aug. 28. Most are carried out by the Armed Islamic Group (GIA).
But in a small district on the western edge of the capital, for the first time, the bloodshed has caused a backlash: Overnight, villagers turned against the terrorists, took up arms, and are replacing long-held suspicions of their army with a growing trust.
Describing their newfound disgust of the militants who once bought newspapers, bread, and did their laundry in town - with policemen's uniforms hanging up beside guerrilla gear - witnesses say the turning point came with the massacre of Adir Zeghba's family Aug. 31, just days after the Reis killings.
Mr. Zeghba, who ran for a seat in local elections last month, was away during the slaughter. His well-known family of moderate Islamists had a reputation for honesty and community service.
For years, he refused GIA offers of money to use his good name as a cover to "help them attain their targets," he said in an interview. Instead, in line with a recent GIA decree that "those who are not with us are against us," he became a target himself.
The cold-blooded murders - the nine family members slashed with long knives or shot - shocked neighbors. But the funeral, attended by thousands of mourners, held further surprises. Not satisfied with the slaughter of the Zeghbas, the GIA launched a brazen daytime attack on the funeral procession.
As the cortege moved up a narrow valley toward the cemetery, a small group of terrorists ambushed it with assault rifles, sparking a gun battle with police guards. Another group then moved toward the houses, but fled when screams sounded the alarm.
"Nobody was expecting that: It was unbelievable, unimaginable," says a witness in the cortege. No one was killed in the funeral attack, but the result has been that "the terrorists are now isolated, they don't have popular support. We can compare their case to a person in the middle of the ocean, looking for something to hold on to so he will not drown."
Now an ad hoc group of civilian vigilantes arm themselves with knives and metal bars and patrol near the GIA areas of the Beinam Forest to protect their families.
A confrontation between the attackers and the citizen's group - the first of its kind, Algerians say - occurred on a dark night in the forest four days after the funeral. The 60-strong citizen's group faced off against 11 terrorists armed with guns and swords.
"Why did you now betray us?" the terrorists shouted at them, cursing with words that blasphemed Islam.
"Why do you now kill our women and babies?" the vigilantes replied. "Now come to see us, if you are men enough!"
The GIA group responded with their own threat: "We won't kill you today, and maybe not tomorrow. But after two days, or two months, or two years, we will come back and do it." Then they melted back into the forest.
For many Algerians, this episode is a culmination of a long transformation of the public view about the GIA and shows how deeply the violence has damaged the reputation of Algeria's Islamic movement.
In early 1992, to prevent certain victory of the mainstream Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) in national elections, the military canceled the vote and took over the government.
FIS was outlawed, and the Islamists went underground. But gradually hard-line militants - with the GIA the most vicious among them - took control, attacking the police and army and then unleashing bloodshed upon the populace.
The GIA's original aim, to be a viable Islamic alternative to unpopular military rule in Algeria, seems to have been brushed aside. Even the armed wing of the "moderate" FIS called for a cease-fire in late September, so that the GIA would be seen to be solely responsible for future killing.
"At the beginning, people believed these groups were the underground opposition, that they were still the FIS," says an Algerian newspaper columnist, who asked not to be named. "So it was true the people helped them, to build a more fair republic and for justice. But they discovered very soon they were wrong."
"The terrorists have no other future except bigger and bigger massacres," she says.
Shooting their last bullets
"They tried all means to intimidate people, forbidding them to go to school or to vote, and they have failed - they are shooting their last bullets," says Omar Belhouchet, editor of the newspaper al-Watan, which has close contact with the security forces. "The government now smells victory."
In this murky conflict, GIA militants have disguised themselves as policemen or soldiers during attacks and set up fake road blocks to kill, for example, busloads of schoolchildren. Security units, meanwhile, have disguised themselves as guerrillas with beards and infiltrated - or assisted - the terrorist groups.
"You never know who is in front of you," says another Algerian. "You must be vigilant, and can confide only in your neighbor you have known for a long time."
Faith in that maxim is what shocked people most when the Zeghba family was butchered, because some locals were with the GIA. But it is also what brought the survivors together against them.
Hard-liners compare the GIA to the mujahideen "freedom fighters" who waged Algeria's war of independence against the French from 1954 to 1962. One million died in that conflict, but Zeghba remembers how his elders raved about their sense of nationalism.
"I hate to call the GIA 'Islamic,' because they have nothing to do with Islam," he says. "They are refused by society because they are not real mujahideen, but killers and assassins."
Zeghba refused GIA intimidation for two reasons, he says: because Islam "clearly forbids us to kill anyone, and we want our country in peace."
Zeghba will never forget coming back to his village on that muggy August day. He had just finished the assar prayer at the mosque, the third of the day, when he heard the news. He rushed up the hill to his home, every detail searing itself into his memory. In a stroke he saw the signs of resistance and the efficient work of the killers, who tied their victims with tape and cord.
"At the beginning, people called them mujahideen who were fighting a jihad [holy war], but not anymore," Zeghba says.
Security forces have been accused of encouraging - or at least tolerating - the massacres and carrying out human rights abuses of their own. Recently, they stood by in barracks as killing took place nearby, raising questions of collusion.
But in this case, the army seems to be utilizing the growing disgust with the slaughter to win back the heart and minds of some Algerians.
Five weeks ago, it launched an offensive against the GIA stronghold at Oueled Allel south of Algiers, flattening the town and unearthing a labyrinth of hideouts and mini-offices.
Two weeks ago - using local intelligence that has been offered by the public for the first time - the army surrounded Beinam Forest, began burning a free-fire zone and systematically hunting the GIA.
"I thank the military for giving arms to the vigilante groups," Zeghba says. "This is a big change - before the military didn't accept food or water from the people because they thought they would be poisoned. But these last massacres showed us the real enemy."
Salima Tlemcani, an al-Watan journalist notes the new symbiosis: "People can't eradicate the terrorists without the army, and the army can't exterminate the terrorists without the people."
For Zeghba, the new resistance sparked by the death of his family will not bring loved ones back to life, but it may prevent Algeria's near-endless list of the dead from getting longer.
"Even those who killed my family - I don't want revenge on them," he says. "Revenge is not allowed in Islam. I believe that they will be judged by God. We chose the heaven road, and they chose the evil road.
"But before God, I prefer to be among the killed, not among the killers."