Looking for what? Was it paranoia, I wondered, a ghost of the old Beirut kidnapping days, here in a city where they kill rather than abduct their victims? "No, it is real," our old Algerian friend said. "The terrorists are downtown now. They are watching every car. They are looking for government people, government cars, foreigners."
A storm was shaking Algiers, the wind plucking at the clothes of shoppers preparing for the feast of the Eid to mark the end of Ramadan. It is the Muslim equivalent of Christmas Eve but these people were not smiling. And the men on the pavements were even more serious, following you with their eyes. "You can't just go downtown to visit an office any more and keep your driver outside," our friend said. "You have to tell him when to return because they'll wait around if they think you are about to come out."And do what? Our friend shrugged. "They killed the head of the football federation 300 metres from the police commissariat in Telemly. It's never been so bad."
There is a thin skin of normality: the fine old French post office, with its Moorish brown arches, below the Esplanade d'Afrique, the tiny, bare shops beneath the pompous colonial apartment blocks in Didouche Mourad Street, the golden Ramadan lights blazing above the road tunnel by the Place Audin.
But then you pass the burnt-out maritime building, the Boulevard Amirouche where the police are rebuilding their car-bombed headquarters; and a police van races past, headlights flashing, flak-jacketed cops waving at us to clear their path. They, too, are watched by the men with the searching eyes.
For who would want to be in Algerian uniform today? Turn to page 4 of El Watan and there is another young man in uniform, wearing an army shirt and tie, gentle eyes under thick black brows, lips slightly parted, a snapshot for ID papers or a passport. "The families Hamane, Hamoum and Merfoud of Algiers," it says, "are grief-stricken to announce the tragic loss of Hamane Rabah, cowardly assassinated on 28.2.95 near his home city. Burial will take place today at 12.30 at Garidi."
How many have been buried today, you ask, in Algiers? No one knows. There is no official roll-call of victims - a thousand a week is what they tell you, police, Islamists, civilians, - but the reports make it clear into what darkness Algeria's tragedy has now passed; a 16-year-old blown to pieces by a bomb, 16 "criminals" - for which read armed
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