Algeria: Something Is Not Right Happened in Raïs
In Algeria politics is not local, but vocal, therefore the nights of horror of August and September, 1997, still haunt the dreams of the population.
By Abdennour Toumi
About 18 miles south of Algiers located in the countryside of the Municipality of Sidi-Moussa, a massacre took place in a small village where a hundred civilians were slaughtered, mainly women and children and known as the Raïs Massacre.
It is located halfway between Sidi-Moussa, Baraki and Larba’a. These three localities used to be called the Triangle of Death, Once one heads further west, add Bougara ex-Rovigot. All these villages are located in Wilaya (Province) in the Metidja plain.
A region known for its fertile lands and beautiful orchards, it used to be the home mainly of French settlers.
The small village of Raïs (in colloquial Algerian Rayees) ironically stands for “president” in Arabic. In the ’70’s the village was composed of only four main families (I am not permitted to name them out of courtesy), hence the families are affiliated and related to each other by marriage. They are in the majority landowners, while the remainder of the land belongs to the government.
The land was managed by the government’s agricultural farm (Domaine Si-Djaffar, former Narbonne); splendid apple, pear, orange and lemon orchards surrounded the village, and pine trees bordered the main route leading to the city of Sidi-Moussa.
An important segment of the younger population spent their summer-time working in those orchards in the harvest season…
In 1990, Algeria held its first free local election in the wake of the “Algerian Spring.” The FIS won a landslide victory and Sidi-Moussa was no exception. The majority of Raïs voters voted en masse for the Islamist party, including the city Vice-Mayor, one of the inhabitants who vanished in the massacre. The elderly voted for the FLN party, worth noting because Raïs and other small villages in Sidi-Moussa and Larba’a were the backbone of the Wilaya IV during the Algerian Liberation War (1954-1962).
On the nights of August 28-29, 1997, as the country sank deep in indescribable civil war, the Armed Islamic Group (French acronym GIA) launched an attack on the villagers. According to a credible eye witness, it was a hot and humid night, in one area of the village a family was holding a family wedding, so people were for the most part awake, despite the shadow of the war, people were trying to keep the night festive and joyful.
The terrorists arrived in pick-ups armed to the teeth with machetes, knives and riffles, wearing Afghan dress, their faces covered with a Saharan scarf, approximately a hundred — Rachid told me” … these cowards had women with them, strangely I heard them swearing and if my memory doesn’t fail me they even had foreigners because of their physiognomy, usually Algerians are not so tall, these bastards were…”
He continued, “they entered from the east gate of the village, coming from either Larba’a or Baraki, I don’t know, at first they walked into the first house (he named the family) the family members faced them with metal bars and batons, (he named the first victim) was killed (described in a horrible way). Then the entire village turned into a night of horror.
“The horror went on for more than four hours; the terrorists didn’t show any pity to kill and destroy those innocent souls, mainly children and women,” it was a massacre.” Miloud added.
Later the official Army stormed the village, but the terrorists had already left, and then came the never-answered question: Why did it take the Army five hours to intervene? Knowing the region was the hottest spot in the country there was a military barrack a few miles west of the village, and checkpoints and protection posts every five hundred meters?
The death toll given by the authorities was 38, but according to family victims and people who knew the village well the count passed 300.
Two decades have passed since this tragic event and one like it that took place three weeks later in Bentalha, another village that witnessed a night of horror, located in the Municipality of Baraki.
I myself visited the two localities during my sojourn in Algiers. People still suffer shock in the aftermath, especially the elderly. I met one survivor by chance at the city’s Mosque. Although he was the wealthiest man in the village, I was told he lost half of his family; today he lives with his grandson and doesn’t speak with anyone.
As for the youngest who were either in their early childhood or teenagers, they prefer not to speak about this event, for it is a tragic story and a history they will never forget, according to Hamid, a university student studying Law.
The inhabitants of the village and the city of Sidi-Moussa prefer to move on.
Today the city is flourishing, elected the cleanest city of Algiers Department due to the work of the Mayor and his city counsel who are trying to give the city a second wind after the suffering of the dark years of terrorism. The city holds the famous National Soccer Complex, where the national squad rest and practice.
The city and its villages are safe, one feels the change, people relaxing comfortably, coffee shops and restaurants are open late, business is booming; Social projects are carried out by the Municipality even in the villages, notably Raïs.
It is important not to forget Ouled Allel, another small village whose inhabitants suffered a great deal from the terrorists and their atrocities. In fact this village was once the HQ of the GIA’s “Emir” and his lieutenants; to the point Former President General Zeroual ordered the village to be erased! I spoke with a military aviator, whose helicopter was shot down by the terrorists in one of the village’s orange orchards.
Why did the terrorists settle in those villages? From the military tactics point, they were vital because they were located close to the city of Algiers and close also to the mountains where they could hide; the plain of Metidja is located at the feet of the Atlas Blidian mountain chain.
Subsequently, the area was also used as a base for the first Armed Islamist Movement in the mid ’80’s under the leadership of Mustapha Bouaali and his lieutenant Abdelkader Chabouti. Mr. Bouaali was killed by the regime forces in 1987 in a region near Larba’a.
But when one walks in the streets of Sidi-Moussa and speaks with the elderly, one senses in their comments the vivid terror and collective despair they went through, even though they prefer not to speak about it at all.
Every one has a story to tell whether the one who lived through that night of horror in Raïs, or a young man who was on the roof protecting his house and neighbors; even women when they speak about it are very emotional, and men prefer not to recall those years when it was so difficult to live and survive.
Yet the people still wonder, asking why this happened to us and why in Raïs? This raised the tiring question, who was killing whom and why?
In a recent article about this tragic event, retired General Abderrazak Maïza, who was the Commander of the First Military Region in Blida, told le Soir d’Algérie that it was “a sort of God-father business, a money-lending problem between the terrorists’ family members.”
In sum, the people of that region today don’t want to hear anything about change or revolt. Some of them left the city, leaving every good souvenir of their childhood behind.
The city and the villages are still in the majority conservative, and the Islamists are present mainly in the local mosques; meanwhile the authorities are keeping a vigilant eye on their actions and activity. They are less powerful in terms of social mores, since they converted to business, including former GIA and AIS (FIS military branch) members who control the local food and supplies market in Larba’a and Baraki.
They are not strong politically and are totally absent from the local politics — in Algeria politics is not local, but vocal, therefore the nights of horror of August and September, 1997, still haunt the dreams of the population — surely “something is not right” happened in those villages and others in the country.
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