To Speak Out and Die: Journalists Writing for Their Lives
Algerian newspaper publisher Omar Belhouchet went to the town of Blida on February 11, 1996, to attend the funeral of a reporter who had been assassinated by fundamentalists. Given the danger, he was the only journalist there to mourn with the family. Afterward, as Belhouchet drove back to Tahar Djaout Press House in Algiers, he could see smoke rising near the offices of his paper, El Watan (The Nation).
The second fundamentalist bomb to hit the headquarters of Algerian journalism in the 1990s had just detonated. Its force manifested the countless fatwas against the press. The scene was apocalyptic.
Belhouchet decided right then that, in honor of those who had died at their desks, he and his surviving colleagues would get the next day’s editions out, no matter what. Though it had killed eighteen and wounded fifty-two of their colleagues and neighbors, a booby-trapped Peugeot J5 van could not stop the journalists of Algeria. “Tomorrow,” the publisher told his haggard staff, “the newspapers must appear.”
As El Watan journalist Ghania Oukazi would write, “The shredded bodies of our colleagues and of passersby in Hassiba Street will not allow us to give up.” Algerian journalists faced not only fundamentalist terrorism but also intense pressure from the state not to expose its scale.
They bucked them both. Omar Belhouchet explained to me: “Some weeks we buried a journalist and then found out another had been imprisoned by the authorities or a newspaper suspended.” He him self faced thirty prosecutions between 1993 and 1997 for his paper’s reporting about national security matters. On February 11, 1996, the journalists at Press House would defy government and terrorists by getting out the news of the latest fundamentalist attack on their own offices in devastating detail.
It was Ramadan, near dusk. The smoke had barely dissipated over the rubble. Their dead colleagues’ families were just learning of the losses. Belhouchet told his journalists to go break their fasts if they were not eating, and to come back as soon as possible if they chose to.
Returning to Tahar Djaout Press House after dark under these conditions was no easy decision, and telling the story almost fifteen years later remains visibly painful for Omar. When he recalls that eighteen of the twenty journalists who returned that night were women, I am again the woman who makes people weep. We sit in silence for a few minutes.
Just as Omar would not be defeated by events on that day in 1996, so too he would persist in recounting the story, however many spectres it still conjures up. He tells me that somehow they did get the papers out that night.
Under the banner of El Watan, they published a page for each of the other dailies based at Press House, including those whose offices had been utterly destroyed. At the time of the bombing, Belhouchet had already survived a 1993 attempt on his life while driving his children to school, an attack he told me was claimed by an Islamic Salvation Front newspaper in London. He lived in what he had described back then as “semi-clandestinity.” Nevertheless, on February 12, 1996, he signed his name to an editorial on the front page of his paper, describing the scene at Press House after the blast. “We had the impression we had survived either an earthquake or an aerial bombardment… . The place we had baptized with the name of the first martyr of press freedom in Algeria, Tahar Djaout, is now nothing more than debris. The offices of Le Soir d’Algérie, the paper that was hardest hit by this unimaginable aggression, are completely destroyed.”
Le Soir had lost three of its writers.
In the special compilation for February 12, 1996, the page devoted to this paper simply bore its name and an eloquent hand-drawn diagonal line across the page.
A journalist at Le Soir then, Mohamed Sifaoui left his desk next to the window a few minutes before the attack to walk outside with his editor-in-chief, who wanted to tell him a joke. “A joke saved me,” says the man who now documents fundamentalist violence full-time. Le Soir columnist Mohamed Dorbane, returning with groceries for his family’s Ramadan supper, saw Mohamed Sifaoui leave. “I’ll take your place,” he said. Dorbane went to work in Sifaoui’s spot. A few moments later, Sifaoui recollects, he and his editor heard the explosion, “or I should say, we felt it.” They raced back. Sifaoui found Dorbane dead at his desk by the window, hit in the head by shattering glass.
“The one who took my place had taken my place.”
The newspaper’s surviving team went to the hospital with the wounded and to the morgue to identify the dead. Because he was one of the few staff uninjured, a shell-shocked Sifaoui was dispatched to inform Dorbane’s family about his death before they heard the news on television. When he knocked on their door, the writer’s eleven-year-old son answered. “I would not wish that moment on anyone,” Mohamed Sifaoui says.
It was on such a night that the skeleton crew at Press House fought to get out the papers, no matter what. Though they had been hit hard, the surviving journalists were not cowed. They chronicled the loss of their colleagues. One article told how reporters desperately tried to help rescue workers detect a sign of poetry-loving culture editor Allaoua Aït Mebarek, whom they believed to be buried in the debris. Given its terrible condition, his body—which was already at the morgue—could only be identified hours later. “The news of his death was confirmed for us late in the evening …,” the article records. “Our souls were battered, but we swallowed our tears so as not to seem defeated.”
Being both victims and witnesses that day, the journalists also itemized the destruction in the surrounding working-class neighborhood of Belouizdad: “ ‘I was preparing f’tour when suddenly the ceiling of the kitchen fell on my head,’ explains an old woman.”
As night fell and it began to rain, El Watan’s A. L. Chabane observed bewildered residents trying to hang sheets against the cold wind that blew in through shattered windows and punctured walls.
The opinion pieces written in the ruins of Press House that night were defiant; some signed with full names, others with the initials or pseudonyms many were forced to use to protect their families. S.B., oozing sarcasm, insisted that the “ ‘heroism’ of the armed groups so touted by the ‘moujahidin,’ as well as their understanding of ‘jihad’ and of sacrifice has been verified yet again… . These ‘defenders of justice’ of a bygone era were born and trained not to die in the service of God as they proclaim, but to spread death and to kill life.”
That morning, Le Matin’s Naïm B had been typing an article entitled “A people facing fundamentalist barbarism,” about nine car bombs that had just been set off in the poor Algiers neighborhood of Bab el Oued, when that barbarism struck again near where he sat. Later, he returned to his keyboard and finished the piece, proclaiming on his paper’s page in the special issue that, “with every inch of terrain abandoned to fundamentalism and its murderous ideology, fundamentalist terrorism redoubles its ferocity so as to impose its will on society.” On that day, the journalists refused to give in to that ideology or its violence. As Omar Belhouchet explained to me, “We were never intimidated by these people.
I said, ‘We must not be afraid. We will continue our work. They have to kill us all to stop that.’ ” Even the Armed Islamic Group, which claimed responsibility for the attack, could not kill that many, that fast.
In October 2010, an El Watan staffer helps me dig up that legendary edition of February 12, 1996. It was produced as an act of will by journalists who had survived the conflagration, had been trapped under office furniture, had wrenched the bodies of their friends from the rubble, and then (some) had broken their fasts and gotten back to work.
It is a testament in black and white to the fact that in Muslim majority countries journalists have long been on the frontlines of documenting the impact of fundamentalist groups, and many have refused to relent, regardless of the peril this brings. “Pen against Kalashnikov. Is there a more unequal struggle?”Ghania Oukazi had asked on that night of “rubble, dust and tears” back in 1996.
“What is certain is that the pen will not stop… .”