Former officer testifies to army atrocities
Mustapha Hadjarab, Algeria-Interface, 9 february 2001
Algiers, 09/02/01 - A book just published in France by a former Algerian army officer has rocked the Algerian establishment and horrified public opinion with its detailed accounts of atrocities planned and executed by special military units and the intelligence services in their fight against Islamic guerrillas.
"La Sale Guerre" (the dirty war) by Habib Souaïdia is the latest in a string of publications that implicate government forces in the massacres of innocent civilians hitherto officially ascribed to Islamic guerrillas.
What is different about this book is that the author himself took part in atrocities and covert operations, supplying names, dates, and places.
Souaïdia began active service as part of a mobile unit in central Algeria. In March 1993 he was posted to barracks in Lakdharia, 80 kilometres east of Algiers. It was an Islamic guerrilla stronghold in the early 1990s and he was to spend 18 months there - pretty much the rest of his short military career in the field.
His experiences and eye-witness descriptions of those 18 months make up the harrowing core of the book.
It was no time at all before he came face to face with the dirty war at Lakhdaria. On orders from two high-ranking officers, one of whom was a general, he and his men escorted a detachment of commandos and secret service agents (from the notorious DRS, the Intelligence and Security Department. They were on a mission to the village of Ez-Zaatria in Mitidja Plain, a region infested by Islamic guerrillas in the early 1990s.
There they massacred 12 villagers they suspected of Islamist sympathies. The press the next day ran headlines denouncing a terrorist attack on the village of Ez-Zaatria.
Souaïdia seeks to denounce the methods used in the fight against Islamist terrorists, possibly to absolve himself of the bloodshed in which he was directly involved.
He harks back to a phrase he often heard barked out: "Habtouh lel-oued!" Its literal meaning was "down to river", but it was in fact an order that signified only one thing: "execute the prisoners".
It was an order that was to escalate sickeningly. At a debrief following a military operation in 1993 Souaida received the order "to exterminate anyone who supports the Islamists, not just terrorists".
He began to wonder whether they were ultimately heading for "the extermination of the three million people who voted FIS in the December 1991 ballot". By then he was already killing innocent civilians when out on patrol. He remembers, for example, two villagers he shot on the edge of a forest. They were on their wayhome but took fright and ran.
He also describes how he obeyed orders from his superiors. "If we closed with terrorists, we used to cut off the heads of the ones we shot and bring them back. We'd leave the bodies to scavengersŠ but if there quite a few tangos [terrorists] we wouldn't bother with their heads, we'd just slice off their ears."
It was only after he came to Lakhdaria that Habib Souaïdia took part in his first large-scale military operations and began to ask himself questions. "Confusion set in: who was really doing the killing?" he writes, before going on to assert that "the army was also killing indiscriminately to smear the Islamist terrorists".
Although the army combated the Islamists mercilessly, they so often gained the upper hand that towards the end of 1993 "we received orders to leave our RPG 7 bazookas at base in case they fell into the hands of terrorists".
Back at the barracks, a converted colonial house, he saw DRS agents torturing a man with electric shocks. That was in January 1994 and he supplies the names of the tortures.
The following month he found out that DRS agents had posed as terrorists to abduct and assassinate the legally elected FIS mayor of Lakhdaria. He states that in 27 months of active service he witnessed some 15 assassinations.
He saw a father and his 15-year old son tortured then burned alive in front of the whole barracks because they were suspected of informing the Islamists. "It was absolute insanity. On one side, terrorists posed as members of the security forces and on the side troops dressed up as Islamic guerrillas to carry out atrocities that would be blamed on the terrorists."
By the end of 1994 the army was sustaining casualties by the dozen throughout the mountainous regions to the east of Lakhdaria.
It responded by setting on fire huge swathes of forestland around Lakhdaria and in Kabylia because "it was impossible to spot anything from helicopterŠ Trees hundreds of years old went up in smoke. It was an ecological disaster that must also have killed local people."
In March 1995 the army "deployed impressive weaponry as it sealed off the mountain guerrilla bases around the town Aïn-Defla, 120 kilometres south-west of AlgiersŠ For a whole week planes and MI 18 and BM 21 helicopters, known as Stalin's Organ Pipes, bombed the mountains."
Villages, hamlets and remote dwellings were all hit, claiming a thousand lives, hundreds of whom were civilians. "The press naturally did not breathe a word about the civilian casualties. It considered all the dead were terrorists."
The army, too, considered everyone a terrorist, including shepherds whom it regularly killed. "These people [shepherds] inform terrorists about army movements," writes Habib Souaïdia, quoting Colonel Hamana, killed in action in 1995.
Souaïdia's military career was cut short when in 1995 he was convicted - falsely, he claims - of theft and sentenced to four years in prison
On release he immediately sought to flee Algeria despite close the close surveillance kept on him. He eventually made it to Paris and in an interview to Le Monde in June 2000, he stated he was prepared to speak out.
In "La Sale Guerre" he does just that. And although much of the book is taken up with assessment in hindsight of the bloody turmoil, he names killers, torturers and officers behind reprisal raids in which civilians were butchered. It is a measure of his determination.
"La Sale Guerre" (the dirty war) by Habib Souaïdia