Hidden enemies of a bitter mountain war

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The Independent Online
Igoujdal - High in the Kabyle mountains 200 miles south of Algiers, Ahmed Boutdra and his little army of peasants had quite a shock when they shot dead Si Mohamed Mustafa in the wadi behind their village last month. He had been leading a band of Islamists through the forest when he was cut down by a brace of old hunting guns; but what astonished Mr Boutdra was a note stuffed into the dead man's pocket. ``The following have been condemned to death," it announced in ballpoint pen. "Ahmed Boutdra, mayor of Igoujdal, his father Si Ahmed ..." And it went on to list 28 other men in the village. The grubby paper was signed ``GIA", for "Islamic Armed Group".

Mr Boutdra seems undaunted by the discovery of his own death sentence. Tall and red-faced, dressed in a long, pale brown coat, the former supermarket manager has no intention of abandoning his Dad's Army of threadbare militiamen with their ragged trousers and tattered boots, their often toothless mouths, their calloused hands clutching engraved hunting guns from Brescia, old French service rifles - "Made in Tulle, 1949", it says on most of them - and Second World War sub-machine guns with "Waffen SS" still visible on the stock. "All our men are loyal," Mr Boutdra says proudly. ``They will never betray our republic."

Nor, on the face of it, is there any reason why they should. Up here in the Kabyle mountains, where the Mediterranean winks dark blue through the ravines and the hillsides are blackened by massive man-made fires which have burned through the forests that provided night-time cover for the GIA, Mr Boutdra's 230 militiamen are defending their homes. And they have their counterparts in neighbouring villages, 600 men in all, Berbers fighting the "Islamist" columns which nightly penetrate the wadis on the way to Algiers or to steal guns from the less suspecting villages of the Kabyle mountains.

``Over there, below Mount Tighrine, the GIA caught two of the men from Bounamane the other night," Mr Boutdra says, pointing across the valley to an unburned hill. ``A taxi-driver and a shepherd were stopped on the road. The terrorists wanted the taxi and didn't want the shepherd to see them. So they slit their throats and left them beside the road. You see, we have to look after ourselves. The government supports us and the local communal police are in charge." And sure enough, in the village square, a man called Mohamed Boussoualem in an old blue uniform tells us he is the police chief - which is why he is holding a more modern Kalashnikov to match the corporal's stripe on his shoulder.

As always in Algeria, however, things are not quite what they seem. For here in the Kabyle mountains, many local Berbers are troubled by the growth of the government-sponsored militias, fearful that their real purpose is less to fight Islamic ``terrorism" than to repress the Berber Cultural Movement, which is demanding the teaching of the Tamerzight language in schools and threatening to boycott presidential elections if local universities do not adopt it. Some of the men of the Kabyle mountains, especially those close to the Front des Forces Socialistes party, are more disenchanted with the Algiers government than with the banned Islamic Salvation Front with whom they are supposed to be at war.

Officially, every member of this rag-tag army must be vetted by the authorities, must carry only his own hunting gun, must obey the instructions of the police corporal. But how do you vet the menfolk of every isolated village? And how do you account for the old boy who climbed out of a sheep-wagon in Igoujdal with an Italian hunting gun, only to admit to me that he didn't know where it came from because ``it was given to me by the police"? And how do you explain the fact that Si Mohamed Mustapha, the local Islamist leader shot dead by Mr Boutdra's men, comes not from far away Medea, as the villagers would have you believe, but from the next village down the mountainside. Si Mohamed was also a local Berber.

Was this not, I suggested to a thin, eloquent middle-aged man from the Kabyle capital of Tizi Ouzu who had arrived in the village, how the Lebanese war began, with locally recruited villagers turning into gunmen loyal to individuals rather than the state? ``Impossible," he roared. ``These men are Algerians fighting for Algeria, who are crushing the fascism of fundamentalism." He spoke in French, a language the villagers did not understand, although he turned out to be a man who had good reason to speak the language.

He was Nordi Amirouche, only son of Colonel Ait-Hamouda Amirouche, the most ferocious of all FLN fighters in the 1954-62 war against the French, a man whose systematic purges and throat-slashing of Algerian comrades left 3,000 FLN men and women dead before he himself was shot by the French in 1959. His son was a man - who unselfconsciously referred to the Boulevard Amirouche in Algiers as ``The Boulevard of My Father" - who would know all about loyalty and the lack of it.

It was also in these mountains that the French army found some of its most loyal Algerian supporters, men who would fight the FLN guerrillas and whose fate, often as not, was what the French called ``the Kabyle smile", a slicing open of their throats. FLN terror thus cut down many villagers in these remote hills as brother killed brother. And today, there are Berbers who suspect the village militias are more loyal to the former FLN party than the republic of Algeria, supporting a ruling clique against any Berber friendship with the ``Islamists''.

This is not a thesis that would commend itself to the son of Colonel Amirouche. ``It's the villagers who asked to carry out their own protection," he says. ``It was they who decided to protect themselves from the terrorists at night, sealing off their villages from sun-down to sun-up. I am myself a militant in the Berber Cultural Movement. But we won't be able to speak any language at all if we cease to exist. Here everyone is mobilised for the struggle against the terrorists." And the villagers dutifully chorused the same refrain as they stood above their cherry orchards, their fig trees and potato fields and their sheep pastures, country boys for whom the words "civil war" still do not make sense.

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