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Zaoui on the Algiers bombings

Zaoui on the Algiers bombings

By Jason McIvor

Algerian refugee Ahmed Zaoui


New Zealanders in London when the Rainbow Warrior was sunk may know something of what Ahmed Zaoui felt after the bombings in Algiers this week, that left over 30 people dead. Suddenly, the television screen carries images of home, but in a truly unsettling light.

Familiar places are in chaos, there is shock on local faces….this week, Algeria seemed to be reliving its national nightmare of the 1990s, in which over 200,000 people are estimated to have died.

Zaoui’s first response was to reach for the phone. “I immediately contacted my family, and my wife told me what she had heard from the news.’ Though thousands of kilometres apart, the couple spent the next few hours watching much the same media coverage of their far-off homeland. Compassion, enhanced by the impotence of distance, rose to the fore. “I am so sorry for the families that have lost their loved ones. I am also sorry for the Algerian people, that they will be fearful about this happening again.’

Responsibility for the Algiers bombing has been claimed by AQIM, aka Al Qaeda in the Maghreb. Until recently this band of Salafist fanatics was better known as the Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC). Now down to only a few hundred in number, the Salafists have displaced the now defunct GIA as the main violent irritant to Algeria’s rulers, though hitherto, their efforts had largely been confined to the mountainous Kabylia region.

Does Zaoui support – or oppose - AQIM? “I totally and absolutely oppose this group,” Zaoui says without hesitation. “First, I am not a man of violence, but I preach and advocate for democracy and peace. Second, I constantly talk about the need for a peaceful resolution of the problems in Algeria. Finally, such acts are against the interests of the Algerian people.”

In what way? Partly because, he patiently explains, the extremists provide a rationale for foreign intervention. “Such acts and groups give the opportunity for foreign governments to interfere in Algerian affairs, and I prefer the Algerian government and people to be free and independent in their concerns, decisions and solutions. I wish for the Algerian people and government to look after Algeria, peacefully and democratically, without outside interference.”

So, what message does Zaoui have for groups like AQIM that use violent tactics to bring about political change? “First, the premise of the question is wrong,” Zaoui replies sharply. “Such groups, like AQIM, are not trying to bring about political change.

These people and groups are wanting to go backwards, to create problems and to create chaos. They want our countries to go backwards, like Afghanistan under the Taliban. These people and groups have no reason, no political project, no social project or policies to help the people in the society. [They] focus on religious dogma and are stuck in an irrelevant and backward religious interpretation of Islam [ that] attracts people on the fringes, or edges of society. These people are not part of, or in, the general population. They have no understanding of political life or the modern world. I can only repeat that I preach and advocate peace and democracy, and I condemn this violence.’

Suicide bombers have become a new feature of extremist actions in North Africa, and have struck within the last fortnight in both Morocco and Algeria. In Zaoui’s view, does Islam condone - or condemn - suicide bombings? “I condemn suicide bombings,” he says, “and I think the core of [any] religion does not accept such acts. My interpretation of Islam is that such things cannot be accepted.”

Inevitably, the recent upsurge in violence has rubbed raw some recent wounds. The bombings can only bring back to mind the carnage that Zaoui fled from, first to Europe and eventually to New Zealand – in an attempt to find refuge for himself and his family. Given this week’s events, does he consider it would it be safe for him to return to Algeria?

Zaoui replies with typical frankness : “For now, I will say it is no secret that I wish to return to Algeria as soon as I can. Unfortunately, I do not consider that the conditions mean that my security is safe or guaranteed. For those who can return to Algeria - for example, due to the recent [amnesty] Charter - I encourage, and I have encouraged, friends and others to do so. But unfortunately, I believe I am still at risk, and can be a target in Algeria. “

Zaoui’s misgivings are echoed by Green Party MP Keith Locke : "I think that after the latest terrorist attacks, the situation would be even more volatile for Mr Zaoui.’ Reason being, Locke says, the bombings make things easy for the Algerian administration to justify a crackdown against the extremists and its legitimate mainstream critics alike. "The problem that Mr Zaoui will face is that the security apparatus will consider they have carte blanche to clamp down on democrats like Mr Zaoui, as well as on the real terrorists."

A concern, given that the amnesty itself has already thrown something of a protective cloak over the security forces. The amnesty process has been structured in a way that forbids any investigation of the authorities or any accountability pursued against them for the human rights outrages of the recent past. “I feel real concerns about the recent Algerian amnesty,” Locke says, “because unfortunately, it has been deliberately set up in a way that absolves the security forces of their part in the [ 1990s] atrocities.”

Similarly, Zaoui’s public support for the overall intent of the amnesty - peace and reconciliation – is tempered only by the manifest flaws in its structure. “I do support the Charter, and the proposals for peace and reconciliation. However, I think that they must be based on a truthful account of what happened. Sadly, the way it is has been phrased means that there is still no justice or truthful investigation of the troubles - so there are still problems, and the crisis has not been finished. I share the same concerns as Amnesty International and other international human rights groups, academics and observers in this way… ”


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