The Battles of Algiers

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.  

After dinner, my colleague suggested that we stroll out the front door, down the driveway a hundred yards or so, to the arched gate of the 20-foot-high walls that surround the hotel. About three feet from the front door, we were stopped by an Algerian in a vest, Malek.

"It is very dangerous for you out there in the night," Malek said.

On our first full day in Algiers, Moustafa, Djamal and the driver of their follow car showed up at our hotel. We got into a taxi with Assia, our interpreter, and set off, with our bodyguards following. For the first few hours, we simply stopped on random bustling street corners and got out to shoot video, something we hadn't been allowed to do when we visited in '95. As the Algerian Embassy in Washington has been insisting, the Algerian people were going about their business.

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."

At the university later in the day, no students would let us put their faces on camera. As one young woman put it, "We don't want our faces shown because we don't want the terrorists to see, and we don't want the government to see. We are afraid of everyone equally, all the time." All around her, students bustled by and families shopped at European-looking stores across the street. Nearby, a street vendor had a cage of small green parrots. I wondered if perhaps this contrast between cheerful bustle and inward fear is what psychotics feel.

Lunches were expensive, because we stopped at secure restaurants, heavily guarded establishments for the wealthy. Moustafa, Djamal and Saoud, our other interpreter, took us one day to a country club in a suburb. "I live in this neighborhood," Saoud told us. The golf course at the country club had been neglected. "There are no more foreigners," Saoud explained, "and Algerians don't play golf."

At lunch, outside on the terrace, my colleague said, "My father has a lot of guns, but he doesn't use them." "I only have one gun," Moustafa replied, "but I use it a lot." He was drinking a Heineken and feeling expansive. "It is a beautiful country," he observed in French. "I will die for it if I have to."

A couple of days later, Saoud mentioned that the neighborhood of the golf course, her neighborhood, a had also been the scene of a massacre. Fifty people had been killed one night the week before. "I could hear the women scream as their throats were slit," she recalled. "Since then, we never all sleep, but take turns sleeping. We have organized in groups around the people who have shotguns."

Moustafa and Djamal were eventually joined by a third partner, Mohammed, who is even thinner, with even more of a pencil line to his mustache. Before they became VIP bodyguards, the three were ordinary secret policemen. One evening, I asked them if they had ever captured any terrorists, as they refer to the rebels, and if so, what they were like.

"They were like robots," Moustafa said. Djamal nodded. "Even the leaders are like robots. That is why we know they are controlled from somewhere else."

Algeria is no Bosnia. Everyone is both Algerian and Muslim. Yet every Algerian I've met seems to think of the terrorists as completely other - so completely other that you would think they are a metaphor, or a figment, like the black helicopters in the fantasies of the American militia movement. You would think so, that is, but for the 75,000 dead and, now, the nightly massacres.

The motto of the GIA, sometimes spelled out in blood at massacre sites, is "Blood Blood. Destruction Destruction." Who taught the GIA to be so cruel?  

The motto of the French Foreign Legion, the foreign mercenary army formed principally to fight North Africans, was "Live by chance. Love by choice. Kill by profession."

One evening, three young Algerian women were swimming in the pool at our hotel. They agreed to talk to us, pulling jeans on over their bathing suits.

At first it seemed that the interview was going to be about the bravery of wearing skimpy clothing in a city where women have been killed for not wearing headscarves. "It's true," said Samia, who was wearing a Lakers cap, "that we are a little bit targets. But dressing like this is the only fight we can make."

"When you want to destroy a country, a society," added Nabila, in a Bulls cap, "who do you attack? The women. But having said that, let us now talk about the government. If there weren't terrorism to think about, what would people be doing? Maybe they would be making demonstrations against the government, because of how high prices are and other things. But this way, the government can keep pressure on the people."

"That's why we say," added Samia, echoing the predominant sentiment in Algeria, "that the terrorists are the sons of the government."

Apparently, the terrorism is becoming less and less ideological. In the late '80s and early '90s, political Islam looked to the Algerians, as to others in the Muslim world, like an attractive alternative to living under a corrupt, dictatorial regime. As the slogans on the walls of Cairo and Tunis and Hebron and Algiers said: "Islam is the solution." In Algeria, with three-quarters of the population under 25 and 70 percent unemployment among workers under age 30, the need for solutions was urgent. In 1991, under pressure, the military government agreed to organize elections. At the end of 1991, when it became clear that the Islamic Salvation Front was going to win the vote, the government canceled the election. The violence began in 1992.

Since then, the Islamic rebels have lost some of their appeal. As the popular description has it, the ranks of the most radical Islamic guerrilla groups are now made up of "fanatics, desperate youths and criminals."

Samia, one of the young women we met by the pool, invited us to spend Friday afternoon, the equivalent of our Sunday afternoon, at the large flat she shares with her two sisters and her retired parents. Our bodyguards were upset. "She should come here to the hotel to pick you up. It isn't safe to just go over there."

Once again, we drove to the Central Police Headquarters to get more plainclothesmen, and, with half a dozen or so escorts, walked from there over to the building that houses Samia's flat. While the others stood outside talking on their walkie-talkies, Moustafa escorted us up seven flights of stairs. He wouldn't let us take the elevator, lest we ride up into an ambush.

Once we had knocked, Moustafa went back to the street to wait with the others, leaving me feeling foolish - overprotected foreigners. Her family was relaxed. I felt more foolish. One side of the large, striking flat overlooked the Mediterranean, another the Casbah. We shot some video of the Casbah from a balcony until one of Samia's sisters came out and told us to come back in: "It is not good that the people down there should see a camera up here."

Moments after we went back in, there was a knock at the front door. Two men introduced themselves as plainclothes police. We told them that we had plenty of plainclothes police downstairs, waiting for us. "They have left. We are in charge of you now," they said. And suddenly, we felt panic: Moustafa, Djamal and Mohammed would never leave us. We'd heard that frequently, in this land of sudden terror and uncertainty, assassinations are committed by terrorists posing as police.

It took a few minutes to determine that the two men at the door were indeed police. They left, and we moved to the kitchen table to eat French toast. "That's how life is here," Samia explained. "Calm. Then frightening. Then calm." The family was once again animated and cheerful.

A while later, a friend dropped by who spoke no English. "We have asked her your question about what do terrorists look like," Samia said, laughing. "She has seen one. He looked very innocent." We asked for the details of how she came to see one. "It was when they came to attack her neighborhood a couple of weeks ago."


The friend, it turned out, lived in an outlying area, where greater Algiers meets the region known as the Triangle of Death. Whereas the government has been gaining control of Algiers, so that outside of poor areas like the Casbah ordinary people now only face the risk of a assassination and car bombs, out in the Triangle of Death, the skirmishes and massacres have been increasing.

The morning that we were supposed to visit the Triangle of Death, Moustafa, Djamal and Mohammed didn't show up. Instead, four green Land Rovers pulled up in front of our hotel carrying some 20 heavily armed military police in combat fatigues. It seemed we were going into combat. First we drove through the affluent hillside areas around our hotel, through beautiful neighborhoods of big white homes overlooking the Mediterranean. Then we turned onto a freeway and left the city. In the socio-economics of Algeria, as in many nations outside the U.S., the suburbs are less affluent than the city. It feels a little like driving, say, from the Hollywood Hills to Pacoima.

Less than an hour later, we were climbing out of our Land Rover at the edge of Sidi Rais, a village of substantial two- and three-story brick homes. Our police escorts had been joined by other military police and militiamen, already in the village. They fanned out in front of us, and we began to walk in.

The current wave of massacres began here one night at the end of summer. A group of men - perhaps 20, perhaps 100 - cut the power and phone lines and moved in, howling. The government puts the death toll at around 80; the villagers and hospital personnel estimate that as many as 500 people were massacred that night. Here, as elsewhere, most of the victims were women, children and old people, those who couldn't fight back.

We asked a group of boys if they had seen the attackers. "No," one answered. "They were dressed in black and had their heads covered. We ran. They shot at people's legs to make them fall. If they fell, they slit their throats."

The military police moved us through the village. We collected massacre stories. We saw a house where dozens of women and children had taken refuge, only to be hacked to death when the terrorists broke down the door. We met a 6-year-old boy whose parents had both been killed after they succeeded in hiding him. Not every house had been hit.

As we moved along, an occasional loud boom sounded in the distance, like that made by an outgoing artillery round. "Someone's shelling," I said to the lieutenant in charge of our party. "No," he replied without explanation. As we were leaving, children streamed past us, returning from school. They laughed and waved when they saw our camera. Maybe children recover quickly.

Twenty minutes farther down the road, we came to Bentalha, another massacre site. En route, we had to detour, because the military was conducting operations against the terrorists in the surrounding fields and orchards. Bentalha consists of mostly brand-new homes, some of them not completed. Its population now seems to consist only of men.

"We will stay here," one of the men told us, despite the terrorists' vow to return to the village. "We will fight here, and we will die here, because we live here."

The next day, a story in La Tribune said that in roughly the area we visited, at the same time we were there, terrorists had stopped a truck carrying schoolboys and slit the throats of 16 12-to-15-year-olds, plus their driver.

Back at my hotel, I remembered that the first time I ever went on a police ride-along through a high-crime L.A. County neighborhood, I also got there by freeway. It was a ride-along out of Firestone, which used to be both the smallest and the most violent of the L.A. County Sheriff's precincts. Once I was out in the patrol car, the officers told me, "It's easy to understand what's happening here. The strong prey on the weak."

And just before leaving for Algeria this fall, I covered the injunction against the 18th Street gang that is currently being enforced in the LAPD's Rampart Division. The 18th Street gang preys on the weak, making life hellish for residents. But the gang doesn't really threaten Mayor Riordan's grip on the city, nor does it undermine the security of people living in the Palisades or the Hollywood Hills.

Similarly, the government of Algeria is no longer threatened by the Islamic rebels, even if they're killing more people now than previously. And the rich people of Algiers, like the rich people of Los Angeles, can simply buy their security. As the Algerian government spokeswoman predicted back in '95, they've turned their political-insurrection problem into a crime problem. It's just an exaggerated version of Los Angeles.  

Algeria has become the first post-global state, a state where money buys everything, including safety, but where the lack of money condemns you to the Triangle of Death.

In August 1993, I had dinner in Chelsea in New York with my old friend Archie. I was describing to him what I had just begun to notice about globalization. As buy low, sell high becomes the pre-eminent law throughout the world, governments everywhere grow weaker; ideology, religion and armies grow weaker. "Which means," I concluded, "all the old bases for conflict are going away."

"Then," said Archie, "we will only have crime."

As I sat in my room at the El Djazair, I suddenly knew what he was talking about.

A few days after our return, we'd distilled the experience into a three-minute piece for the ABC Weekend News. Soon after, CBS sent Christiane Amanpourv to Algiers. Then ABC sent another correspondent.

According to the Algerian Foreign Ministry, for two years before my visit, no U.S. television crew had visited Algeria. But now, the story of the conflict seems to be getting legs. The news has gotten bad enough to make us take notice.

Meanwhile, the day before New Year's Eve, I was editing another story at my offices in Hollywood. At 4 p.m., at the gas station a block away, two gangs opened fire on one another. A 6-year-old girl was struck by a stray bullet and died. It was a tiny Algeria, the kind we've apparently grown to accept, because the story passed away quickly. Two days later, our statewide smoking ban went into effect, one more move in the ongoing battle to protect our middle and upper classes - and just them - from all possible hazard.

I sense a connection in the two events. And I can hear the words of our Algerian government escort in 1995: The situation in Algeria? "You know, it's just like Los Angeles."

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