By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
We became more confident as the day wore on. A couple of hours later, in a slightly less nice neighborhood, we got out and walked toward an open-air market on a side street. Assia stopped us from walking down the market street. "There are very many people. I think it is better that you shoot from here. We don't want to risk your life," she explained with a smile. Then something changed. She conferred with Moustafa and Djamal, then announced, "Maybe it is better if we leave."
That is the way it goes in Algeria.
Originally, the Algerian government's battle was with the Fronte Islamic Salvation (FIS) and its military arm, the Armee Islamic Salvation (AIS). But a more violent group, the Groupe Islamic Arme (GIA), quickly appeared. Last fall, the AIS declared a cease-fire, but the pace of killings increased.
In 1993, the people being killed in Algiers were police, soldiers and politicians. The people the government acknowledged killing were terrorists, or people they said were terrorists. Then the terrorists expanded their hit list to include journalists, women without head-scarves, foreigners, people associated with the arts or with Western culture, including hairdressers.
The death toll has been much higher out in western Algeria, in cities like Constantine. Perhaps the hardest-hit of all has been the Triangle of Death, the towns, villages, farmland, orchards and woods between Algiers and the Atlas Mountains. There it has never been clear why people were being killed, or by whom.
From the street, La Maison de Presse looks more like an Iraqi political prison than a refuge of free thought. Only the absence of guard towers at each corner of the blocklong structure tips off passersby that the high, bare, barbed-wire-topped walls are designed not to contain the residents but to shield them.
On the second floor of one building is La Tribune, whose editor waved us into his staff meeting. After first professing not to be able to, he began to speak English, his third language, in the combined accents of his first two, Arabic and French.
"Tomorrow we celebrate our third anniversary, an achievement of which we are proud, even counting the seven months in which we were shut down by the Power." "The Power" is how many Algerians refer to the government. "Because we are not anonymous here. We sign our names to our articles. This is a very important fact. We sign our names, and then we go home." He pointed to the bald reporter sitting next to him. "This man here rides the train home every night to a very bad neighborhood."
We asked the usual question: Aren't you afraid? "Aren't you?" the editor responded. "You're at risk here, too. But let me ask you a better question. This is your second visit here. Are we at war? You see what it's like here. Is this war?"
Finally I answered in my poor French, "Oui et non."
The reporter with the long train ride to the dangerous neighborhood spoke. "For the first year, our fear was enough," he said. "But then we had to do something more. The fear is still there. People are still killed. But fear wasn't enough to occupy us."
The editor jumped back in: "So we have decided to fight back against the fear, to fight back against the terrorists and against the Power, to fight back with the best weapon we have." He held up his pen. Then he put his hand on the reporter's shoulder. "And now, you must let him finish editing his story so he can get his train home before dark, and live to fight another day."
The popular image of Algeria, the image we took from our previous visit, is that it's a country where simply hoisting a Beta-cam on your shoulder on an Algiers street, or leaving your head uncovered and wearing makeup, can provoke an assassin to kill. It is said that terrorists need 15 minutes or less to organize a hit.
But things are supposed to be different now. There have been a presidential election, a parliamentary election and, most recently, municipal elections. The streets of Algiers are thronged with scarfless women. And the government seemed determined to prove that we could take our camera wherever we wanted in Algiers.
A mosque? No problem. We visited a smallish mosque in a bourgeois neighborhood, after picking up two more plainclothesmen to help out Moustafa and Djamal. When we got to the mosque, we found two police trucks and many uniformed officers already there.
A market? No problem. Moustafa and Djamal picked up three plainclothesmen with rifles who emptied out a small market, then ushered us in to videotape the vacated stalls of produce.
The notorious Casbah, one of the original bastions of the Islamic Salvation Front? No problem. We drove to Central Police Headquarters, adjacent to the Casbah. Moustafa and Djamal picked up 10 more plainclothesmen. We set off, surrounded by a force field of cops, walkie-talkies squawking, a force field invisible to the viewers of our video on network news, but not invisible to Algerians. As we traversed the winding steps of the wonderfully picturesque Casbah, it felt like we were taking part in a farce. But our dozen friends were proud of themselves. To need an escort of a dozen secret police to walk through a part of the capital city in broad daylight doesn't sound as if the government has much control. But two years ago, we probably would have drawn fire, even with a dozen cops around us. That's progress. As one of the cops explained, "Now it is no problem for us police to go through here, even at night."