- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 27, 2002

OUED ALLAL, Algeria Laughing children scamper down a dirt road, past gutted, bombed-out homes that have become their playground.

They were babies when their village fell under the rule of Islamic insurgents in a 10-year blood bath that has killed 120,000 people and is still going on at an average rate of 150 killings a month.

Yet life is cautiously gaining ground over death and fear in Algiers and in backwaters like Oued Allal, a half-hour's drive away. A presidential peace offensive, coupled with the fallout from the September 11 terrorist attacks on the United States, hold out the hope that a corner has been turned.

Many people give a measure of credit for the relative calm to President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his government's July 1999 offer of amnesty to insurgents who would lay down their arms within six months. Some 6,000 insurgents are said to have accepted the deal.

Although the brutality of the insurgents has been loudly condemned worldwide, so has the military's response, and the huge, oil-rich North African country has been ostracized by the West for a decade. The attacks of September 11 opened the way for Algeria to side with the anti-terrorist coalition and regain respectability.

Mr. Bouteflika visited the White House in November, promising cooperation against terrorism. Last month, the United States held military maneuvers with Algeria.

In December, Mr. Bouteflika signed a long-sought association agreement with the European Union, then met in Brussels with NATO Secretary-General George Robertson. Algeria hopes the West will look more kindly on its requests to buy American and European military equipment.

Reinforcing a hope that the old Algeria, secular and French-oriented, is recovering lost ground is the fact that President Bush put its two main insurgent groups the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Call and Combat on his list of organizations whose overseas finances have been ordered frozen.

Both groups have tentacles in Europe. The GIA sowed terror in France, hijacking an Air France passenger jet on Christmas Eve 1994 and carrying out deadly bombings in 1995. Ahmed Ressam, the Algerian convicted of plotting a bombing in the United States, had links to a GIA support group in France.

Since September 11, diplomats here have been speaking of a "confluence of agendas" between Algeria and the West. Newspaper reporter Salima Tlemcani spells it out bluntly. A writer for the newspaper El Watan who has covered Algeria's insurgency since it started, she says Algerians sense that "finally, there is a country that feels what we've felt for 10 years but they have everyone on their side, and we've been alone."

However, Mr. Bouteflika's amnesty, his "civil concord," angers many families of victims. Some of them now must live alongside the killers of their relatives. It is a fracture that is unlikely to heal soon.

"The president has pardoned them and let them go free, and they're living better than us," said Aicha Chaouche, a former resident of Oued Allal who lost three sons in the violence.

Poverty, a housing shortage and an unemployment rate of at least 30 percent are the lot of the young, who make up two-thirds of Algeria's 30 million people. Corruption is rampant.

Once a French colony, Algeria fought a long war of independence to emerge as a socialist state tied to Moscow and a standard-bearer of the Third World. But nowadays many Algerians dream of emigrating across the Mediterranean to a better life in France. In a humiliating sign of the times, when French President Jacques Chirac visited Algiers in December, the crowds chanted, "Give us visas."

This malaise had been around for a long time. A decade ago it produced the meteoric rise of the Islamic Salvation Front. Promising to deliver solutions where military-backed leaders had failed, the front was poised to win the 1992 parliamentary election.

Then the army suspended Algeria's experiment in democracy. It drove the Islamic forces underground and the country was engulfed in a gruesome war of beheadings, throat-cuttings and shootings that pitted Islamic rebels against shadowy government-backed militias and the military.

While the oil and gas industry, which provides some 95 percent of export earnings, has been spared, the war has cost Algeria $20 billion by official estimate. Up to 7,000 people have disappeared, according to human rights organizations. The official figure is 4,880.

The question of who is killing whom hangs over several massacre sites near Oued Allal, with accusations that the army had a role in some civilian killings, if only by doing nothing to stop them.

In the darkest years, the mid-1990s, many villages in the Mitidja Plain, an agricultural zone south of Algiers, fell into the hands of insurgents, becoming "liberated territories" like Oued Allal, a strategic crossroad.

"They could go anywhere from here, and when security forces moved in, they could get away fast," said a security officer based in the area who would not give his name.

In those days there were no children in the streets.

Up to 8,000 insurgents were operating at the height of the violence, according to Luiz Martinez, author of "The Civil War in Algeria," a study of insurgent groups. Another 10,000 to 15,000 young sympathizers were ready to kill for them, he said in an interview in Paris.

"They could play soccer, drive a taxi, but kill someone during the week," he said. He guesses some 500 to 1,000 insurgents remain.

"Families were the eyes and ears" of insurgents, said Cherifa Kheddar, president of Our Algeria, a victims' association. Her brother and sister were killed by insurgents in 1996. Those who did not do the insurgents' bidding in "liberated territories" paid.

Now she sees insurgents turning themselves in "not like the vanquished, but as though they won the war. They regret nothing."

Aicha Chaouche said her eldest son, 24-year-old Mahmoud, was killed because he had applied to become a police officer. He was kidnapped Dec. 11, 1994, and his body thrown into a well. Two other sons, Redouane, 23, and Mohamed, 21, were murdered in 1996. Both had joined the Patriots, a government-armed civilian force, to avenge Mahmoud's death.

Now, Aicha's fourth son, Farouk, 19, says he will go after his oldest brother's killer once the man is released from prison. "He's still living in prison, still eating, still breathing," Farouk said at the family's apartment in nearby Sidi Moussa.

Their original home, in a field near the Oued Allal mosque, is a pile of stones mined by insurgents, then bombed and razed by security forces.

Mrs. Chaouche, 53, said she "personally knew" at least some of the men who killed her three sons. One of them, she said, brought her a sheep's head, a common dish here, saying it was a gift. But she believes they were telling her that her son had been beheaded.

"We lived in anguish … We took tranquilizers," said Brahim Benmoussa, a sociologist at the University of Algiers. Two of his colleagues were killed.

The insurgents imposed a puritanical Islamic code on the "liberated territories." Mr. Benmoussa recalled a colleague who would come from the countryside to his house in Algiers just to smoke cigarettes and listen to music.

Now, he said, "People are sick of being afraid. They want to explode, to live fully. They've had enough."

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