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Leaving Tears, but Not a Trace

Aribi Zeineb's teenage son was taken away in 1993 by men claiming to be police. Algerians have seen thousands of such disappearances.

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

ALGIERS — On a night like this, when soft rain is brushing the streets, she remembers just how he looked. When she lifts the curtain aside and points, you can almost see him too, standing in the street beneath the pine bough sagging with the weight of water.

"Where the puddle is," Aribi Zeineb says. "That's where they put the military trucks."

He was wearing his pajamas the last time she saw him. They had yanked his pullover up over his face, and tied his wrists behind him. One slipper clung to his foot; the other was lost when they marched him down the stairs.

This is what a mother remembers from the night she saw her eldest son loaded into a truck with the other boys from the neighborhood: a single slipper in the cold rain. It was Dec. 3, 1993. Four o'clock in the morning. Hussein was 18 years old.

Her husband was working a graveyard shift. He'd retired from the mine, but the family needed the money he brought home as a night watchman. The children were sleeping. When the men pounded the door and yelled, "Police!" it was she who let them in.

She was groggy. She was half-dreaming. She has never forgiven herself.

"I feel as if I've given my son with my own hands," she says. "If I'd known, I'd have hidden him. I'd have told him to jump through the window. At least I'd have seen him dead. To jump with him would be better than this."

Zeineb's son was among thousands of Algerians who disappeared during this nation's civil war, a conflict that's still grinding on after 12 years. The mysterious fate of as many as 10,000 "disappeared" people remains a stain on this country's conscience even -- or especially -- now, as this heartsick land tries to find its way to a seldom-tasted peace.

Many of the families say security forces collected their loved ones, but the government has refused to open the files or to confront the rumors of mass graves. A Cabinet minister who once let slip the phrase "secret detention centers" later denied he'd said it.

"I haven't seen him dying in front of me. I haven't buried him. He's not ill to be cured. I haven't seen his tomb," Zeineb says, almost chanting, as if she has counted these sorrows a thousand times. "Disappearance," she says, "is worse than death."

Zeineb was a country girl, a peasant transplanted from the dusty hillsides of her village to the cramped quarters of the city to marry a distant relative. She never learned to read or write, but she rules over her husband and children, darting through their fourth-floor walk-up with the light limbs of a bird. Her shoulders are pinched and her face scratched by worry, but beneath her silk turban, her eyes are full of light.

"It's a fire in my heart and my liver that they can't put out," she says. Her son was an artist, a serious boy who painted bright landscapes and wanted to become an architect. The night he disappeared he had been studying; he had a university exam the next day. He'd told his mother the agents were arresting boys in the area. Perhaps she'd better hide her gold, he said.

In the old days, when she was still infected with the fever of hope, she yearned so badly to see her son again, she sometimes did. There was a homeless man under the bridge one day, asleep with his jacket pulled over his face.

Perhaps they tortured my son and he went mad, she told herself. Perhaps I have found him at last. She hailed a policeman.

"I think it is him!" she told the policeman. "I think I recognize his hair. Please show me his face. The poor thing; he can't remember his way home, but I will take him."

The policeman lifted the jacket, but it was not Hussein. Her stomach fell. Of course it wasn't. "It's just some poor fool," she cried. The policeman looked down at this tiny woman with the old eyes.

"Poor mother," he told her. "I hope you find your son one day."

There was a man who came to the house three times looking for Hussein. He said they had been in prison together, down in the south. The man couldn't have been older than 30, she thought. The stranger wouldn't give his name, but he insisted that Hussein had been put before a military tribunal and found innocent.

"Your son is not dead," he said. "He is not very far from here."

"Is he in jail or hospital?" she pressed.

"I can't say anything."

That was in 1999. The stranger never came back.

Zeineb isn't trying to find Hussein anymore; she believes he's dead. A neighbor who is important in the military told her that all of the men who were taken that night had been killed, their bodies dumped into the wastes of the desert. She has come to take it as truth.

"I've lost my teeth, I've lost my eyes," she says. She is sitting on the floor with the rainy night at her back, watching a stranger take notes on her suffering.

"That pen won't be enough," she says. "That notebook won't be enough."

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