Tuesday, August 29, 2006

August 29

Nine years ago today, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) added Raïs to its list of villages liquidated during Algeria's dirty war. Commencing with the cancellation of democratic elections in 1992 -- elections that would have brought the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) into power -- the conflict in Algeria resulted in more than 80,000 deaths by the end of 1997, a year in which massacres occurred by the dozens in the rural swath between Algiers and Oran. Algeria’s military junta, having seized authority in the name of preserving the nation, predictably blamed every atrocity on the predations of “terrorists” and “Islamists,” all the while refusing to discuss the innumerable executions, disappearances, and official acts of torture carried out by the state’s own security forces. As the conflict descended into unspeakable violence, the GIA and the armed wing of the FIS dueled for control of the Islamist insurgency. GIA forces controlled much of the area south of Algiers and oversaw a horrific wave of puritanical violence carried out against the civilian population. Artists and intellectuals were assassinated; girls and women were raped and murdered for refusing the veil; co-ed schools were torched; car bombs galore were detonated, with indiscriminate consequences for government collaborators, the insufficiently devotional, and the innocent alike. GIA fighters developed a makeshift guillotine, mounted on a truck and driven throughout the area, dispensing swift justice to those dragged from their homes and condemned to die. Severed heads littered the roads south of Algiers.

The scale of the attacks, writes Robert Fisk in The Great War for Civilization, soon expanded to include whole villages dispensed “en masse like animals, cut open, axed down, hacked apart.” At Raïs, Algerian security forces stood by, literally a half-kilometer from the village, content to watch as GIA forces consumed five hours in an intra-faith slaughter that took the lives of nearly 400 men, women and children who had dutifully supported the FIS. Their opposition to the government of Algeria did not save the residents of Raïs from the wrath of the GIA, who destroyed and robbed homes, sliced throats, kidnapped young women and burned scores of bodies. In October, ITN carried a report on the massacre that included the following piece of testimony from a survivor:
I was holding my handicapped child in my arms. I was running with my baby and trying to shelter us both from the bullets, but I met the terrorist in front of me and one tried to strike me with a hatchet, so I blocked it with this arm. I was injured. I fell down and dropped the baby. They took the baby by the leg and threw it against the wall. They smashed its head.

Subsequent reports by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch expressed skepticism toward the Algerian government’s claim that it was unable to prevent the destruction of Raïs and similar villages in 1997. Numerous witnesses reported that government security forces -- who claimed that landmines prevented them from intervening -- actually fired upon victims as they fled for their lives. Despite compelling evidence of its perverse complicity in the GIA massacres, the Algerian government did not lose the support of the United States, Great Britain and France, all of whom ignored appeals by human rights groups to investigate this latest round of killings. Implausibly, the Algerian military is currently assisting the United States in its hunt for desert remnants of al-Qaeda, doubtless offering its own unique contributions to the "war against terror."

Forty-five years before the Raïs massacre, on 29 August 1952, John Cage premiered his experimental composition 4’33’’, which consisted of four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence as pianist David Tudor quietly turned the pages of the score.