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.

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.

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."

"Bouteflika's national reconciliation discourse says, 'We are all Arabs and Berbers and Muslims – we are all Algerian and we shouldn't let our differences tear us apart,'" he says.

"It is a positive discourse, but there is a negative element as well that says, in effect, 'We should turn the page and not seek explanations of what happened and why,' " he says. "But the families of those who lost someone want to know why. They want to know the truth."

Relatives want facts

Naseera Dutour helped found SOS Disparus after the disappearance of her 21-year-old son, Amin. She says she learned from a friend who worked as a police officer that Amin was being held in a police station in the Algiers suburb of Barake. The friend urged her to do whatever she could to get her son out as soon as possible.

"He told me: 'If you are very powerful you can get your son out of their hands, but if you don't get him out soon next week they will take him someplace where you will never find him,'" she says.

At the station the police chief denied her son was there, so she went home empty-handed. She has never seen or heard from Amin since.

"I made a mistake," she says, her voice trailing off. "I should have insisted."

For Dutour, it is obvious who took her son. She says the legal protections provided to the state in the Reconciliation Charter make it even clearer.

Under Article 45 of the charter, individuals are forbidden from filing complaints against the government, police, or military for their conduct during the war. Those who do, face a five-year prison term and a fine as high as $33,000.

"They say it tarnishes the image of Algeria," she says, "But this isn't about protecting the people. The state only wants to protect itself."

'Waste of time' to investigate

Noureddine Benbraham is a member of parliament from the Rally for National Democracy, a party allied with Bouteflika, and the president of the Boy Scouts of Algeria.

He says that the civil war was "a complex situation," and adds that many of the disappearances may have been the work of pro-government paramilitaries.

"Anyone could have been a policemen then – just put on a uniform and set up a checkpoint," he says. "It was like a game."

He calls the idea of an investigation into the disappearances "a waste of time," and says families should focus on redeeming government compensation. Under the accord, they can choose between an average lump sum of $14,000 to $19,000 or a monthly stipend of $290.

"Going down that road will not lead to anything good," he says of an investigation. "No one knows who took those people."

Families of the disappeared say that lack of information is the hardest part, and in its absence rumors fly.

Nateche Liamine, whose son Mohamed disappeared over a decade ago at age 16, is convinced he is still alive and held in a secret prison. She has also heard rumors that police held some young men until they grew a beard – a sign of Islamist beliefs – and then killed them to inflate the terrorist body count.

The Monitor was unable to find any evidence that substantiated those rumors, but analysts say they nonetheless illustrate a vacuum that needs to be filled with the facts that only an investigation can yield.

"There were many extrajudicial arrests and executions during the war so it is very possible that these people were killed," says Feisal Mettaoui, a journalist with the French daily El Watan. "But until the government provides some evidence of what happened to them, people will think that anything could have happened."

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