Julio 5, 2007

Algerians count cost of burying the past

Financial Times
Published: July 04, 2007, 00:00

Zineb Aribi fusses around her guests, smiling and chatting as she tempts them with tea and cakes. Once she sits down to talk about the past, however, the pain rises to the surface, accompanied by sobs and tears.

She recently received AD900,000 ($13,000) from the government in compensation for the loss of her son Hussain, one of more than 7,000 Algerians who disappeared during the civil war of the 1990s, allegedly taken by security forces.

The compensation is part of a charter for peace and reconciliation adopted last year after a referendum and aimed at consolidating Algeria's return to stability.

For thousands of families whose relatives have been missing for years it has led to an emotional dilemma: should they accept the cash? Many are poor and the compensation could help ease their financial difficulties, particularly for the elderly or women raising families without their husbands.

But to receive the cash they must first obtain a death certificate for their missing loved ones. That poses painful questions: by agreeing to a death certificate, are they acknowledging that their relatives are dead? Are they inadvertently helping to bury the cases of the disappeared for good, even though little, if anything, is known about their fate?

The issue has caused divisions among groups representing the families. Some have advised them to accept the compensation, while continuing to press the government for answers on what happened. Others argue it should not be taken until the truth is known.

The predicament is exacerbated by suspicions that the government introduced the charter simply to draw a line under what happened and protect the powerful military establishment.

"They [the government] think they will make us forget our children but they... will not be able to," Aribi says.

More than 150,000 people were killed in the conflict that erupted in 1991 after the military cancelled elections that an Islamist movement was expected to win. The population was caught between religious extremists and oppressive security forces and questions about who killed whom remain.

"Everything is being done to push it under the carpet," says Fatima Yous, an official with SOS Disparus, an organisation that represents relatives of the disappeared.

"I will not sell my son. I want the truth," says another woman in the office, its walls plastered with head shots of missing people.

Officials admit some security forces committed illegal acts and were responsible for many of the disappearances. But the charter prevents the prosecution of members of the security forces. It also says anyone using speeches, writing or other acts to harm state institutions or undermine the "good reputation of its agents who honourably served it" faces three to five years in prison and large fines.

Now families are wondering how they will discover the truth about their relatives. In February, police prevented a seminar, organised by associations representing both victims of Islamist attacks - relatives of whom are equally frustrated by the charter - and families of the disappeared, from taking place at an Algiers hotel.

Mustapha Farouk Ksentini, president of the state's human rights commission, says the seminar was stopped because the group lacked the correct permit. He says he understands the predicament of the victims' families but that there is no evidence to prosecute those responsible. About 70 per cent of the families of the disappeared have accepted compensation, he adds.


But the guilt burdening Aribi is clear. She struggles to explain why she took the compensation. Initially she says it was because she was worried she could die with the case left hanging. Later she says the government took her son and she could not let it keep the money too.

The night her son disappeared in December 1993, men in uniforms entered the flat asking about her children. When she told them she had three sons and Hussain - 18 at the time - was the eldest, they went into the boys' shared bedroom and marched out with Hussain, reassuring her he would only be questioned.

"I'm not feeling very good because... that night, I was the one who delivered him to the police and, after many years, I was the one who went to declare him dead," she says.

The truth about what happened to Hussain and thousands like him may never emerge. Asked if the file on the disappeared is closed, Ksentini says: "I think so." It will be up to historians to write the truth, he says.

Posted by marga at Julio 5, 2007 7:37 PM | TrackBack
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