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The Battles of Algiers 

Why does the worst place on Earth seem so familiar?

Wednesday, Feb 11 1998
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Last fall, I got on a plane in Paris and took off for Algeria, one of the most terrible places on Earth. Algeria today is defined by senseless violence; grotesquely cruel acts are commonplace. That's why I was going. If, by the logic of contemporary journalism, bad news is important news, then a bulletin from the worst territory of human nature should be important news indeed. I asked for and received permission from my television news outlet to cover the situation. More surprisingly, the Algerian government agreed. There haven't been many news crews allowed into the country in recent years. But then, there haven't been many news organizations wanting to go.

Some 75,000 Algerians have been murdered in the last six years during scuffles between Algeria's quasi-military government and an increasingly fractious assortment of Islamic rebels. And in the two months before we left, the number of killings had surged, with large-scale massacres of ordinary people. On the night that I arrived in Algiers, 70 people had their throats slit in two mass attacks just outside the city.

Algeria is a terrifying place, particularly for journalists - 69 have been assassinated over the last six years. But in my week there, I had to keep asking myself an unnerving question: Why did the worst place on Earth seem so familiar?

I was briefly in Algeria in 1995, and having proved what seemed at the time to be the point - I lived - I'd felt no big impetus to return. Then, last fall, the massacres picked up, hideous, inexplicable, newsworthy. A hundred people killed in one attack. Three hundred killed in another. Hundreds murdered the week after - throats slit, decapitated, disemboweled.

In 1995, I was greeted at the airport by plainclothes police, who escorted me to the Hotel El Djazair, where a government spokeswoman welcomed me: "Thank God you are here to tell the world that the French press has been lying," she said. "We have no war here." I asked her if she would say that on camera. "Of course not," she answered, "because I would be assassinated." She then arranged for my colleague and I, along with our "follow car" of armed bodyguards, to tour Algiers so we could see that there was no war. As it turned out, we were not allowed to stop the car, or get out - "for your security." I asked her why, if there was no war, it was not safe to exit the car. "We have social conditions," she replied. I asked how bad these social conditions were. "Forty thousand dead in three years," she responded. "You know, it's just like Los Angeles."

This time, my colleague and I were hailed at the airport by a robust young Algerian in a Calvin Klein baseball hat and khaki fisherman's vest - the man in charge of the plainclothes police who protect visitors. Under his vest was a 9mm pistol. He introduced Moustafa and Djamal, the plainclothesmen who were to be our bodyguards. "They are your protection. They will never leave you," their boss explained in French. "Good," we said.

Moustafa and Djamal were skinny men with pencil mustaches. But they set off the metal detectors that we passed through as we moved around the airport. It was reassuring.

We got into a taxi, and our bodyguards and their driver got into the follow car. By the calculus of terror, you don't want your bodyguards in the car with you, because two cars means that the terrorists will have to expend more resources to hit you, and maybe that will be enough to deter them. The drive into the city took us along the same freeway, past the same new high-rises we'd seen two years earlier. Except for the presence of the armed men in the car behind and one checkpoint manned by soldiers who looked perfectly willing to shoot, Algiers didn't seem like someplace dangerous.

In the denser part of the city, the colonial part, people thronged the streets, going about their lives just as they had two years earlier.

A U.S. State Department official told me before my last trip to Algiers that the scariest night of his life was one he spent at the Hotel El Djazair, formerly the St. George, home of General Dwight Eisenhower during World War II. So before leaving this time, I asked the State Department about how the hotel was seeming. "It's swarming with plainclothes cops these days," I was told.

And indeed the lobby was full of men in vests when we arrived, men who looked like Moustafa and Djamal, most of them carrying walkie-talkies, all of them setting off the metal detector at the front entrance. They meant business.

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