North Africa, West Asia

An open letter on enforced disappearances: the Algerian experience

In tribute to the courageous struggle of mothers and wives of the disappeared and in memory of my cellmates who disappeared in Châteauneuf as well as all other victims.  

Rachid Mesli
5 September 2016

Mothers and wives of the disappeared peacefully protesting in front of the presidential palace. Alkarama. All rights reserved.The use of enforced disappearance as a tool of repression is not insignificant. Far worse than arbitrary detention, torture or summary execution, it creates a sense of insecurity and profound terror not only among the families of victims, but also among their relatives and neighbours and by extension the whole society.

This technique which was developed by the German Gestapo during the Second World War, used by the French army during the Algerian Independence War and later by south American dictatorships, aims at controlling a society by instilling in each and every member of society confusion and the fear of becoming the next victim if he or she persists in “supporting the enemy”.

It is a “perfect crime” that leaves no trace: neither the arrest nor the detention are acknowledged, there are no legal proceedings, the victim never existed, s/he becomes “dust”. N’ghabrouk (“we will turn you into dust”) was the common term used by torturers in Algeria in the 1990s. It is almost impossible to know who detained the victim and what happened to him or her.

For the families, it creates a constant all-consuming suffering: “Where is s/he? Is s/he dead? Is s/he alive?” They are torn between the hope of seeing their relative again and telling themselves, without any certainty, that they may not be alive any more.

“Grief without death, without burial, it does not make sense, it is impossible”, the wife of a victim once said. More than 20 years after the start of the Algerian tragedy, which followed the military coup of January 1992, families of the disappeared still live with this pain.             

Families started coming to us in 1993 – in particular to the office of the lawyer Mohamed Tahri in Kouba which became the “office of mothers of the disappeared” – to report kidnappings or arrests of a father, brother, son or husband by the army or police. We thought that they were abnormally prolonged arbitrary detentions or transfers to one of the barracks or secret camps in the south of the country. After all, at that moment more than 10,000 individuals had been detained without any legal proceedings in these camps.

Even when doubts about the actual fate of these victims were becoming stronger, we shared the families’ hopes that their nightmares would soon be over. We believed, hesitantly, that Algerian security services would “never dare” follow through on such inhumane tools of repression.

It was only after two or three years of anxious waiting and fruitless searches that we realised the scale of the crimes. We were not dealing with a few isolated cases any more: every day in the wilayas of Algiers, Blida and Boumerdes alone, hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrests followed by disappearances would appear. We gradually heard more and more stories that confirmed the magnitude and severity of repression. 

We obtained information from those who were lucky enough to have been deferred to special courts and transferred to official prisons. “This man? Oh, yes he was with me in the central police station … Yes, we were all savagely tortured … A lot of us were left behind … No, this one has not been presented to a judge yet”. 

When I myself was kidnapped by the security services on 31 July 1996, my fellow lawyers went to the Minister of Justice the very next day, and he denied having arrested me. He instead blamed a terrorist group for my kidnapping before being contradicted by a search carried out by the police in my law office a few days after.

Through the numerous troubling testimonies of survivors, I already knew the secret detention centre of Châteauneuf, where I was taken to, well. There, I shared with fellow detainees the hope of seeing the light of day again. I was lucky enough to have a second chance, unlike others whose mothers never saw them again. We were 33 detainees in the Châteauneuf police station, 30 disappeared.  

They should not be forgotten, like the thousands of other victims of this mass crime which amounts undoubtedly to a crime against humanity in international law. The perpetrators of this crime continue to enjoy impunity and the complicit protection of Algerian official authorities.  

Alkarama’s report published on 30 August 2016, “Like a fire that never dies - the denial of the right to truth and justice for the families of the disappeared”, is a contribution to the necessary duty of remembrance – so that future generations know and say, whatever the circumstances may be, “never again”.

In tribute to the courageous struggle of mothers and wives of the disappeared and in memory of Grig Hassine and Khellil Cherfi Kamel, my cellmates who disappeared in Châteauneuf as well as all other victims.  

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