Trigger warning: This blog deals with sensitive subject matter, some of which may be distressing. Reader caution is advised.
It’s 5th September 2002 and Algeria is in the midst of civil war. Known as “la sale guerre” (“the dirty war”), brutal conflict has been ruling the country since the election of the Islamist party – the Islamic Salvation Front (ISF) – in the first round of the national presidential elections back in December 1991.
With the ISF, various Islamic groups and the army/government forces at war after a military coup, a bloody conflict has ensued with atrocities committed by both sides. Today, sources estimate that by the end of the thirteen-year conflict, around 200,000 people were in fact killed and around 15,000 forcibly disappeared. Ask any Algerian and you’ll find that this was a long, hard and bloody period of Algeria’s history. Ending in 2005, the war carried on for far longer than a quick Google search would lead you to believe. Of course, these memories have stayed with the Algerian people forever, in more ways than you could ever imagine.
It’s now on this particular day over 16 years ago that Nasser – a young soldier in his early twenties – arrives home after serving a recent period of military service. In Algeria, conscription is still a legal requirement for all healthy males aged 19 and over with Algerian citizenship and with the country in conflict, many Algerians are engaged in combat.
With Nasser and his brother both in the army, they’re a clear target. What’s more, with the family’s home tucked away in the remote mountain town of Chlef in the region of Boukadir in the north-west of Algeria – a key strategic area for Islamists – they’re at high risk of attack. In the eyes of the Islamists, anyone opposed to their political vision of Islam is a “kafir” (disbeliever) and deserves death. On this day in particular, with soldiers returning home from military service, the Islamists know they have a clear target close by. Nonetheless, Nasser could never have imagined the brutality and hours, days and months of suffering that would be inflicted on him and his family.
After arriving home, Nasser drops off his things and pops to the local café for coffee and the chance to catch up with friends. So far, nothing appears out of the ordinary. Yet when he returns home, a blood-fuelled tragedy awaits. As Nasser approaches his house, he sees a group of Islamist fighters leaving with his two sisters – Fatima (age 14 years old) and Noura (aged 12). The men are around 30 to 45 years old and come from across the country. Devoid of military clothing – instead choosing traditional religious garments – these are the jihadis from what’s now known as another bloody period of Algeria’s history. Merely 30 years after the end of the brutal war of independence with France, families are once again witnessing the chilling horrors of war.
Unarmed, Nasser is in a state of shock. His two sisters have been kidnapped and are now missing. The Islamists had forced their way into his home. He discovers that his brother has been shot dead and his mother – just 42 years old at the time – has been decapitated, along with his seven-year-old sister. His father wasn’t at home at the time and by fate, his life has been saved. After such horrific events, things will never be the same again for Nasser and his family.
Civil war: Children held captive
When I speak to Fatima, the pain she’s still going through now 16 years later is evident. Following a three-day journey from her home, she was kept for seven days in a remote cave in the nearby mountains. The ten days she spent with her captors have stuck with her ever since. These tragic memories are sadly now a painful scar that has been impossible to forget throughout the course of her life.
Fatima was obviously incredibly scared throughout her ordeal; scared from being taken so violently from her home, scared from being held by militants, scared at the thought of not making it out alive and scared by what can only be described as an unimaginably horrific ordeal. “They’re monsters” she tells me as she recalls how the men of various ages – young and old – were verbally, physically and sexually abusive to her and her sister. Held prisoner in the cave, forced to cook for their captors – yet kept hungry – most sadly of all, the two sisters were subjected to ongoing rape. Fatima – for obvious reasons – can’t go into more detail. It’s simply too painful to recall such traumatic events.
Fortunately, Fatima made it out alive. Pretending to need the toilet, one day she fled. Nine hours later, she found a military base in the nearby town of Ramka. It was here that Fatima alerted the outside world to the horrific torture she’d been through, both physically and mentally. Showing great courage, she began to move on with the rest of her life. With the family subsequently rehoused, they’ve since been trying to move on with their lives. Yet, for Fatima, despite having escaped such brutality, the emotional torment hasn’t faded. What’s more, no one knows what became of their sister Noura. Feared dead, Noura has never been seen since.
It is these memories that remind us of the brutality of extremism, war and violence and which have scarred the collective memory of Algeria for life. Nearly every family in Algeria has been touched by the conflict – a war which has seen the loss of countless lives with family after family torn apart as a result. The physical and mental scars are seemingly unforgettable, especially for women such as Fatima who have experienced the raw brutality of sexual violence within conflict.
May Noura and the suffering of her, her sister Fatima and the many others like them never be forgotten. As a society and global community, we must speak out against the horrors of extremism, war and sexual violence. We owe it to people like Noura, Fatima and countless others who’ve been affected. For when war is raging, sexual violence always shows itself to be the biggest and most brutal weapon.
Share this blog to raise awareness and to honour Noura’s memory – wherever she may be.
For more information, visit the Council of Europe’s website on the One In Five campaign to stop sexual violence against children and the website for the UN’s Stop Rape Now campaign against sexual violence in conflict to find out more and to take action.