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Terror on All Sides in Algeria

TIMES STAFF WRITER

They killed two of her three brothers and her mother, a pious 55-year-old who made her living packing eggs into cartons.

Now, the killers want Houria Zaidat too.

The death threat came signed in blood. The message, scrawled in pencil, explained why the 23-year-old woman from Algiers’ working-class suburb of Harraga, barely 5-foot-3 but the country’s female judo champion since 1992, could no longer be allowed to live.

“Death to those women who do not wear the veil,” it said. “Death to women who practice sports.”

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The girl, only 17, told state television that she was kidnapped by an emir, a local chieftain of Algeria’s armed Muslim extremists, and made to serve as his concubine. Every day for two weeks, she said, she was raped.

“He warned that if I resisted, he would kill me,” the teenager said. “I was terrified. On the last day of my forced captivity, the emir blindfolded me before sexually assaulting me. Then I was handed over to his assistants, who put me in a car and drove away. I thought I was being taken for execution because the emir was bored with my body. But after some time, the car stopped and I was ordered to get out.

“When they removed the blindfold, I saw I was standing in front of my parents’ home. I couldn’t believe I was still alive.”

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It was the bowl of chorba that cost Naima Hashi, 39, her life.

The friendly, down-to-earth woman who lived in the Bab Ezzouar neighborhood of Algiers took little interest in politics and never held a job. But one evening as she walked home, a man approached her and shot her in the head.

“She was killed because she had given policemen some soup and bread to help them break the Ramadan fast,” said her sister, Safia Mihob.

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In Algeria, a woman can be killed over a bowl of soup. A schoolgirl may die for refusing to wear a hijab, or Muslim head scarf. A teacher may risk his or her life for teaching “un-Islamic” subjects such as music or French, or simply for teaching.

In this once promising and prospering North African country, a dirty war has been waged for the last 4 1/2 years to create a pure Islamic state. As many as 50,000 people may have died since the army-dominated government canceled elections in January 1992 that the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, the leading opposition party, was on its way to winning.

From Somalia to Liberia, other nations in Africa are being convulsed by civil wars and uprisings. But none has the mixture of puritanism, ferocity, method and mayhem of Algeria’s war. This may be the only conflict in history where hairdressers are in a special risk category--because they make women more tempting to men.

Midwives, female doctors who treat male patients (and male doctors who treat women), and girls and young women who attend school or wear skirts or persist in trying to have careers may pay with their lives.

But women are not the only ones in the gun sights of Algeria’s terrorists. Journalists say that more than 60 of their colleagues have been killed since civil war broke out. The country is now the world’s most dangerous place to work as a reporter, editor, TV announcer or photographer.

More than 100 foreigners have been slain, most recently seven French Trappist monks who were abducted and killed in the wine-growing Medea region. Hundreds of schools and town halls have been destroyed. Buses have been blown up and trains derailed. And in a single year, more than 400 police officers were killed.

“All layers of the population, from the simple peasant to the high government functionary, have been targeted by terrorism,” said Naama Abbas, editor of the Algiers-based daily Horizons.

Government’s Role

Many Algerians are skeptical that the hands of their government, which preaches the virtues of tolerance and its openness to all Algerians, are much cleaner than those of its Islamic fundamentalist enemy. Keltoum Larbes, a nurse whose husband, a 37-year-old reporter for the newspaper Liberte, was killed two years ago, suspects that his death, along with many other violent acts for which the Islamists are blamed, was the work of police hit squads.

“Everyone talks of fundamentalist terrorism,” the young widow said. “But who talks of state terrorism?”

In truth, some of the most feared men in Algeria are the black-masked “ninjas” from a crack anti-terrorist commando unit. A study by the French Defense Ministry’s Delegation for Strategic Affairs concludes: “The strategy of counter-guerrilla warfare utilized by the armed forces is the fairly simple technique of terrorizing the population.”

In an attempt to broaden the government’s legitimacy and base of popular support, President Liamine Zeroual--a retired army general originally appointed by the military, then elected Nov. 16--has begun a process of “dialogue.”

Some, however, have come to see the president’s actions as the latest fig leaf for continued rule by the army and other components of the establishment--known here as “the power"--that have dominated Algeria since independence from colonial ruler France in 1962. The November elections, for instance, were closed to key parties and boycotted by others.

“Algeria has been governed by the same group for 34 years,” former French President Valery Giscard d’Estaing has written. “Whether it is military officers or civilians who are at the top, in reality it is the same clan, born of the National Liberation Front [FLN] and molded by the authoritarian Marxist doctrine of the fight for independence.”

On the other side of the Mediterranean, the French are uneasily watching their former possession. In Europe, the nightmare scenario is an Islamic takeover that would send hundreds of thousands of refugees streaming northward--the Spanish coast is 100 miles from western Algeria--and destabilize the rest of the Maghreb, the Arabic-speaking nations that arc from the Libyan desert to Mauritania.

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Such fears appear to be receding: Despite more than four years of terrorism and hit-and-run guerrilla attacks, the militants have failed to shift the balance in their favor. It also is true, however, that Zeroual’s government has proved unable to wipe out its armed foes and reestablish peace.

“Terrorism is everywhere, from the Moroccan to the Tunisian border,” one foreign diplomat in Algiers said. Last winter, from his garden on the hills that overlook the capital, the envoy watched as terrorists blew up a natural-gas installation across the bay, touching off a huge fire.

Many areas of this country more than three times the size of Texas are still “no-go” zones, even in the capital. In the Casbah, the old Ottoman-built fortified district of steep, narrow lanes and whitewashed dwellings uphill from Algiers’ harbor, a man and woman walking together may be asked for identification by bearded militants. If they are not married, they may be whipped on the spot.

Despite a heavy police presence, even the tony shopping streets by the Place Emir Abdelkader and other downtown areas are not safe. The fundamentalists, Algerians say, can schedule a hit within 15 minutes or so.

‘Bullets in the Head’

“If I go into Bab El Oued, I’ll get two bullets in the head. If not immediately, then within minutes,” said Leila Aslaoui, 50, a former judge and government minister who was attacked with battery acid and burned on the hands when she was handling the trial of five Islamic fundamentalists in 1981.

Two years ago, Aslaoui’s husband, a dental surgeon, was stabbed to death at his Casbah clinic, probably because of his wife’s well-publicized opposition to the Islamists.

The roots of the civil war go back more than a decade, when Algeria’s Islamic movement emerged as the preferred vehicle for discontent with the one-party state and its inability to deal with mounting social problems such as unemployment and a young, fast-growing population.

The FLN’s monopoly on power was doomed in the mid-1980s by the collapse of world oil prices, which amputated the government’s major source of revenue. But long before that, many Algerians were alienated from the authoritarian, army-manipulated state they dubbed “the republic of the cousins” because of its nepotism.

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Whether the bearded Islamic firebrands who drew crowds at mosques, universities and other public sites were more sincere is debatable. But the ideals they promoted--brotherhood, justice, Muslim morality in public life, jobs and housing for all--were a fresh wind in a stagnating society.

“Islam is the solution,” the orators insisted.

In 1990, the first multi-party elections since independence were held. The Islamists captured 4.3 million votes to the FLN’s 2.2 million in the contest for local councils and took command of almost all the major towns.

The FIS, proclaiming its municipalities “Islamic communes,” began to implement its vision of a genuine Muslim society. Women were banned from public places such as cultural centers and beaches; buses were segregated by gender. In schools, sports and technical training for women were eliminated.

The urbanized, educated and French-speaking women of Algiers and other Mediterranean coastal cities were, to the fundamentalists, a particularly loathsome symbol of where they thought their country and its Europe-aping elite had gone wrong. Abassi Medani, who was arrested along with other FIS leaders in June 1991, called such women the “spies of neocolonialism.”

Today, the authorities make a point of trumpeting the atrocities the insurgents visit upon women. But in the 1980s, when then-President Chadli Bendjedid was seeking to counter a threat from the radical left, “the power” was eager to accommodate the fundamentalists. In 1984, the FLN-dominated parliament passed a family code placing “traditional” limits on a woman’s rights.

In its most notorious clause, the code allowed men to obtain a divorce without showing cause and awarded them automatic title to the conjugal dwelling. Many divorced women were forced into the street, into prostitution--or both.

“The code made the Algerian woman a minor for life,” said Meriam Belala, general secretary of S.O.S. Women in Distress, which was founded to aid women left homeless by the divorce law.

The crackdown on the FIS sent many of its militants scampering for the hills and desert and fueled the armed insurrection. Yet even before, some fundamentalists were targeting women with a cruelty that would seem to have nothing in common with an ideal Muslim society.

In a typical example, in Ouargla, in the northern Sahara, a divorcee was burned to death with her disabled 8-year-old son when their home was firebombed, according to police and news reports. There had been rumors that she was a prostitute.

Women as Targets

With the civil war, Algeria’s women were caught between the twin jaws of prudish Islamic rulings and the willingness of the guerrillas to commit homicide and sexual assault. The Armed Islamic Group, or GIA--the most violent of the Islamic rebel groups fighting the government--even warned women that unless they appeared veiled in public, they would be considered military targets.

Soon afterward, two high school students, 17 and 18, were killed by gunmen on a motorbike as they stood, unveiled, waiting for a bus in Boumerdas, about 25 miles east of Algiers.

“They kill women who go out of doors, who work, who want to be the equal of men,” said Fatima Zohra Flici, 40, a mother of five whose husband, a physician, was killed in his clinic by terrorists masquerading as patients. “For them, women should always be submissive.”

In response to the orders and threats, many women began donning the hijab, though the garment, similar to that now worn by the women of Iran, has no historical roots in Algeria’s Moorish- and Berber-influenced society.

But modesty wasn’t all the insurgents demanded. In a practice Algerians find abhorrent and foreign to their culture, rebels began forcing girls and young women to temporarily “marry” them, a privilege they claim as moujahedeen, or Islamic holy warriors.

Refusal may mean abduction, and worse.

In the Blida region, the bodies of two sisters, 15 and 21, were found on the side of the road. They had been gang-raped and decapitated after they apparently refused to consent to a “marriage” with armed fundamentalists, officials and newspapers reported.

The girls’ mother tried to protect her daughters. She later was found raped and murdered herself.

“From my point of view, this is a fascist movement, and like all fascist movements it must prove its masculinity,” said Saddiya Hurriya Bennoune, an inspector for government schools and an opponent of the fundamentalists.

A Cabinet formed by Zeroual in January, which includes three members of Muslim parties that have not been banned, doesn’t seem to have dented many Algerians’ skepticism about “the power.” The insurgency, and counterinsurgency, continue, and although state censorship makes it hard to gauge the level of the killing, informed sources agree that it has dropped.

“Fewer women now are wearing the hijab,” Flici said. “That is the surest barometer of all.”

Still, for Algerians, getting on with life continues to require a daily measure of courage, because a multitude of acts--smoking, reading French-language newspapers, going to the hairdresser or Turkish bath, listening to the radio or music, drinking alcohol, going to the movies or a stadium, wearing shorts, performing military service or having a friend in the police, singing--have, at one time or another, been branded anti-Islamic.

Zaidat, the judo champion who lost three members of her family, refuses to don a hijab. “If I wear one, it will be out of fear for God and not for them,” she said. Flici, widowed by the dirty war, said, “After three years, I now can manage to go out in a dress.”

Of such stuff is the resistance of ordinary Algerians made. But few are willing to hazard a guess about how much longer the killing and suffering will go on.

“The Islamists are going to be here for 20 years,” one editor in Algiers said. “How are we going to deal with them?”


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