For Massacre-scarred Algeria village, peace is worth more than wealth

In a village scarred by one of the bloodiest massacres of Algeria's civil war in the 1990s, residents turned out for Thursday's presidential election to vote for "peace, that's all".
The military-backed government's decision to cancel elections in 1991 that Islamists were poised to win sparked a decade of bloodshed, and the violence of the 1990s is never far from Algerians' minds.
"Peace is worth more than any amount of wealth," said Abdelkrim, a pensioner queueing to vote even before the polling station opened at 8 am (0700 GMT) in Rais, in Sidi Moussa district south of nearby Algiers.
"We are voting for peace, that's all we want," said Khadija, a widow in her 50s from the same village.
Her husband was killed in August 1997 along with nearly 100 others in Sidi Moussa in an overnight attack blamed on the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), which carried out civilian massacres in its battle against the government, sometimes wiping out entire villages.
That night, men from the GIA entered Rais and indiscriminately killed men, women and children, shooting them dead or cutting their throats.
With only her kohl-rimmed eyes visible through her Muslim veil, Khadija is overcome with emotion talking about the tragedy.
But "everything has changed" in the village of 8,000 people, said Kheira, another veiled resident.
"We can now go out and come back to our homes without feeling this fear that ate away at us for years.
"Some of us still have nightmares. But we are learning to patch up our wounds," she added, with a faint smile.
In the school serving as one of the village's 12 polling stations, voting official Mohamed Kelouaz insisted the election was free and fair.
"Everything here is transparent, no fraud is possible," he said, pointing at a board in the courtyard.
Fraud, the "incurable sickness" of Algeria's elections according to the press, has been a recurrent theme of the election campaign.
"All the information is posted on this board: the number of voters in each station, the names of the station's directors, the observers chosen by the candidates," he said.
"I want everything to work."
On Thursday morning, the representatives of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika and his main rival Ali Benflis were at Rais's voting centre, but not those of the other four candidates.
Bouteflika, who came to power in 1999 and is seeking a fourth term, is credited by many Algerians with helping to end the "black decade" of conflict, through his policy of national reconciliation.
"Even if I have my own personal preferences, I must never let them show as the director" of the centre, said Kelouaz.
- Haunting memories -
On Wednesday, the district commissioner visited the voting centres with the village's mayor, with police posted nearby since Tuesday.
After a former Algerian wali, or governor, alleged fraud, Benflis, who also ran against Bouteflika in 2004 elections, used a religious argument to urge officials to put an end to the practice.
Benflis said in televised remarks on Wednesday that "fraud is 'haram'," punishable under Islam, prompting Bouteflika to accuse him of "terrorism via the television".
But for 44-year-old Redouane, the fraud allegations had little bearing on his decision to vote.
"It's just a way to avert misfortune," he said.
"I am scared of instability, of reliving the horror of the 1990s. I don't want to think about that night," he added, referring to the massacre in Rais.
His sister Aisha, then 35, had taken her three children to spend the night with her brothers. She, along with three of her sisters-in-law, had their throats cut by the attackers.
"I was outside when the shooting started, I woke up my brothers and we fled without even considering that they might touch the women and children.
"The horror lasted from midnight until four in the morning," he said, his voice trembling and eyes full of tears.