State violence and Algeria’s disappeared: The battle for truth and memory

Algerian mothers hold up photographs of their disappeared loved ones during a protest outside the office of a human rights group in Algiers September 28, 2005. For a decade, dozens of mothers have held sit-ins once a week outside the office demanding the return of their loved ones or information about their fates. Algeria's national referendum, which will be held on September 29 aims at ending more than a decade of conflict which will help Islamists reach their goal of forming a purist Islamic republic ,an influential former leading militant said on Monday. REUTERS/Louafi Larbi

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My brother is one of 20,000 Algerians who were forcibly disappeared during the civil war in the 1990s; the same war also led to the deaths of 200,000 Algerians. Driven by these events, I work within the SOS Disparus organization, along with families of victims, to pursue truth, achieve justice, and prevent these crimes from being collectively forgotten. This process is hindered by the military-run Algerian regime, which is intolerant of dissident opinions and has distorted the meaning of national reconciliation.

During the 1990s, Algeria’s political and military regimes had a double strategy. On the one hand, they fed war efforts and exploited public and private media outlets for propaganda purposes. On the other hand, they spread fear among the population through a brutal crackdown and enforced disappearances, enacted by the military, security service agents, police, so-called national militias, legal defense groups, and plainclothes informants.

With a population crippled by fear and engulfed in a destructive and bloody civil war, the authorities were also free to carry out destructive structural economic changes with the help of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Austerity measures implemented as part of the IMF’s Structural Adjustment Plan (SAP) led to rising unemployment, falling purchasing power, devaluation of the Algerian dinar, and mass layoffs in the public sector.

It is due to these political and socio-economic injustices that SOS Disparus and the families of the disappeared seek peace, justice, and national reconciliation. On August 31, 1998, the families of the disappeared gathered for the first time in Algiers; they then launched weekly marches demanding justice and freedom, much like the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo have been doing in Buenos Aires since 1977. Although the Algerian state tried to crack down on them, the families continue to demand information about their kidnapped loved ones.

After years of struggle, SOS Disparus was established to defend the plight of these families. It started out in 1998 by holding weekly protests in Algiers. During every protest, participants were harassed and detained by police. However, the families of the disappeared maintained a peaceful struggle, while pursuing their aim of being awarded reparations through an independent judicial process.

The regime attempted to bury the national tragedy of the disappeared in a number of ways. For example, it passed the “Decree Implementing the Charter for Peace and National Reconciliation” in 2008, which threatens to punish families seeking the truth about their disappeared loved ones with fines and imprisonment. This charter is effectively an amnesty law that aims to shut down any public discussion about the heinous crimes of the past. Since many of the families of the disappeared were poor, the regime would also provide them with small grants, framed as “compensation,” in exchange for their silence. Families were then faced with a difficult decision: to be bought into silence or to continue their difficult search for their loved ones while facing harsh repercussions by the government and its agencies. In either case, no acknowledgement of the government’s responsibility for those forcibly disappeared would be forthcoming.

SOS Disparus holds yearly gatherings to promote the transitional justice process and to protect Algeria’s collective memory. It also collaborates with other national organizations, such as Somoud and Djazairouna, which represent families that were victims of terrorism. In addition, it works with Chilean, Peruvian, Moroccan and Argentinian civil society professionals with similar transitional justice experiences. For instance, in collaboration with Argentinian and Moroccan civil society, SOS Disparus organized a two-day meeting and training session in Algiers about the memory of victims and the question of reparations. This meeting focused on techniques for identifying human remains through DNA, which could be useful for future efforts to identify victims.

One challenge that families of the disappeared face in their search for the truth is when the judicial system allies itself with the political system. When the families of the disappeared found themselves isolated and in the midst of a civil war, they entered the elaborate maze of the judiciary in search of any information about their loved ones. They were met by a hostile state media response and a hateful and indifferent judiciary.

While hundreds of cases have been filed in relation to forced disappearances, lawyers have said that they do not know of any case that has located a disappeared person or brought charges against security forces. As such, the judiciary has become a graveyard for freedom, rather than a justice refuge.

The Algerian state has essentially been trying to clamp down, through legal and political means, on Algerian civil society’s battle for truth and memory. The fact that this battle persists attests to the significance of the efforts of the families of the disappeared to pursue truth-seeking and to protect the memory of their loved ones. While there has been no political transition in Algeria as yet that is conducive to a genuine pursuit of transitional justice, Algerian civil society, lawyers, victims and their families are all well-versed in the value of truth-seeking, with or without the state.