INSIDE ALGERIA : A city where even mourners go in fear

On the feast of Eid, Muslims visit their family graves. But in Algiers militants haunt the cemeteries in search of new victims
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Four-year old Mehdi brought the East and West briefly together yesterday. For the feast of the Eid - the end of Ramadan- he wore a brand- new, English suit of worsted wool.

On his hands he wore henna, brown and black, painted on to his skin in the morning, a tradition allegedly dating back to the time of the Prophet, although it is a peculiarly Algerian custom. There was, as usual, a traditional pattern to the day of the Eid in Algiers. At the Ben Zarga mosque, the army turned up 15 minutes before 8 o'clock prayers and asked for the identity paper of all worshippers. Anyone who did not come from the area was arrested.

Even on one of the holiest days of the Islamic calendar, it seemed, duty must be done. A few hours earlier, President Liamine Zeroual had sent his festive greetings to the soldiers and policemen who had to carry out their ``national duty'' during the holiday, sending, too, a message of ``compassion'' to families who had been the victims of ``barbarism''. Death creeps into every speech, every conversation, every passing remark, as it is bound to on the Eid, when the dead must be remembered by the living.

So it was that Mehdi's mother, Anissa, could not forget a neighbour, Salah Noor, a hero of the independence war when he was sentenced to death by the French. He died in January, just before Ramadan, shot down in a grocer's shop in the miserable suburb of Kouba. ``He was such a famous man, an intelligent man - he had three university degrees - and all he did was go to the grocer's, I think to buy pastries. The grocer was in the store with a couple of young men when two guys pulled up in a car outside, jumped out with guns and shouted: `Get out, get out'.''

Anissa paused, perhaps realising that her voice had risen to something approaching hysteria.

``They all started to leave the shop, Salah as well, but one of the gunmen said to him: `Not you, no, you don't leave; we've come for you.' And then they shot him down. At his funeral, his sister shouted out to the mourners: `The French sentenced him to death and then commuted his sentence. The so-called Muslims of Algeria sentenced him to death and executed him.' At the funeral, one of the young men who had been in the shop was very angry and said publicly that he had the registration number of the gunmen's car. A few days later, he, too, was murdered.''

Salah Noor had been Algeria's military attach in Tunis. That made him a representative of the regime that cancelled the elections the Islamic Salvation Front would have won three years ago. But the assassination lists, faxed in advance to some of the potential victims by their potential murderers, embrace an entire generation of government employees and their families. Death is not just part of the conversation here on this Eid holiday. It is an intimate associate to almost every family I met in Algiers. A young businesswoman at lunch mentioned, almost absent-mindedly, that her uncle, 40 years a policeman, had been shot dead in the first week of December. The restaurant waiter, a Kabyle from Boumerdes, said his brother had been killed four months ago. ``He was a customs officer in the port,'' he said with resignation, nervously fingering the menu. ``He was only 41, the father of five children. I think there were four men in the execution squad. Now I look after the children.''

Under the palm trees of an overgrown garden, an old acquaintance who works for one of the few surviving import-export companies in Algiers said his family, too, had now been touched by the war, mercifully, almost farcically, because his brother-in-law - when he was struck down by army bullets - did not die.

``He's a doctor in the hospital, but hard of hearing and his watch was faulty, more than an hour fast. So, he left the hospital to walk home at four in the morning, an hour before the curfew ends, and when he approached an army checkpoint, he didn't hear them shouting at him. So they shot him. He got one bullet in the hip, another cut one of his fingers clean off. But he's alive.''

Pigeons flew through the palm trees above us, a hint of paradise above the fear of our Algerian friend. His European manager had lived in Algeria for more than 20 years, had sworn never to leave the country he loved, and then fled in terror just before Christmas. ``The terrorists are going for every foreigner now, like they went for the Frenchman who was driving to Tizi Ouzo.'' That story was told carefully, with the precision of a man who thinks much about the equation of death.

``This man had just arrived at the airport and set off straight away to Tizi Ouzu. On the road, he was stopped at a faux barrage, a fake police checkpoint. They asked for his papers, confirmed he was French and then told him to continue his journey. A little later, just past Isser, he was stopped at another faux barrage. Here they didn't talk to him. One of the gunmen in police uniform just walked up to the Frenchman's car and shot him through the windscreen. The guys at the first faux barrage had simply radioed up the road to their friends with the car number so that the Frenchmen would be assassinated the moment he arrived.''

Our friend shook his head. ``These people can get you anywhere, any time they want,'' he said. ``Now they are using remote-contolled bombs.'' Supposed proof of this was an attack on a police van in the Eucalyptus district of Algiers, a bomb which blew up under a blue Nissan. When customers in a nearby chemist's shop ran into the road, they found the van on fire but no sign of the bombers. Rumours circulate in the pro-government press that the Islamic Armed Group (GIA) is training 100 suicide-bombers, following the 20 January assault on the Algiers central police commissariat, for a mass attack on government buildings.

Yesterday, Algerians marked the Eid, as always, by visiting cemeteries to mourn the dead. Even this custom has acquired a macabre tradition. ``I'm going to Blida to lay flowers on my mother's grave this afternoon,'' Anissa said. ``She died nine years ago, before all this killing. But I am frightened when I go. I am middle class, I speak French. And I know the terrorists wait in cemeteries for people they want to kill. They wait near the graves of the relatives of the people they are going to murder.

Last year, they killed a wali [governor] in Blida at the tomb of his mother. The same day, they killed a journalist who worked for El Moudjahid when he went to a cemetery in Oran.''

But Anissa left for the Blida cemetery all the same, with little Mehdi in his new suit, with henna on his hands, frightened that a graveyard might turn out to be a place of death.

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