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Watching for death in the rear-view mirror: Terror, arson and murder are common in Algiers, information and answers are not, writes Robert Fisk

THE woman handed us the letter under the table, like someone offering pornographic literature. Why not, for the contents were obscene enough. 'In the name of God, the most merciful,' the anonymous sender had written to her. 'No more work. You are a whore. In the name of God, the most merciful, no more police. God is great.'

The woman is a medical worker and among her patients are policemen. 'What can I do?' she asked us. 'I must go on working. Maybe I will leave Algeria.' The threat was in French, the Koranic verse in Arabic. The writer's French was better than his Arabic, a strange reflection on the hatred for the West so often expressed by Algeria's Islamists, always supposing they sent the letter. It had been franked at the post office at a cost of two dinars. Terror by mail for just eight pence.

LAST week, so the newsagent told me, they burnt down one of Algiers' finest shops in Rue Boumendjel. There was nothing in the papers. But when I drove to the narrow street behind the seafront, there was the old leather store, gutted by fire. They - whoever 'they' were - had burnt down the shop. No claim of responsibility was ever published. How could it be, when the very act goes unacknowledged?

OUTSIDE a house in rue Mohamed Belouizdad, there stands a grey saloon car. It has stood there for three weeks, ever since its owner, a police officer, found his shoes were too tight. The story, told by neighbours, is rather like the gutted leather store. Officially, it never happened. The officer was a cautious man, aware that policemen are assassinated every few hours across Algeria - some say at the rate of ten a night - and he was in the habit of asking his son to check the coast was clear each morning before leaving home. Three weeks ago, his son checked as usual and reported no suspicious characters in the street. His father left the house, climbed into his car - and found he was wearing a pair of shoes that were too tight. His son ran upstairs for a new pair. But when he returned, his father was sitting in the front seat of the car with two bullet holes in his forehead. His murder did not rate a paragraph in the papers. The policeman's car is still standing outside his house. And there is blood on the driver's seat.

ALGERIA'S dinar is so devalued - it currently trades at an official rate of 34 to the pound but goes for 60 on the black market - that no foreign newspapers are sold in the country. So Algiers' French language (and pro-government) press is doubly popular, along with the satellite dishes that beam the outside world into millions of homes. But a campaign by Islamists against them is beginning to take effect.

The people of Chlef, east of Algiers, for example, have all dismantled their dishes after graffiti suggested death as a suitable punishment for those interested in 'pornographic' French films. They have also discovered that local newsagents will no longer sell French-language papers from Algiers after 'advice' from some young men. Arabic, they were reminded, is the language of Arabs.

There is therefore no further use for that greatest of all French linguistic institutions, the Robert dictionary. A little ironic when you remember that Chlef is the old French Orleansville, birthplace of the most pedantic of all pieds-noirs, Paul Robert himself.

IN Algiers, everyone watches the rear-view mirror, looks at other shoppers in the reflection of windows; keeps an eye open if you see the same car twice - it means the occupants are 'spotters'.

In Beirut's kidnap days, Muslim gunmen were often obliging enough to wear beards. The bad news for all assassination targets here is that the murderers have been to the barber. 'We all saw the men who killed a policeman in our street,' a young woman tells us. 'He had trouble starting his car; they must have 'fixed' the engine. They walked up and shot him in the chest with a pistol. They were all clean-shaven. The man with the gun was very well- dressed. He wore a tie. He was quite handsome.' So all you have to do is keep an eye on 26 million Algerians.

AFTER the assassination of seven journalists, most Algiers reporters have asked editors to take their by-lines off stories. On many days, however, the real stories can be found in the advertising columns. Here, for example, is a small ad from El Watan: 'Mustapha Mukhtar. On the dark day of 16 January, assassins' bullets tore you from life before you had enjoyed 25 springs. Ten days after your cowardly murder, your friend Said still cries for you.' No indication of why the young man was killed. Nor who killed him. As usual.

EVERYONE talks about the faux barrages, the fake checkpoints mounted by armed Islamists on country roads at night. Dressed in police or army uniform, the gunmen search for government officials, secular politicians, foreigners and unveiled women. Now rumours are circulating that so many of the police have covert sympathies with the Islamists that the fake checkpoints and the real checkpoints are one and the same, the first turning into the second when night falls. No one knows the identity of the 'policemen' who stopped a young soldier at a fake road-block near Sidi Bel-Abbes last month. The recruit obligingly showed his military papers and promptly had his throat cut.

A GENTLEMAN was wandering through Bab el-Oued a few mornings ago, wheeling a cart of fish. 'Sardines,' he called. A woman sent her son to buy some fish. He returned a minute later to say that the man refused to sell him any. Angrily, the woman went out to the street to demand her fish - only to see, beneath the man's coat, a Kalashnikov rifle. Fearful of discovery, the man insisted on loading the woman's basket with free sardines, so she would leave him alone. 'When he scooped out the sardines, I saw what was underneath,' she said. 'More guns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition.' Who was the gun-runner working for? Was this just a shipment of weapons from one 'safe' house to another?

To ask such questions here is to show that you do not understand Algiers. Like the checkpoints that aren't checkpoints, there are, of course, no answers. How can there be when it is the very identity of Algeria that is in question, not just that of its tortured inhabitants?