Two Decades Later, Algeria Protects Mystery of Bentalha Massacre

Twenty years ago tonight, around sunset, masked gunmen approached the village of Bentalha, on the outskirts of Algeria’s capital, Algiers. They infiltrated quietly, clad in black and wearing hoods to hide their identities, and proceeded to murder anyone they encountered. They used guns, knives, and machetes to butcher the unarmed, in a terrible slaughter that lasted nearly 10 hours.

By daybreak, the extent of the massacre became evident. The exact number of dead has never been agreed upon, but the best estimates place the toll of the butchered north of 400 – many of them women, children, and the elderly. Something like one-fifth of Bentalha was dead, many of the victims having been slaughtered ritualistically, even decapitated. Some of the women had been raped before being butchered, while babies had been bashed to death against walls.

The horror of the Bentalha massacre briefly captured the world’s attention – an iconic photo of a local woman discovering her family’s dead, proclaimed as “the Madonna of Bentalha,” won awards – but that soon faded. Five years into Algeria’s hideous civil war, massacres had become so commonplace that it was difficult to keep track of them. Less than a month before Bentalha, at the village of Rais, only a few miles down the road, mysterious masked butchers had murdered hundreds of civilians in a similar fashion.

While massacres of civilians grew depressingly routine in the bitter fight between the Algerian military regime and Islamist rebels, they peaked in 1997, and Bentalha was a rare example that got some attention abroad, fleetingly. In truth, Algeria’s fratricide never got much Western press outside France, with its long colonial history with the country plus a considerable Algerian diaspora. Even though the death toll of the civil war that engulfed Algeria for years beginning in 1992 claimed some 200,000 lives, most of them civilians, that bloody conflict got a mere fraction of the Western media attention showered on the concurrent Bosnian war, which killed half as many people.

In fairness to journalists, the junta in Algiers didn’t want foreigners looking closely into what was happening in the country, and when responsibility for the Bentalha massacre was claimed by the Armed Islamic Group, the notorious GIA, the blood-thirstiest jihadist gang on earth in the mid-1990s, not many Westerners were eager to dig more deeply – particularly when both sides in Algeria’s civil war didn’t care about protecting journalists asking unwanted questions.

Read the rest at The Observer…