INSIDE ALGERIA : Where the lite shelter from winds of war

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The Independent Online
Club des Pins - The war doesn't exist at the Club des Pins. Not on the beach, where the spray and gritty sand lash into the middle-class families in their woollen scarves and fur-lined boots and French coats; not on the promenade where lines of new Peugeots and Mercedes and BMWs stand in the evening sun. Behind the security gates below the presidential palace, row after row of new homes - villas and hastily-purchased portable buildings - provide the government lite, the journalists and officials and writers of this country, with their only Shangri La, a tiny enclave of safety from the hurricane winds gusting across Algeria.

Outside those gates with their Kalashnikov-toting policemen, outside the 9ft high walls tipped with steel and barbed wire that shield the men and women most hated by the Islamists of Algeria, cluster the afternoon day-trippers from Algiers, seeking solace in the shadow of the privileged and the well-protected. Shopkeepers, engineers, students, designers and low-paid government workers walk the beaches. There are no veils on the women; some of them have long, floating hair and transparent blouses that show, in a sad 1970s flourish, more than a hint of black bras. Ask almost any of them about the war and a look of dismay and cynicism creeps into their faces.

The official from the nationalised Sonatrech oil company condemns the disgraceful exaggerations of the foreign press, the manipulations of foreign powers, the international plot which has brought "problems" to Algeria. The Algiers technician asks why journalists want to "create" trouble for Algeria. A civil engineer criticises the political parties - including the banned Islamic Salvation Front - who met in Rome and concluded that violence could not solve Algeria's tragedy. "It's nothing to do with do-gooders in other countries," he says, the surf washing his feet . "This should all be settled internally - you don't wash your dirty linen in public."

An economics professor playing on the beach with his young daughter also blames the press but concludes that Algeria's young are the country's hope. But were not the young, one wondered, the very backbone of the Islamic vote in the elections whose cancellation started the gale force winds howling around the middle classes? "I don't trust politicians, none of them," the economist says stubbornly. "As for the fundamentalists, they are fascists."

Below the tea-house, a group of younger men are playing football, a guard at the University of Algiers - "I search handbags," he says with unconcealed cynicism - a law student, a salesman from a sports shop near the Algiers post office and a waiter who works, of all places, at the Grosvenor Hotel in London. All but one were practising Muslims but all condemned both the government and its fundamentalist opponents. Algeria, they all unconvincingly insisted, was experiencing the "painful transition" from dictatorship to "democracy". They fetched bottled water and cake for us, there beside the beach, huge slabs of current and cream, traditional hospitality with no word of the terrors of Algiers. Until we asked, gently, if they had witnessed any violence. Then the boy who sells sports clothes said he was in his shop when the suicide bomber attacked the police commissariat behind the post office in January.

"I ran out of the shop and down the street. There were bodies everywhere, bits of bodies, limbs, you know?" And then he stopped speaking and there was silence, an embarrassment of sorts, as if the four young men were somehow responsible for this, for admitting to a foreigner that, yes, it is all true, the violence of Algiers. The same troubled silence had followed the admission of a friend whose neighbour had been killed in the same explosion and who, at her friend's funeral, had been told of a baby's arm found in the upper storey of an office opposite the police station. "They never found out which baby the arm belonged to," she said. "What can you do with a baby's arm?"

The Club des Pins was built 15 miles from Algiers as a conference centre in the late 1960s, in the first flush of Boumedienne's spendthrift post- independence construction, a set of ugly rectangular atriums fit for a hundred fraternal delegations. Now the new American portable buildings are piled up around them, plastic wrapping still covering the walls in readiness for the next battalion of frightened families. Below one set of prefabricated houses sat two young men, one with hippie-style long hair, the 1970s again. The family of one of them owned a printing plant. It was a day out, he said, in the safety of the Club des Pins, where there were lots of policemen. There were the usual criticisms of the old FLN dictatorship, the impossibility of talking to Islamists, the suggestion that things had been much exaggerated abroad. Had he seen any violence, we asked?

There was another long pause. "Yes." Where? "On a road." What happened? His reluctance collapsed. "I was driving into town, down the motorway into Algiers. It was a normal day, a normal morning. And there was a body on the side of the road, just lying there in some blood. A young man, maybe 24. I don't know why it happened or who he was. I never found out."

And then there was a tough Kabyle of 39 with a pretty Russian wife, whose best friend, a girl called Larissa, had been shot dead in Algiers in December. "If the Islamists take over, it will be the same as it was before," he said. "One dictatorship follows another, you know. Yes, we know violence. There was my wife's friend; and the father and son of my neighbours had their throats cut at a faux barrage [a fake police checkpoint] near Tizi Ouzou.

"My nephew was an Islamist but he agreed to perform his military service so another Islamist, one of his own friends, executed him. He was shot. They do their victims a favour when they shoot them rather than cut their throats. Yes, we have considered going to Russia to live."

His wife said she never left her home now for fear of being murdered. She came out just occasionally, to the safety of the Club des Pins.

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