In Algeria, unveiled terrorism War: Muslim militants have threatened with death all layers of the population, from peasant to professional, even schoolgirls, who do not follow strict Islamic traditions.

Sun Journal

June 28, 1996|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ALGIERS, Algeria -- They killed two of her three brothers and shot dead her mother, a pious 55-year-old who made her living packing eggs into cartons.

Now the killers want Houria Zaidat, too.

The death threat came in a penciled message explaining why the 23-year-old woman from Algiers' working-class suburb of Harraga, the country's female judo champion since 1992, was being targeted.

"Death to those women who do not wear the veil," it said. "Death to women who practice sports."

In Algeria, once promising and prosperous, a dirty war has been waged for the past four years to create a pure Islamic state. A schoolgirl may die for refusing to wear a hijab, or Muslim head scarf. A teacher may risk his or her life for teaching "un-Islamic" subjects such as music or French, or simply for teaching.

As many as 50,000 people may have died since the army-dominated government canceled elections in January 1992 that the Islamic Salvation Front, or FIS, the leading opposition party, was on its way to winning.

Other nations in Africa are being convulsed by civil wars and uprisings, but none has the mixture of puritanism, ferocity, method and mayhem of Algeria's war. This may be the only conflict in history where hairdressers are in a risk category -- because they make women more attractive to men.

Midwives, female doctors who treat male patients (and male doctors who treat women), and girls and young women who attend school or wear skirts or persist in trying to have careers may pay with their lives.

But women are not the only ones in the gun sights of Algeria's terrorists. Journalists say that more than 60 of their colleagues have been killed since civil war broke out. More than 100 foreigners have been slain, including seven French Trappist monks who were abducted recently and beheaded. Hundreds of schools and town halls have been destroyed. In one year, more than 400 police officers were killed.

Skeptical of government

"All layers of the population, from the simple peasant to the high government functionary, have been targeted by terrorism," says Naama Abbas, editor of the Algiers-based daily Horizons.

Many Algerians are skeptical that the hands of their government, which preaches the virtues of tolerance and its openness to all Algerians, are much cleaner than those of its Islamic fundamentalist enemy.

Keltoum Larbes, a nurse whose husband, a reporter for the newspaper Liberte, was killed two years ago, suspects that his death -- and many other violent acts for which the Islamists are blamed -- was the work of police hit squads.

Indeed, some of the most feared men in Algeria are the black-masked "ninjas" from a anti-terrorist commando unit.

A study by the French Defense Ministry's Delegation for Strategic Affairs concludes: "The strategy of counterguerrilla warfare used by the armed forces is the fairly simple technique of terrorizing the population."

The army and other components of the establishment -- known here as "the power" -- have dominated Algeria since independence from colonial ruler France in 1962.

"Algeria has been governed by the same group for 34 years," former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing has written. "Whether it is military officers or civilians who are at the top, in reality it is the same clan, born of the National Liberation Front [FLN] and molded by the authoritarian Marxist doctrine of the fight for independence."

Many areas of this country are still "no-go" zones, even in the capital. In the Casbah, the old Ottoman-built fortified district of steep, narrow lanes and whitewashed dwellings uphill from Algiers' harbor, a man and woman walking together may be asked for identification by bearded militants. If they are not married, they may be whipped on the spot.

Mounting social problems

The roots of the civil war go back more than a decade, when Algeria's Islamic movement emerged as the preferred vehicle for discontent with the one-party state and its inability to deal with mounting social problems such as unemployment and a young, fast-growing population.

The bearded Islamic firebrands promoted ideals of brotherhood, justice, Muslim morality in public life, jobs and housing for all -- a fresh wind in a stagnating society.

In 1990, the first multiparty elections since independence were held. The FIS captured 4.3 million votes to the FLN's 2.2 million in the contest for local councils and took command of almost all the major towns.

The FIS, proclaiming its municipalities "Islamic communes," began to implement its vision of a Muslim society. Women were banned from public places such as cultural centers and beaches; buses were segregated by gender. In schools, sports and technical training for women were ended.

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