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In Algeria, an abyss between truth and reconciliation

Citizens whose relatives mysteriously disappeared during the 1990s civil war want facts. The government has offered compensation, but focused on forgetting the past.

By Liam StackCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / April 15, 2013


Every Wednesday for the past 11 years, Hacene Ferhati has stood outside the downtown offices of Algeria's Human Rights Commission to wave a picture of his brother Moustapha at people driving by.

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He never comes alone. On a recent morning, three dozen other middle-aged men and women stood by his side, each holding faded pictures of loved ones they say were "disappeared" by government security forces during the country's decade-long civil war that killed as many as 200,000 in the 1990s.

All are members of SOS Disparus, an advocacy organization which has worked for over a decade on behalf of families to draw attention to the fate of those who vanished in the war, estimated at between 6,000 and 15,000 people.

The group accuses the government of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who recently won a third term in office, of refusing to investigate what happened to their missing relatives. Instead, they say, the state tries to harass them to stop their work on the issue and offers to pay them for their losses.

"They want to give us money and then just close the case, but we don't want their money, says Mr. Ferhati, whose brother disappeared in 1998 – two years after another brother died in the fighting. "We want to investigate what happened to our families."

In a region that's been wracked by internecine conflicts from Beirut to Baghdad, the question of how a divided society reconciles after years spent peering into the abyss is an emotionally explosive one. Algeria's efforts to find an answer have been fitful, pitting the nation's desire to forget its troubled past against a group of families who cannot let go.

In 2005, the country passed a National Reconciliation Charter with the approval of a reported 97 percent of the electorate. The controversial document ended the fighting between the state and Islamist militants by granting amnesty to almost all fighters on both sides.

It also offered financial compensation to the families of those disappeared in the war, but also made it illegal to criticize government conduct during the conflict, effectively closing the door to any future investigations.

Supporters of the charter say that for Algeria to move forward, it must forget its past. But men like Ferhati are the spoilers of that vision. He says the charter gives impunity to human rights violators and robs families of their right to know the truth about their loved ones' final days.

"In conflicts all around the world, there are victims and there are perpetrators," says Ferhati. "We need to know who is who, and only then can we start reconciling with each other."

Families seek truth before reconciliation

Human Rights Watch criticized the referendum on the National Reconciliation Charter, saying Mr. Bouteflika campaigned for it "on the theme that those who opposed it were the enemies of peace and reconciliation." But despite the criticism, the accord is clearly popular. For most Algerians, the highest political priority is making sure that peace is here to stay.

In order to do that, the charter emphasizes that Algerians are more alike than different, says Hugh Roberts, former head of the North Africa program for the International Crisis Group. It is a much-appreciated corrective to "the identity politics that led to the violence of the 1990s."