The Beginnings of Reconciliation, but Little Truth in Algeria

Published: 1 Jan 2005

Refugee Rights News
Volume 2, Issue 4
November 2005

Algeria has been undergoing a long process of stabilization, since the rampant civil strife in that country began to taper off in 1998. Given the greatly improved security situation, the Bouteflika government launched a campaign this summer to encourage return of the estimated 1 to 1.5 million internally displaced persons to the villages which were deserted or left half-empty as a result of mass flight during the height of the conflict. As yet, this campaign has had little effect, and the vast majority of the displaced remain congregated in cities, either in makeshift shelters or with relatives.

There are many possible reasons for this reluctance to return to the villages, among them, a lack of economic development in the countryside, and new roots established in the cities as some former farmers have turned into shopkeepers. Another obstacle, however, is that there is also reason to fear that the current peace may not last.

The Bouteflika government has been reluctant to address the root causes of the conflict, and has relied instead on a rhetoric of “peace and national reconciliation.” This tends to brush history under the carpet, while granting easy amnesties to the very militants who formerly ravaged the countryside.

Without a full investigation into past crimes, and justice for the family members of victims, there is no guarantee that the country will not erupt again into violence, and that the villages will not be ravaged once again.

The conflict in Algeria began in January of 1992, when the government cancelled national elections which the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut, FIS) was set to win. These were the first pluralistic elections in the country since the National Liberation Front (Front National de Liberation, FLN) came into power in 1965, and an FIS victory would have meant the end of the FLN’s uninterrupted rule. Faced with this possibility, the army staged a coup and established a military leadership, forcing the resignation of then-president Bendjadid. The FIS and all other opposition groups were outlawed, and thousands of suspected FIS members were arrested. The government also began pursuing a policy of “disappearances.” According to the current government’s own conservative estimate, upwards of 6,000 people were disappeared during the conflict.

The armed branch of FIS, the Islamic Salvation Army (Armee Islamique du Salut, AIS), retaliated with a series of massacres and mass rapes. At first the AIS targeted those sympathetic to the government, but this distinction quickly broke down and civilians with no political leaning were caught up in the violence. Splinter militant groups formed, and Islamists fought against each other as well as against government forces. Civilians were frequently caught in the middle and used as pawns by all sides. The bulk of the fighting took place in the countryside, depopulating these areas and driving over a million people to the cities.

The exact number of internally displaced persons (IDP’s) has not been established, in part because many of them are living with relatives or friends, although many of them also live in makeshift shanty towns on the outskirts of Algiers. Further complicating matters, some IDP’s have been repeatedly displaced, as outbreaks of violence in the cities drove people back to the countryside, creating a constantly circulating population.

When Bouteflika came into office in 1999, the worst of the violence was over. Bouteflika’s stated priority, then and now, has been to “turn the page” on the “national tragedy.” Unfortunately, this has often come at the expense of official recognition of the violations which have occurred.

One of Bouteflika’s first acts upon coming into power was to enact the Civil Harmony Law, which granted immunity from prosecution to all militants who surrendered their arms and confessed to their crimes. Those who confessed to the “serious crimes” of murder, rape, or bombing public places were to be given reduced sentences. In 2000, a blanket amnesty was granted to all members of FIS and of the Islamic League for Prayer and Jihad (Ligue Islamique pour le Da’wa et le Djihad, LIDD). The amnesty process has been conducted out of the public eye, and the government has not given any account of how many people are being pardoned. The militants’ confessions have not been made public, nor has any public investigation been conducted into the nature of their crimes or of the fates and the names of their victims.

This is a fatal omission. In order for peace and reconciliation to have any meaning, there must be a full and transparent recounting of the past. Victims’ relatives deserve to know what happened to their family members. Likewise, in order to feel truly secure, every Algerian deserves to know that criminals have been and will be brought to justice. If amnesties are to be granted, then they must be accompanied by public confession, in the name of national catharsis, as in the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions of South Africa, Chile, and Argentina, to name but a few examples. More pragmatically, there is also a very real danger that amnestied militants will resort to violence again in the future. Human Rights Watch notes that there have in fact been reports of recidivist militants, although these reports have not been substantiated.

Recently, Bouteflika has been able to claim that his policies are succeeding, as his Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation was overwhelmingly approved in a referendum on September 29. This is a questionable triumph, though, achieved by a general lack of public debate and by allowing the shortest period legally possible between the Charter’s announcement and the referendum vote.

The Charter itself is still more questionable. In effect, it gives the gift of impunity to most of the actors in the long conflict, with only the perpetrators of “serious crimes” excluded from amnesty and with no promise of open investigations into those excluded crimes. The Charter not only has the effect of extending existing amnesties for militant Islamists; it also implicitly grants immunity to government actors. Bouteflika will be mandated to “seek the pardon” of all Algerians for the “national tragedy,” but he will not be mandated to reveal any of the facts. Most ominous of all, the Charter includes a clause hinting that open discussion of the civil strife will be punishable:

…the Algerian people affirm that no one in Algeria or abroad is empowered to use or to instrumentalize the wounds of the national tragedy to harm the institutions of the Democratic and Popular Republic of Algeria, to weaken the State, to undermine the honor of all its agents who served with dignity, or to tarnish the reputation of Algeria internationally.

Such language may serve only to intimidate those reluctant to jump onto the Bouteflika bandwagon and ride away from a whitewashed past into a fuzzy, uncertain future. Already the militants, unreformed, are coming back home to warm welcomes.

Most recently Anouar Haddam, the self-proclaimed parliamentary delegate of FIS, confessedly responsible for massacres of intellectuals and for a 1995 bombing in Algiers which killed 38 people and left over 200 wounded, has left his American exile and arrived in Algiers. At the same time, while militants are being pardoned, Algerian justice has been cracking down on human rights activists. Two members of the Algerian League for Human Rights were arrested in Ghardaia on November 7 and accused, on no evidence, of the murder of an unknown man. They are currently being held in detention.

In this atmosphere, it is hard to blame IDPs for not returning to the villages that they have fled. However impoverished their lives are in the city, the country, remote and unsecured, has born the brunt of every conflict. Many villages also lack clean water, gas, and instruments of communication. The government has announced plans to rebuild houses, revitalize and modernize agriculture, and even to pay each person who agrees to move back to the villages. However, these plans have yet to be realized, as an immense bureaucracy slows the diffusion of funds and, on the other hand, rampant corruption means that the wealthy and powerful are likelier to get whatever money does materialize. Meanwhile, village after village remains deserted” the land goes fallow, and the cities are crowded with people who cannot find work.

This article was contributed by Katherine Prengel, a Masters’ Candidate at UniversityCollege London.

Programmes: Resolving Displacement
Type: Library, Refugee Rights News