Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
8 - 14 March 2001
Issue No.524
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

War chronicles

La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War), Habib Souaïdia, Paris: La Découverte, 2001. pp203;
(The Writer), Yasmina Khadra, Paris: Julliard 2001. pp240

In La Sale Guerre (The Dirty War), which was greeted with much controversy when it was published in France last month and has now made it onto the French bestseller lists, Habib Souaïdia, a young former officer of an elite unit of the Algerian army, recounts his experiences fighting against Algeria's outlawed armed Islamist groups between 1992 and 1995, when he was imprisoned on what he says were trumped-up charges. Released in 1999, he has since been living in France, where he has been granted political-refugee status. In his book, written as a result of a determination to describe the reality of the violence that has raged in Algeria since the cancellation of the 1992 elections in which the Islamist parties were expected to achieve a majority, Souaïdia describes an escalating cycle of violence and brutality in which, he says, both the outlawed armed Islamist groups and the army itself are implicated.

"I've seen fellow officers burn alive a 15-year-old child. I've seen soldiers dressed as terrorists massacring civilians. I've seen colonels kill ordinary suspects in cold blood. I've seen officers torture Islamists to death. I've seen too many things....and these are sufficient reasons, I am convinced, to break the wall of silence."

Souaïdia joined the Algerian army in 1989 and followed an elite formation at one of the country's top officer-training schools, Cherchell. In The Dirty War, he describes the training he was given there and the views he and his fellow officer trainees had of the political instability that was beginning to affect their country, particularly following the riots in October 1988 in which an estimated 500, chiefly young, demonstrators were killed, leading to the process of democratic reform announced by the then Algerian president Chadli Bendjedid. Souaïdia describes watching this reform process unfold on television in the barracks at Cherchell, as first the single-party character of the country was broken with the legalisation of opposition parties and then multi-party elections were announced. The newly legal FIS (Front islamique du salut, or Islamic Salvation Front) knew, he says how to capitalise on the discontent of the country's youth, which constituted 75 per cent of the population, and the FIS began to make its presence felt at local level.

"Very soon, the socialist banner that used to hang in front of town-halls -- al-thawra min al-shaab wa ila al-shaab (Revolution by and for the People) -- was replaced by another -- baladiyya islamiyya (Islamic municipality)." In the towns, couples and young women were accosted by youths carrying a sign with the words shorta islamiyya (Islamic Police) on it, and they carried out identity checks, lectured girls not wearing the hijab and beat up men who resisted. "We, young army officers, did not know where to turn for guidance. There was an impression of living in a country suffering from a split personality: In the rich areas, people continued to live as in the West, while in certain poorer districts, life was run by Islamist militants."

Nevertheless, guidance was provided and the official tone towards the Islamists hardened. Souaïdia describes his first contact with the "dirty war" he says was being carried out in the country against the armed Islamist groups, or "tangos" (terrorists), as having come in March 1993. On this occasion, he was ordered to provide nighttime military escort to a lorry containing members of his own parachute regiment as well as to others, not dressed in military uniform, on their way to a nearby village suspected of harbouring FIS sympathisers. Some hours later, he escorted the lorry back, and, having arrived back at base, one of the officers who had taken part in the operation "drew a blood-stained dagger across his throat. He could not have done more to make me understand what had occurred. Two days later, the Algerian papers announced that 'Twelve people have died in a terrorist attack on the village of Zaatria.'"

Woman Police

Later in the book, Souaïdia makes enquiries about a man apparently kidnapped by terrorists, having been asked to do so by the local police. "We're the terrorists," he is jeeringly told by a superior. "Go downstairs [to the cells] if you want to see your man." It was as a result of this realisation, Souaïdia says, that it became almost impossible for him to continue his military vocation. According to an Italian judge, Ferdinando Imposimato of the Italian Supreme Court of Appeal, who introduces Souaïdia's book, an independent commission of enquiry should now be constituted to investigate allegations of torture and human-rights abuses in Algeria, along the lines of that set up to investigate, for example, the Pinochet regime in Chile.

In his book, Souaïdia make other highly damaging allegations concerning the actions of the Algerian army in the period 1992 to 1995, among them being that the use of torture was generalised and that, in order to carry out the bloodthirsty deeds that they were assigned, officers and men habitually resorted to drugs and alcohol. Racketeering, drug dealing and corruption, he says, were rife, "80 per cent of officers and men taking drugs daily." "The logical consequence" of official policy to break the Islamist groups at all costs was "that anarchy reigned in the barracks, as everything, or nearly everything, was permitted," and civilians who refused to pay off army protection rackets could easily be eliminated and the crime attributed to the Islamists.

Habib Souaïdia makes it clear that he is not a sympathiser of the armed Islamist cause, describing the violence committed by the armed Islamist groups in shocking detail. In Lakhdaria, for example, where he was stationed from 1992 on, members of the militias he says "burnt down schools, raped women, blew up buildings... They had forbidden cigarettes, reading the newspapers, watching television or listening to the radio; they had forbidden young men to do their national service, women to work or to go to school, and they did not hesitate to slit the throats of those who refused." Nevertheless, he also strongly criticises what he describes as the corruption of the regime, bitterly denouncing the Bendjedid period in particular as one in which "everyone 'ate' except the people." "Military aircraft would regularly take off from Boufarik to take the wives and servants of high officials to Paris, Palma, Madrid or Rome to do their shopping," he writes, "a practice that still continues."

* * *

Well-known in Algeria and France alike for his Commissioner Llob series of detective novels, which includes Morituri (1997), Double Blanc (1997), L'Automne des chimères (1998) and Le dingue au bistouri (1999), Yasmina Khadra, one of most distinguished francophone Algerian writers, has now published an autobiographical narrative, L'Ecrivain [The Writer], which provides the necessary background to this otherwise mysterious writer. In parallel to the publication of L'Ecrivain, however, has come the revelation of Khadra's true identity and this author's permanent move to France from Algiers. It turns out that Yasmina Khadra is really Mohamed Moulessehoul, a former senior officer in the Algerian army, and that the name "Yasmina Khadra" is borrowed from his wife. "You gave me your name for life," she is reported to have told him. "I'll give you mine for posterity."

In a recent interview in Le Monde, Moulessehoul explained that "Yasmina Khadra" had been "the writer that I always dreamed of being" and that though he had published works in French and in Arabic during the 1980s under his own name in Algeria that had been well received, even winning a 1993 UNESCO award, a 1989 Algerian army circular made it impossible for him to continue to publish under his own name. It was Khadra, therefore, that signed the elegant series of romans noirs, all starring the ruminative and disillusioned Police Commissioner Brahim Llob of the Algiers Police Department, that dramatised, something in the fashion of Raymond Chandler and American mid-century noir, the sometimes hardboiled, sometimes appalled attitude of the honest man pressed up against the corruption and crime of the world about him. In Llob's case, this meant the "political-financial mafia" on the one hand and the armed Islamic groups on the other.

Moulessehoul reports in L'Ecrivain that writing and not the army, in which he nevertheless spent his career, has always been his passion. Packed off at the age of only nine years old to a military cadet college at Al-Mechouar by a father who was also a senior military officer, the young Mohamed spent his youth and adolescence entirely within army institutions, and it is chiefly that experience, as well as the occasional vacations and times away, that he describes here. Nevertheless, it is as "the writer" and not the army officer that he chooses to present himself, having nothing whatever to say in this book about his subsequent military career. Having to make a choice between the uncertain world of letters and the security supplied by a career as an army officer, he felt constrained, as a young man, to choose the latter. Now that he has passed through the army, left Algeria, and settled in France, Moulessehoul seems to have decided to return to his first choice, writing.

Reading L'Ecrivain, however, and comparing it with Moulessehoul's previous Khadra books, which were written, of course, under very different circumstances in Algiers, one wonders what Moulessehoul will now find to write about, now that he is in retirement, or exile, in Paris. Perhaps he has a sufficient stock of experience to see him through, and perhaps the amused and ironic backward glance he casts over the adolescent Moulessehoul's literary experiments in L'Ecrivain will save him from treading water now that he has left the environment that created Llob and that fed the dramatic and rewarding thriller A quoi rêvent les loups (reviewed in Al-Ahram Weekly in February 2000). For Moulessehoul's writing seems to have thrived on the tragedy that has befallen his country, rather as many another writer's work has been stimulated and pricked by violence and injustice. It would be a pity if Yasmina Khadra, the sharp and ironic chronicler of events in 1990s Algeria, were from now on to write only in the rather self-regarding way exhibited on certain pages of her latest novel.

Reviewed by David Tresilian

Learning to write

In the fourth year, we had an Algerian from Al-Asnam as our French teacher, a certain Kouadri. He was a great pedagogue whose lessons at their best could turn the whole class into a veritable celebration. He adored the work of [Algerian writer] Mouloud Feraoun for its modesty, and he had a passion for the work of Malek Haddad. He was very close to his pupils, at once teasing them and genuinely liking them. When someone answered a question wrongly, he would make as if to catch it as it flew past, then he would open the window and pretend to throw it out, returning to the front of the classroom washing his hands of the whole matter. He showed understanding towards those pupils who were weak but had the right attitude. And he would gently take the mickey out of those who thought they understood .... Many times, he treated me like this, for, having discovered the magnificence of the French language, I had begun to take myself for Aragon. "My dear Mr Moulessehoul," he would say, "if your phrasing were as good as your patchworkmaking, then your talent would indeed be enough to wake a room full of sleeping people. But literature, you see, abhors anything that smacks of the do-it-yourself, and one does not become another Kateb Yacine by pinching a phrase from the master here and one from the Larousse dictionary there."

He suspected that I burrowed about in books in order to dress up my own writing, and in this he was neither completely wrong, but nor was he completely right. It did happen that I would sometimes get inspiration from a book, but without exactly plagiarising it, though I didn't hesitate to put together sentences from words that I found at random in my reading. Mr Kouadri didn't want me to do that, telling me to be a bit less voracious. He told me that words were not simply vulgar courtesans at the beck and call of thought, that an idea was like a queen that one should treat with exaggerated respect as well as humility, and that if I wanted to be a novelist I would first of all have to learn to be myself and not run after in others what should come from myself. In short, he told me that the writer's true study should be integrity. He himself, in order to make us understand the beauty of everyday things, would give back our essays and then ask us to take a pen and piece of paper and dictate to us the correct manner of treating a written exercise. It would bowl me over. His words would dance around the classroom like so many sparks; his control of tone and the precision of his descriptions were absolutely delicious. Had he ever written anything in his own right, I would have venerated his books, and, thanks to his advice, I readily jumped to top position in the class, getting marks of 16 or 17 out of 20 in French with ease. I had definitely chosen the language I would use as a writer. ...

[Later] for my 22nd birthday, I found two packets of cigarettes, a lighter, and a birthday card as presents among my things. Inside the card were written these words that Pétrus Borel wrote in the review L'Artiste in 1845: He will be born, perhaps sooner, perhaps later, tall, handsome and strong, a poet who comes from the mixing of two ways of thinking, of two noble races, from the generous mixture of Arab and French. At the bottom of the card someone had added "You are this Poet", signed [my classmate] Sebbouh. It was the first and one of the two most beautiful birthday presents that I have ever received.

From L'Ecrivain by Yasmina Khadra

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