Chapter 5: Dying for Knowledge
Amel Zenoune-Zouani’s watch stopped at 5:17.
That is the moment she fell in the street on January 26, 1997, an instant after a member of the Armed Islamic Group cut her throat on the outskirts of Sidi Moussa.
In November 2012, when I am finally able to locate them in a quartier populaire east of Algiers, I spend several hours talking with Amel’s mother, Houria, and her surviving daughters. Sitting on the couch in front of her TV, Khalti Houria (Auntie Houria) as everyone calls her, wears a long blue dress and glasses that hang around her neck. Both stalwart and shattered, she shows me Amel’s watch, which was returned by the gendarmes. Its white face features small green flower buds just under the spot where the glass is broken. The second hand still aims optimistically upward, frozen fifty-seven seconds after 5:17, approaching a 5:18 that will not come.
Twenty-two years old and a third-year law student at the University of Algiers, Amel lived in the dorm. She wanted to visit her family on that seventeenth day of Ramadan, a day known as Ghazwat Badr in commemoration of a historic Muslim victory. So she boarded the bus for Sidi Moussa, and would never finish law school.
Amel’s mother tells me everything she had heard about what happened on the bus. Just outside the town, the vehicle was stopped at a faux barrage. Amel occupied a seat behind the driver, who was a neighbor, and held her schoolbag. Though she did not cover her head in Algiers, and wore makeup, she had a friend’s shawl wrapped around her hair when the men from the Armed Islamic Group climbed aboard. One came to Amel, hit her on the shoulder, and said, “Ahl al houkouma” (partisans of the government). “Get up. Kill her.” They grabbed the law student by the arm. Still, she dared to say, “Don’t touch me.” According to Khalti Houria, Amel then “turned and looked at everyone.” Even now the mother appeals to her daughter’s fellow passengers as she weeps: “Amel did not speak but begged you with her eyes and asked you to save her.” No one could. “When they got out of the bus, one armed man had a knife and was rubbing it on the pavement, preparing to kill her.”
There are two versions of what happened next. Some said Amel was kicked as she was getting out of the bus and fell to the ground; others remembered that she had her throat cut while still standing. Her death was an atrocity. It was also meant as a warning. In the moment after
Amel’s watch stopped, the GIA men told all the other passengers: “If you go to school, if you go to the university, the day will come when we will kill all of you like this.”
The terrorists had posted placards all over Sidi Moussa saying that young people must stop studying and stay home. As a law professor, I want to understand why a young woman with her whole life ahead of her would continue her legal education when she could be murdered as a result. Apparently, Amel had said to her father, “I will study law and you will always have your head high. I am a girl, and you will always be proud of me. I will do the work of a man.” Mrs. Zenoune, herself a housewife, had long dreamed of her children studying. All six did.
Amel’s sister Amena explains: “Our mother inculcated in us the idea that studying means you are a free woman. Mom said, ‘I am ready to lose all four of them. I will sacrifice them for knowledge.’ When people remember ‘Amel Zenoune who was assassinated by the terrorists,’ they say, ‘The girl who was killed for studying law.’ People say, ‘She was the example for us.’ ”
While still cherishing the values Amel died for, her death was an agony for her family. And so was the way they found out about it. Sidi Moussa, as the sewing teachers had recalled, was then a wasteland of terror. Its people had no running water, no electricity after the terrorists attacked the power station, and no telephone service. So the family was never sure when to expect Amel or their other daughters home.
Finally, twenty policemen showed up at the door, but, faced with the mother and her younger children, the policemen found themselves unable to deliver the news they had come to give. One asked Houria how many of her daughters studied in Algiers, then told her enigmatically that she and her husband had been ordered to meet the prosecutor in Blida the next day. Their work undone, the cops drove off and left the family wondering in the dark. Khalti Houria had a bad feeling. Any of her college-student daughters, or all three, could have been headed home that night.
When the police left, a group of neighbors came to the apartment, including the bus driver’s wife. Everyone assumed that the family now knew the news. Khalti Houria begged the driver’s wife, “Fatiha, tell me.” So the driver’s wife shared as much as she could: “They cut your daughter’s throat.” This answer only left terrible questions for Khalti Houria. “I said, ‘Which one?’ One neighbor said, ‘The one who wore glasses.’ ” No one seemed to know the precise facts.
With no one able to give her a definite answer, and no working phone, Khalti Houria ignored the evening curfew and took off with her young son, running through the perilous streets of Sidi Moussa until she got to the gendarmerie. When she finally found herself face-to-face with a gendarme, Khalti Houria remembers saying, “ ‘My son, tell me how many of my daughters.’ He said, ‘Madame, one only. The one who was at the law school. She was wearing jeans and a coat.’” The bereaved mother insisted: “Swear to me.” He swore. So, in the most awful moment of her life, she actually felt gratitude. “I prayed and I sat and kissed the earth and I said, ‘God give me strength.’ They were all three at the university. It was a little less painful that it was one rather than two, or three.” Even as she found out she had not lost three daughters, the reality that one was gone, and how, sank in.
But Khalti Houria’s agony gave way to rage. “I sat on the ground and said everything that came into my mind. That hour my struggle began.” Her daughter Amena describes the mother’s long walk home through the desolation of Sidi Moussa. “The commissariat was far from where we lived. All along the road, Mama insulted the terrorists. She didn’t stop. The police said, ‘If we had ten mothers who had lost their child who did what Mme. Zenoune did, the terrorists would never have won in Sidi Moussa. Never.’ There are many who died before Amel, God have mercy on her soul. No one had done what Mom did. It was enormous to make that journey. Not to have fear. For her, it might have been in her head, ‘Who cares anymore?’ ” In the dark streets of the martyred town, Mrs. Zenoune taunted those who had taken her child. “You killed Amel. Come and kill me.”
Eye-to-eye with the terror she had felt over the previous terrible years, that night she defied it. When she got home, she threw open her door that was always bolted shut. “Let them enter.” Khalti Houria continued denouncing the murderers on the balcony of the family home well into the early morning hours when the neighbors got up for Zuhour, or Ramadan breakfast. “Ya haggar.” (You who are unjust.)
“You killed her because she was studying. She was beautiful. She was better than you. Amel, Amel, Amel.” After her jeremiad, the gendarmes came and told her husband that the rest of the family should leave Sidi Moussa immediately.
They buried Amel and left their lives behind them.
One of Amel’s younger sisters, Lamia, later overcame her own despair and went to law school in Amel’s memory, practicing today in Algiers, as her older sister hoped to. “Fundamentalism will not win, even if they say, ‘Allahu Akbar’ all day long,” Khalti Houria swears.
Lamia the lawyer takes me into the small, neat living room to see Amel’s framed portrait, which hangs on the wall. The law student had pitch-black hair that fell just below her shoulders, and luminous dark eyes that are now the centerpiece of this room. She was not smiling when the picture was taken, but her determined expression displays what her classmate Adnane Bouchaïb had told me about her: that she had both the eloquence and the lively personality needed to be a successful lawyer. “She had a big future in front of her,” Adnane recollected.
Somehow, in the portrait on the living-room wall, Amel looks both serene and entirely aware of what her future might actually hold. Her face captures perfectly something she said to her mother not long before her murder. “Mom, please put this in your head. Nothing will happen to us, Inshallah. But if something happens to us, you and Dad, you must know that we are dead for knowledge. You and Father must keep your heads high.”
Amel’s watch stopped at 5:17, but she lives on in Algeria and everywhere else women and men continue to fight fundamentalism, by striving for knowledge, and by keeping their heads held high.