By - Victoria Akindele
In the village of Bentalha, about 15 km south of Algiers, on the night of Sept. 22, 1997, six years into the Algerian civil war, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), attacked the hamlet. More than 200 villagers (according to Amnesty International) were killed by the armed guerrillas. The number of deaths reported ranged from 85 (initial official estimate) to 400.
In 1997, Algeria was at the peak of a brutal civil conflict that had begun after the military’s annulment of the 1992 elections set to be won by the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). At the time, Bentalha belonged to Zone 7 (Algiers) of the GIA. Located in the Mitidja plain and between the coast and the mountains of the Tellian Atlas, Bentalha was of strategic importance and its surroundings were a crucial corridor linking Algiers to Chréa, where the GIA’s headquarters was situated.
Bentalha, which had supported the FIS, in local and parliamentary elections in 1990 and 1991, effectively fell under the control of the GIA in 1994 to 1995. The Algerian regime was following the so-called “strategy of decay” and hence, intentionally left entire regions and towns, including Bentalha, in the hands of the GIA in order to create a burden for the group, facilitating the emergence of adverse conditions that could turn the population against the GIA. This appeared to work in Bentalha. The village became a support base for the GIA, which dispensed justice, administered village affairs, and organized social assistance, tax collection, et cetera.
However, three years into GIA rule, the population grew tired of the strict implementation of Islamic law and the GIA’s violent behavior, and it decided to cease helping the group. Instead, villagers formed a civilian militia to protect Bentalha. At this point, relations between the GIA and the villagers changed. Security forces were increasingly present in Bentalha, yet they were unable to fully eliminate the armed groups active in the area therefore, heightening the ambient violence. This influenced the GIA’s decision to adopt extreme measures to take back the village and its surroundings. The group also sought to punish villagers for having defected to the government’s side and as a result, the massacre. The GIA was then under the rule of Antar Zouabri.
Prior to the massacre, on Aug. 29, 1997, in Raïs, a village situated 20 kilometers from Algiers, about 300 people were killed just a few kilometers to the southeast in the Rais massacre. Similarly, on September 7 to 8, in Sidi-Youcef, a district on the outskirts of the capital, some 90 people were massacred. Rumors spread that more massacres were to come and for ten days before the event, howling as of jackals which are not found in the area was heard every night, and helicopters circled overhead daily.
Officials declared that 89 people were killed, while hospital sources and survivors spoke of 417 victims and a few hundreds injured. The aim of the GIA was to make a religious, political, and identity statement through annihilation.
Bentalha massacre was well-organized and coordinated. One out of the groups of attackers advanced to plant bombs at the doors of homes to ensure the villagers would not be able to fire at a second group of militants entering the village. The attackers were accompanied by two women from the village, referred to by villagers as the “women of Djeha,” who sought to avenge the killing of their son and brother, a GIA combatant. They held lists of names and addresses of the families to be exterminated. A third group, known as the debbahines or cutthroats, followed their role which was to slaughter the inhabitants with knives. This group was itself divided into two: those entering homes and killing the inhabitants; and those who remained outside, preventing the victims from escaping and finishing off those who had been defenestrated but had not died.
The cruelty of the Bentalha, Raïs, and Sidi-Youcef massacres, the number of victims in each location, the non-intervention of the security forces, and the attempt by officials to minimize the numbers of victims led many people to interpret this as a deliberate attempt by the authorities to hide their involvement in what happened. The mistiness of the state of affairs contributed greatly to the spread of such a belief. While it is true that the security forces often used indiscriminate violence against the population, which contributed greatly to the upsurge of rabid youths, there is no proof whatsoever of their incriminating involvement in these massacres.
Two decades and a couple of years later, the Bentalha massacre remains profoundly ingrained in the communal memory lane of Algerians.
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