Algeria Examined:Tens of Thousands Dead and It’s Barely News

Algeria Examined:Tens of Thousands Dead and It’s Barely News

by Laura Flanders

There’s a crime against humanity being committed in Algeria, but you wouldn’t get that impression from reading American newspapers or switching on television or radio news.

An October issue of Time magazine featured a spread on Algeria stuck between an ad for Virginia Slims and an article on Martha Stewart; titled “Drumbeat of Death,” the two-page montage consisted almost entirely of gruesome photographs. One shot showed a blood-spattered village morgue, complete with mutilated corpses; another, a young boy with a slashed throat being hoisted out of a well. The brief text read: “After shooting the men, the assassins slit the throats of women and children, decapitate the victims and mount their heads on stakes outside.” There was also an equally scanty time-line chronology of Algeria’s agony, which mentioned that “thousands die.” And that was it. No story, no byline, no reporter sent to the scene.

Local activists say
that dozens of
young girls and
women are abducted
every day and held
to be raped day after
day by groups of Islamic
fundamentalists who
consider their female
prisoners spoils of their
religious war.

Time’s spread detailed in technicolor a massacre in which several hundred people – adults and children, all civilians – died. And in the newsweekly’s favor, at least they did note the event. The rest of the nation’s media have maintained a virtual silence on the almost daily slaughter of Algerians since 1992. The abduction and rape of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Algerian women and girls in the conflict has gone completely unregistered.

Remember how late, and how reluctant, news media were to grasp the significance of what was happening in Bosnia – in particular to the women there? Compared with the way the media have covered Algeria, the Bosnian story broke early and fast. Yet according to a recent Amnesty International report, at least 80,000 Algerians, and may be considerably more, have died in this conflict. The respected British newspaper The Independent sets the death toll at 150,000. Whichever figure is more accurate, the dead still number considerably more than the 50,000 Americans who perished in the Vietnam War.

Algerian feminists, female reporters, and human rights activists have documented mass rape, and Bosnian-style sex-slavery in Algeria. Local activists say that dozens of young girls and women are abducted every day and held to be raped day after day by groups of Islamic fundamentalists who consider their female prisoners spoils of their religious war. In 1995, Zazi Sadou, an Algerian feminist, shared her research on rape and kidnapping with the UN World Conference on Women: “|The girls] were forced to cook, wash, and be successively raped, beaten, burned and mutilated. Some of them were later found decapitated.” And Sadou read a litany of the victims’ names: “Zoulikha, 20-years-old, Saida, 16, Ourda, 17, Amel, 20….”

Human rights observers like Sadou have given foreign journalists this same research, but none has followed up on it. No Algerian rape survivor has appeared on prime time American television to tell her story – though Sadou knows at least one who would. No newspaper or news weekly has shared her testimony with their readers, though the killing began half a decade ago and the assaults on women started long before that.

In January 1992, Algeria’s military-backed government annulled the country’s first free national elections since independence because the Islamic Salvation Front party (known by its French acronym: FIS) looked set to win. Claiming that the government’s action left them no option but violence, the FIS and various spin-off militias made war on the state aiming to terrorize the regime into conceding power, or losing control. But though the Islamists’ objective is political, their primary victims have been unarmed civilians, particularly women. For its part, the regime has responded by stepping up arrests, incarceration, intimidation, and censorship. Despite the routine killings involving beheadings, throat-slashings, dismemberment and rape, however, Algerian authorities merely condemn the terrorism. The state security forces have repeatedly failed to intervene to stop attacks.

You might think that such violence – occurring in a country of some 28 million people, just a short plane hop from Madrid or Rome – would be a hot story for ambitious reporters, or at least a priority for responsible news media. You would be wrong.

hi the fall of 1997, Islamic militants mounted two major massacres (claiming over 500 lives apiece) four weeks apart. In the following days, armed Islamists killed 17 students in their school bus, and slashed or shot to death 11 female teachers while their pupils watehed. As this is written, word comes that militiamen have murdered 27 people in a mountain village to the south of the Algerian capital, Algiers. The death toll from that weekend alone is 56. And again, the atrocity is covered in The New York Times with a few paragraphs from the AP newswire, buried-pages deep in the paper.

As the slaughter accelerated, an exception to this lack of coverage or comment was a November column, in which New York Times writer Bob Herbert sounded an alarm. “The situation in Algeria needs to be seen for what it really is. The atrocities are, indeed, crimes against humanity – in other words, crimes against the whole world. It would behoove the rest of the world to pay closer attention.” But America, at least, is not. Herbert’s was the first piece about Algeria to appear on the Times opinion page since 1995. Asked why his own paper, and the influential media in general, have so far failed to “pay attention,” Herbert admits he is baffled. “I’ve been asking myself the same question. It deserves serious newspaper and TV attention. I don’t know why its not getting it.”

The survivors take you
by the hand and lead you
inside to the murder scene.
Enter those homes and you
come out black: your hands,
your clothes, your face are
covered with ashes.
Everywhere there’s the smell
of death and of blood.”

Neither The New York TimesThe Washington PostTimeNewsweek, nor any of the broadcast networks has a bureau operating in Algeria or a regular correspondent posted on the ground. Peter Harris, a staffer on The Washington Post foreign desk, blamed the violence: “It’s one of the most dangerous places in the world for a journalist,” said Harris. Does that mean the Post only covers safe wars? Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda – any country in conflict – were not exactly picnic spots, but American journalists went.

It’s true that Algerian journalists have been prime targets of political terror year after year. In 1995, Algerians accounted for nearly half (24) the world total of murdered media professionals, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. Algerian reporters are forced to live in safe houses, and they must work under conditions of severe repression and government censorship. But they are Algerians, and national reporters frequently have it bad in a political crisis. The life-threatening situation of the locals, however, does not explain the quiet on the foreign media front. As the Committee to Protect Journalists confirms, there has been no widespread killing of foreign journalists.

“I just don’t believe that news directors think this story is too dangerous to cover,” said Herbert. “I’ve never heard of a story too dangerous to report. There was, after all, the Second World War….” Though foreign news budgets have been slashed at most news outlets, Herbert didn’t believe finances were to blame, either. “I just don’t think it’s considered a big enough story,” he admitted reluctantly. If that’s true with at least 80,000 dead, how many more adults need to be decapitated, and kids have their throats cut, and how many women must be reduced to sex slaves, before the American media take note? In the absence of news reporters doing the work he thinks demands doing, Herbert was planning to pursue the Algerian story himself. “Someone’s got to do it,” he sighed.

At Time magazine, a senior editor confirmed Herbert’s view. At the height of Haiti’s violent turmoil, he’d had to assign a reporter to go. “She was thrilled to get the story… Dying to go,” he recalled. “Usually reporters are.”

The Washington Post’s Harris laid the blame for the lack of coverage at the Algerian government’s door. “They don’t want a harsh light shined on what they do,” he said. And it is indeed true that journalists find it difficult to obtain entry visas, and that inside Algeria, official restrictions are stiff. But if obstacles having to do with official permission were enough to dissuade determined reporters, we’d have had no news from Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, or Bosnia, to cite just a few locations.

Sarah Chayes visited Algeria for National Public Radio with a pack of foreign correspondents in October 1997. “All the foreign journalists who have come to Algeria are kept in the same hotel. If s basically an armed camp,” she reported, on “All Things Considered” on October 24. “You can sign up to go to various places. You go with either 10 or 20 other journalists in a little tour bus.”

Clearly, the Algerian authorities do their best to manipulate the media; on this occasion they could only gain politically by offering foreign journalists a glimpse of their opponents’ brutality in the weeks before new municipal elections – the first since 1991. But from tan to Grenada, from Panama to Peru to Pakistan, governments are always trying to obstruct – and instruct journalists, to tell them where to go and what to say. Some, like Chayes, get on the government’s bus, but report the facts. Others, like Youssef Ibrahim of The New York Times, seem mostly content to let government press releases frame the story they tell. But there are others who “miss” the bus, shake off their official government “minders,” and do their own reporting.

As in the Persian Gulf “War – when the U.S. imposed severe restrictions on reporters – there are journalists who go along with the pool system and still find a way to file investigative stories, and reporters who break out and report on what the government would prefer they never saw. Robert Fisk, correspondent for The Independent, traveled to Algeria several times in 1997. After every trip his articles presented damning criticisms of the corrupt Algerian regime.

An ABC World News team visited Algeria at the same time as Chayes. Anchor Carole Simpson introduced their short report by saying, “Overseas in Algeria, a civil war is raging, but in this war there are few reporters to tell the story. Many have been killed and most of the rest have fled.”

Leading journalists
all seem to agree,
the problem is not
that there is no way
to cover Algeria;
rather, it is that
there is no will.

But that’s simply not true, says Danny Schechter, a producer who has worked with ABC’s “20/20,” and “Rights & Wrongs,” a human rights report that aired weekly on PBS and covered the world’s most terrorized states. Two years ago, “Rights & Wrongs” ran a segment on Algeria for which Schechter used footage from local sources in Algiers, supplemented by interviews with exiles living in New York. It’s a misguided news director who relies exclusively on his or her own U.S. team, he says. “Sure, it’s dangerous to go there, and difficult to get visas, but footage has been available for years,” says Schechter. French reporters regularly come out with pictures, he explains. “U.S. reporters could have acquired those.”

If the lack of coverage isn’t logistics, perhaps it has to do with profits. “We’re constantly told there’s no appetite on the part of the American public for international news,” says Andrew Cockburn, an award-winning TV journalist. Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s reports on covert U.S. operations around the world have been broadcast on CBS’s “60 Minutes,” ABC’s “20/20”, and on PBS’s “Frontline” – and played as part of a hearing in Congress. But it’s getting harder and harder to get assignments, says Andrew (who is also this writer’s uncle).

“The evening news won’t cover any story that hasn’t been on the front pages for at least a week,” says Cockburn. “If a subject’s uncovered, it stays that way. It’s a stupid, vicious cycle. Eventually the whole world becomes a far-off place we know next to nothing about.” An extreme irony at a time when technology has given us the ability to be a global village.

According to media-watcher Andrew Tyndall, author of the weekly “Tyndall Report,” there’s been a 50 percent fall-off in foreign news reporting on TV over the last ten years. A national survey also shows that 40 percent of local news broadcasts in this country carry no foreign news at all. Human rights reporting makes up less than one percent of all the news that TV executives consider worth airing.

Ted Koppel, anchor and managing editor of ABC’s “Nightline,” expressed his frustrations about American news priorities at the Committee to Protect Journalists’ International Press Freedom Awards ceremony this fall: “Even as we honor journalists abroad for risking personal and political peril… their own stories and the stories they cover are increasingly unlikely to lead any of our broadcasts or to appear on any of our front pages. We celebrate their courage even as we exhibit increasingly little of our own,” he declared. Leading journalists all seem to agree, the problem is not that there’s no way to cover Algeria; rather, it is that there is no will.

For Algerian Zazi Sadou, that’s the only explanation that finally makes sense. “I read The New York Times and The Washington Post and I have a hard time believing that they’re talking about the same country that I know,” Sadou said on a recent trip to the States. The U.S. version of events is sporadic, driven by the dramatic and deadly – just the kind of coverage that is most vulnerable to manipulation by government authorities and terrorists alike. Poorly prepared, lacking the expertise that comes from focusing on a region, or time spent on the ground, American reporters bone up by reading the work of other American reporters, whose expertise is as thin or as nonexistent as their own. Or they are briefed by State Department officials, who are themselves frequently ill-informed or inaccurate, or whose perspectives may be slanted. Then they simplify the picture – for their readers, and themselves.

“In American coverage, there are only two sides,” sighs Sadou. Following the traditional news guide “what bleeds leads,” reporters look for the gory tale, the loudest players with the biggest arsenals. And reporting like that isn’t just inadequate, it’s misleading.

The Algerian situation is complicated, Sadou is willing to grant. There is no simple, good guy/bad-guy story line. But U.S. reporters, she says, tend to cast the story solely as a confrontation between two distasteful players – armed fundamentalists versus corrupt, Army-dominated government autocrats. In so doing, they miss some central characters – what Sadou calls the “historic, anonymous resistance” of massive numbers of civilian Algerians who oppose both the intransigence of their current regime and the edicts of the fundamentalists claiming to represent Islam.

In March, 1995, Sadou and her organization, the Algerian Assembly of Democratic Women, held a mock people’s tribunal in Algiers that tried the men they considered most responsible for the tragedy her people have been through. In the dock stood not just the leader of the Islamic Salvation Front and the head of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA – its French acronym, the paramilitary organization blamed by the Algerian government for the majority of civilian deaths), but also the former president of the Algerian republic. “Six hundred people risked their lives to attend,” Sadou remembers, tears pooling in her eyes. “They showed up just to have the chance to name their perpetrators, even if only symbolically.”

Since 1995, hundreds of Algerians have announced their willingness to name their perpetrators in a real-life court of law. Rhonda Copelon, director of the International Human Rights Law Clinic at the City University of New York, has received a flow of letters from Algerian activists petitioning her to file a suit on their behalf in the U.S. The U.S. Alien Tort Claims Act and the Torture Victim Protection Act permit federal courts to take jurisdiction in certain cases involving foreign victims of torture and other violations of international human rights law. For two decades, Copelon and her team at CUNY, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, have pioneered the use of the act, most recently, on behalf of rape victims in Bosnia against the leader of the Bosnian Serbs.

“I received literally hundreds of letters from Algerians,” says Copelon, ‘Victims who are willing to testify.” In 1997, Copelon filed a suit on behalf of several Algerians, mostly women victims of terror, all of whom are ready to name names. The defendants are the FIS and Anwar Haddam, a so-called “representative in exile” of the FIS in the United States. Though the FIS would have the world believe that they – a political party – are entirely distinct from the guerillas of the GIA or the other terrorist militia, witnesses who’ve been in touch with Copelon say they can name FIS members who they saw participating in massacres in recent months. Haddam has expressed his public support of specific terrorist acts since 1992. He once said that all the armed groups come from the same “womb, and that womb is FIS.” That womb has borne some pretty horrific offspring.

Sadou’s tribunal was only symbolic, but the sexism underpinning the fundamentalists’ war is far from make-believe. A few weeks before coming to New York, Sadou visited Bin Talha, the site of a massacre on September 22. Around midnight that night, 200 armed Islamists invaded the row-house community and started hacking people apart in their homes. Well organized and unhindered, the guerrillas killed people throughout the night, while Algerian soldiers stood by in an army post within sight of the slaughter. (On no occasion has the Algerian military intervened to stop or prevent any of the massacres, or to arrest those responsible.) The terrorists murdered as many as 600 women, men, and children, and not quickly or cleanly. Survivors described watching their husbands and grandfathers being bound, beaten, and disemboweled before their eyes; their wives tied up and slashed across the throat. Dozens of women and girls were seized, then disappeared. The killers dismembered the dead and dying, then burned their bodies, or tossed them off rooftops to pile up in the streets below.

“The survivors take you by the hand and lead you inside to the murder scene,” says Sadou. “Enter those homes and you come out black: your hands, your clothes, your face are covered with ashes. Everywhere there’s the smell of death and of blood.”

A few days later, villagers found the corpses of 30 of Bin Talha’s missing women. The bodies had been dumped into a well. All d their throats slit. All had been raped before dying. Among the papers left by the militia, journalists found a fatwa decree, signed by a self-proclaimed emir in the Armed Islamic Group, which used his perverted interpretation of Islam to authorize combatants to rape any woman they desired. His instructions were quite specific: “Each woman is first the property of the emir. It is up to him to offer her to his men. Each man may take ten minutes with each woman or girl, but there are some restrictions: No man should rape both a mother and her daughter. The same women should not be raped by a father and his son….” The sickening document goes on.

Despite the horror of September 22, it would be a full three months after the event before The New York Times, for example, devoted any space to what had happened there. As this issue of OTI goes to press, subsequent devastating massacres received equally scant coverage in the U.S. The fatwa did not come from nowhere, says Sadou. If reporters had been present, it would have been easy to track the fundamentalists’ assault on secular civilian life – and in particular, on women – and watch it escalate. Long before the voiding of the elections five years ago, she says, Islamic militants had attacked and murdered Algerian women and girls for wearing short skirts, or going unveiled, or drinking in public. The first documented reports of fundamentalist violence against women date from 1987. When civilians are killed by ideologically-driven terrorists in other places – in Israel, Paris, or New York – U.S. government leaders call for international action, and mainstream media echo and amplify their outrage. “There are declarations and sanctions against Hamas, for example,” says Sadou, referring to the Palestinian suicide bombers who have targeted civilians in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. “Everyone recognizes and condemns that sort of terrorism – why not this?”

To date, U.S. officials have maintained a very low-key response to the crisis in Algeria. The policy was summed up on October 1 by Ronald E. Neuman in his parting address to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as he left his post as U.S. Ambassador to Algeria: “We fully support a policy of economic liberalization, and political pluralism, including strengthening parliamentary institutions.” It’s hardly the response one would expect to what Herbert called a “crime against humanity.”

According to Andrew Cockburn, U.S. news media tend to act like palace reporters – when the politicians are quiet, so are they: “Court journalism follows the court.” And when it comes to Algeria, there are powerful courtesans with the ear of the American establishment who would heartily oppose any international action, such as economic sanctions, that might affect business as usual with Algiers.

The chaotic situation
in Algeria is tragic
for the people but
fine for foreign business.”

As the reports of the latest killings hit the newswires last fall (albeit briefly), U.S. companies, including Exxon, ARCO, and Bechtel, were announcing healthy third-quarter profits from their investments in Algeria’s rich oil and gas reserves. The United States is Algeria’s second largest trading partner after France – and the country’s oil industry is almost entirely dependent on U.S. technology and aid.

Business before Lives The same Algerian government that has failed, or declined, to protect its own people, has ensured that as of now not one American citizen has been assassinated in Algeria since 1992. Oil and gas workers toil in a virtually autonomous militarized zone in the south, from which most Algerians are barred by military guards. “The Americans are safer than any Algerian,” says professor Marnia Lazreg, Ph.D., an Algerian sociologist and feminist currently at New York’s Hunter College, who has written extensively about Algeria.

“The chaotic situation is tragic for the people but fine for foreign business,” says Lazreg. “Businessmen fly into Algeria, are picked up in bulletproof cars, driven to perfectly safe oilfields, then driven out again.”

And a recent report from the California-based RAND organization suggests that even the worst case scenario in Algeria – a fundamentalist takeover – wouldn’t affect U.S. interests too badly. In 1996 the U.S. Army asked RAND to investigate what would happen if Algeria’s fundamentalists came to power. Titled “Algeria: The Next Fundamentalist State?” the RAND report concluded: “The Islamic Salvation Front will almost surely seek to impose a level of Islamic austerity as a way of life – in dress (especially for women), ban of public sale of alcohol, and censorship of films and TV. It will not oppose women in the workplace but may strive to separate them where readily feasible. It will probably adopt separate-sex educational institutions….”

Such “austerities of lifestyle may be uncongenial to Westerners, and to many Algerians as well,” RAND’s writer Graham E. Fuller went on, but “adoption of these practices should be of no strategic concern to the West unless gross violations of human rights should take place outside the context of austere Islamic law.”

In the calculating language of international finance, Fuller reflected that Algeria’s fundamentalists are “likely to welcome U.S. private-sector investments in Algeria and to undertake close commercial relations with the United States.”

Then, with breathtaking disregard for the quality of women’s lives, indeed, their ability to survive at all, RAND’s man concluded: “The West is almost certain to encounter the FIS as a major player in Algerian politics in some form. It might, furthermore, well be able to live with an FIS regime.”

There it is – in those calm unruffled sentences: the same complacent tone that makes it possible for someone to approve a “thousands die” no-story photo-spread like Time’s.

Laura Flanders is the author of Real Majority, Media Minority, The Cost of Sidelining Women in Reporting (1997, Common Courage Press). She is executive producer and host of CounterSpin, a nationally syndicated radio report from the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) and is a panelist on “Fox NewsWatch”, a weekly television program on the Fox News Network.