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A Healing Torturous as War

Intimate and vicious, Algeria's civil conflict has wound down amid a policy of pardon. But the trauma remains, and it seems unending.

June 01, 2004|Megan K. Stack | Times Staff Writer

OULED SLAMA, Algeria — If you come here to the snug towns scattered like seed around the base of the vast green mountains, you will hear wild tales. They speak of babies burned to death in ovens and women who went blind from crying.

They tell of a man who wore a butcher's plastic apron and drove around hacking people to death in his truck. They tell of bodies abandoned in ditches, of the time guerrillas swept down from the mountains, kidnapped 70 of the prettiest girls and bore them off to servitude and rape in the wilderness. They tell of thousands of men who went missing in broad daylight and were never heard from again.

This is the folklore of a civil war, a conflict so intimate and murky that its history remains shrouded. For more than a decade, the farmers and shopkeepers of these quiet villages not far from Algiers were trapped in a dirty war between Islamist guerrillas and the Algerian military. More than 150,000 people are believed to have died in the conflict, and to this day the killing hasn't stopped, despite a cease-fire.

Life has trickled back to the fields and farmhouses of Ouled Slama. But this nation's wound goes so deep that the healing is almost as torturous as the war itself.

Today's Algeria, ruled by a government that favors forgiveness and shrinks from the investigation of war crimes, is a realm of collective trauma, of former killers living among victims, of thousands of women and children abandoned by the fighting.

The years of battling peeled the men away from Larashi Kerima one by one. Her husband was a plumber who set off for work one morning and never came back. The army executed one of her brothers, she says, for giving water and shelter to the guerrillas.

Another brother disappeared on his way back to the university, where he specialized in Koranic studies.

She is still playing with the pieces of her past, arranging and rearranging them in a hunt for a reason.

"What happened here? It depends," said Kerima, a 30-year-old woman who looks older, peering at the world from beneath the brim of her veil. "Everybody has their own story."

The twisting streets of Algiers are haunted by the homeless and the mad who poured into the city as their villages turned to killing zones. They came for safety, but many had no place to live, so they slept in the doorways of patisseries and under highway overpasses. They remain today, following their mutterings along littered sidewalks, past the tiled mosaics of bygone Berber heroes.

Psychologists say millions of people are suffering from mental disorders and that many end their own lives to escape their memories. The families hide the suicides, along with the rapes, because in a Muslim society these sorrows are shameful.

"The killers are generally the neighbors; they know each other very well," psychologist Cherifa Bouatta said. "This is a crisis not of one person, but of a whole nation. We all have this idea that our neighbor won't one day attack us. But here, that's exactly what happened."

Origins of Conflict

The fighting erupted in 1992. That was when the Algerian army called off a scheduled election, realizing that Islamists were poised to sweep to victory. Fearful that this vast, oil-rich land would become an Islamic republic, the military reasserted control. Enraged Islamists launched a war of guerrilla strikes and terrorist attacks against the regime.

Civilians were caught in the cross-fire, suspected by each side of collaborating with the other. Through the years, the war degenerated into a blood-soaked battle of terrorism, with Islamists using murder to frighten the populace into silence or cooperation and the government rounding up and executing people suspected of sympathizing with the Islamists.

Nobody knows how many have died -- there has been no thorough investigation and no national reckoning. The government acknowledges that more than 100,000 have been killed. Human rights groups say the toll is more than 150,000, and some put it closer to 200,000.

This bucolic seam between the mountain camps of the guerrillas and the suburbs of the capital saw some of the worst bloodshed. In a war so jumbled that people still don't know who killed whom -- or so they say -- villagers in Ouled Slama would wake up in the morning to find as many as 50 bodies littering the village.

They talk reluctantly about the killing, which they describe as a strangely anonymous affair. Algerians use the French phrase "qui tue qui?" -- "who's killing whom?" -- but many of them carry secret memories. Fear sticks to the village, pushing silence over the tongues of grieving families.

"They slaughtered, burned, hanged. Houses were bombed. All, all, all kinds of killing. It was hell here," said Delila Zekkal, an Algerian volunteer working with the women of these farmlands. "Sometimes I ask the women what they saw and who were the killers, and they won't say. They say, 'We don't know if it's a civilian wearing military clothes or vice versa.' "

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