Within 24 hours of the referendum on 29 September, Algerian officials announced that up to 80% of 18 million eligible voters participated, but in the capital Algiers and throughout its rural surroundings polling stations were almost deserted.
Asked by their president, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, to forgive crimes and killings during Algeria’s civil war, citizens of the capital, small towns and villages in the central part of the country answered with the same indifference they showed during the build-up to the vote.
“I don’t vote and I can’t forgive those who killed my young brother, he was only 19 years old… The terrorists killed him just because he didn’t want to be on their side, just because he didn’t agree to pray,” says Fatma, a 37-year-old janitor who lives in Haouch Gros, 40km south of Algiers.
She refused to give her last name for security reasons.
Centre of violence
In 1992, Haouch Gros became a centre in the war between Islamist groups and the military after the government cancelled parliamentary elections which would have guaranteed a victory for the leading political Islamic group – the Islamic Salvation Front (Front Islamique du Salut – FIS).
The FIS had grown in popularity over promises to bring about economic revival and end years of military rule. Following the cancellation of the elections, the FIS fractured into moderate and extremist factions, the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) being the more notable group among the latter.
The road through Haouch Gros
The fertile agricultural town of Haouch Gros also became well-known as the birthplace of GIA leader Antar Zouabri.
Caught in the crossfire between the regular army and Zouabri’s GIA fighters, Haouch Gros witnessed massacres of unarmed civilians and police. This was further exacerbated by alleged brutal retaliation by Algerian security services members against families and friends of the Islamists.
In 1997, the armed wing of the FIS – Armee Islamique du Salut (AIS) – declared a truce but the civil war did not end.
Today, the town, a former French farming colony, is a geographic manifestation of the civil war: one main road in the centre separates the two distinct parts. On one side live families of Islamists and GIA members while the other side is inhabited by families of security service personnel.
“We live together, we know each other, but we avoid interacting,” Fatma explained.
“We do not attend each other’s weddings. Our young boys sometimes play ball together, but we never really meet.
“Only in the cemetery,” she added.
Going to vote
But some families of Haouch Gros put aside the bitterness and pain to vote in the referendum.
“I voted ‘yes’ for peace; I want Algeria to live forever in stability. I voted hoping that this charter will convince those who are still in the mountains to come back and stop killing,” said Saida Chikh, 51, a housewife.
Because her three sons were in the army, she says, she was threatened by GIA members who demolished her house in 1995. Chikh and her husband fled to a nearby town, but her mother was gunned down, in a bus, in front of several passengers.
“We found my mother’s body, thrown by the side of the road. They shot her in the head and the chest; I can never forget the sight of her body,” recalls Chikh.
In a sign that the government’s charter of peace and reconciliation may be working, Chikh says she has forgiven her mother’s killers and encourages families of other victims to forgive.
“Islam teaches us to pardon those who took the wrong path,” she says.
Forgive and forget
Bouteflika and supporters of the charter used religion as a means of encouraging Algerians to vote yes in the amnesty referendum.
The government recently took to labelling the civil war the fitna, a term meaning conflict or trouble, usually in a religious context.
GIA’s Antar Zouabri was killed
“I am convinced that Algerians, as a good Muslim people, will choose the path of peace and brotherhood, and you are free to vote for or against peace,” Bouteflika told several thousand supporters at an Algiers meeting before the referendum.
Many Algerians distrusted the intense government campaign to vote for the amnesty charter, but headed to the polls in the hope that it would restore a semblance of normalcy to the war-ravaged country.
“I don’t trust this government, but nobody here wants to see the terrorists back,” said Chakir Khaled, 23, an employee of a sweets shop in Boufarik, 35km south of Algiers.
The town, once known for its local semolina and honey sweets, also became a battlefield between government security forces and the GIA during the 1990s.
In February 2002, security forces killed Zouabri in Boufarik.
Khaled, newly released from prison where he had been serving a five-years sentence for a terrorism-related charge, says the amnesty could finally bring justice to many he says were jailed on trumped-up anti-government charges.
“My cousin and two of his closest friends are still in jail and I hope they will be released after the referendum,” he said.
“I voted for personal reasons. I want my friends out and all the other innocents too, but I am against pardoning the terrorists. Nobody in Boufarik wants them back.
“None of us will ever forgive the hell we lived through because of them”, he said, his voice betraying a mixture of anger and sorrow.