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on 16 February 2013
This Kindle e-book comprises a collection of newspaper articles written by the renowned journalist Robert Fisk for The Independent (UK daily newspaper). The articles present a series of snapshots of events that took place in Algeria during the 1990s (mainly) which were characterised by a ferocious, bloody civil war in which an estimated 15000 Algerians were killed. The war was fought between the Islamists - broadly speaking those who favoured an Islamic state - and the powers that be (the Pouvoir), the established ruling elite, whose power base is the Police and the Army.

Some background: by conquest, Algeria became a colony of France starting in 1830 and later was declared a French province. Several hundred thousand Frenchmen and their families settled in Algeria: the `colons' or `pieds noirs'. Algerian troops fought for France during WW2 first under the Vichy mandate and later under the Free French led by Charles de Gaulle. Post war, the anti-colonial `winds of change' gusted through Algeria leading to a bloody War of Independence during 1954 - 1962. France was defeated, but the price paid by Algeria was a broken country and an estimated 1.5 million dead. Over the years that followed many Algerians came to believe that the ruling elite had betrayed the revolutionary ideals for which the FNL had fought: although Algeria became nominally a socialist country, inequality was rifle and so was poverty, unemployment and corruption, and for a large proportion of the population the future looked bleak.

In 1990 the Algerian government took steps to make government more representative and the first round of the 1991 national elections yielded an unexpected victory to the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) which was pledged to turn Algeria into an Islamic state governed by Sharia law. The Pouvoir panicked, banned the FIS, imprisoned its leaders and suspended parliamentary elections indefinitely. In effect Algeria became a dictatorship which owed its power to the Army and the police force.

The country slid inexorably into civil war, Muslims fighting fellow Muslims and given that sectarian conflict was absent (the vast majority of the population is Sunni Muslim)it is hard for a Westerner to understand the cruelty, the sadism that was manifest by both sides. The Islamist fighters - the most savage group being the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) - murdered foreigners, policemen, soldiers, civil servants, doctors, nurses, lawyers, journalists, teachers, writers, poets, artists, their wives or husbands and children. The `calling card' par excellence of the GIA was the slashed throat. Rape, beheading, disembowelment, mutilation were commonplace.

In the police force and Army the use of torture was institutionalised; suspects were arrested without regard to due legal process and the state security police cast their nets widely and indiscriminately. Numerous prisoners met their deaths in police custody, their ribs broken, fingernails pulled out, salt water forced down their throats until their stomachs finally burst. The ranks of the "disappeared" are legion. Many stories circulated that the Police ran death squads that murdered whole communities, men women and children, making the killings appear as though Islamists were responsible.

The orgy of killing continued unabated until 1999 when the Government offered immunity from prosecution and most Islamic guerilla fighters laid down their arms. The GIA, however, refused to surrender and over the years that followed its leadership was decimated and its numbers depleted by the Army. But the tension between the Islamists and the Algerian government was never fully resolved and sporadic acts of violence and sabotage still occur which the latter attributes to "terrorists". More recently it appears that a potentially dangerous linkage has been established between armed Islamist opposition in Algeria and the group that styles itself "al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb" that operates mainly in the more sparsely populated parts of North Africa and which is currently active in Mali.

This collection of articles written for The Independent by Robert Fisk during the 1990s and to some extent brought up to date with a couple written in 2013, gives a graphic account of the horrific violence that took place during the Algerian civil war of 1992 - 1993 which Algerians euphemistically refer to as the Great Tragedy. I found it worthwhile reading although what is described is often shocking, as it helps one to understand the roots of the "terrorist" violence that breaks out sporadically in the Algeria of today. Western politicians, I think, should be cautious of simplistic `solutions' to the problem posed by armed Islamic oppositions in the countries of North Africa. Fisk's reporting unquestionably merits 5 stars, however this book would benefit from another chapter giving a succinct overview of the period covered by Fisk's articles. A timeline of key events could also have been included. Four stars.
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