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Algeria : Lost in its history

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By Owei Lakemfa

I SPRINTED into a shop in Algiers. The weather was very cold. Although it was not raining, people were getting wet.

Even in the streets,  here and there, you found pools of water. I was fully kitted wearing layers of shirts, a sweater and two trousers. Surprisingly, there were youths with just T-shirts and jackets, some with their trousers not around their waists but their buttocks. This clearly was the American gangster influence.

In the shop, the keeper grinned at me and I responded similarly.  I wanted to buy a SIM  card, but he spoke Arabic and I, English.  So I produced my phone and showed him my SIM. He nodded and gave one of the two popular in the country. As I left, he raised his right thumb and said in passable English “Obama good”. I nodded, then he added “Bush criminal”. Again I nodded. We shook hands like two long-lost friends and I left.

In my forays through the mountainous city, I was to realise that unlike in many cultures, you don’t bargain or haggle about prices of commodities. In my society as in most countries I know, you are not sure whether the price the shop keeper is offering you is the actual or is trying to cheat you, so you bargain or move around to compare prices. This is what is clothed elegantly as “market forces”.

But I was to learn that the average Algerian is honest and he assumes the other person also is. So if he tells you the price of a commodity and you begin to bargain, he feels insulted; that you are calling him a cheat.

As cold as central Algiers was, I found it far warmer than the Zeralda  area I stayed. It faced the sea which you could hear  ferociously demanding to be allowed to flow over land. There are, however, beautiful and apparently strong embankments  that keep the sea on the leash. Despite  this, you occasionally see a concert of waves take to the air like acrobatic dancers before smashing themselves above the helpless embankment.

Algiers is the steepest city I have ever been. Hewed into the Ben Mzghenna mountain , multi-storey buildings sprout from all its cleavages. A woman dashes to the sixth floor balcony of her home to retrieve some laundry  and disappears as swiftly as she had emerged; like a ghost.

Then I had to confront multiple layers of hilly roads, some so steep that they make one feel dizzy. Some times when I looked down  it was to behold vast, deep ridges. The roads in many parts are narrow and I watched with keen interest how the city buses manoeuvred through them. There were railings in many road sides; they are quite necessary as any accident can be quite fatal; vehicles can tumble down to streets or houses below.

I had looked forward to visiting Algeria. I had loved it from my history books in school. Its beautiful weather ,  vast riches, including gold, uranium, lead, phosphate, zinc, iron ore, mercury and petroleum had made it quite irresistible to Europeans, especially the French which in the 1950s numbered at least one million in the country.

Coupled with a tantalizingly attractive country with waves of mountains embracing themselves like siamese twins, giving birth to the Saharan Atlas mountains which hugs the African Sahara, and the Tell Atlas that watches the coast, the French decided to make Algeria part of home. They saw it not as a colony but a province of France!

Inevitably, the anti-colonial war was bound to be quite bloody like the wars against the European settlers in Kenya, Namibia, Zimbabwe and South Africa. It began in 1954 and went on for seven years.The French lost 17,250 soldiers with 51,800 injured, while over one million Algerians lost their lives mainly due to detention, torture and forced relocation. The Algerian liberation war was to lead to the overthrow of the French Fourth Republic in May 1958.

This was followed by new revolts in January 1960 and April 22, 1961 as the French citizens rejected their home government’s decision to quit. In France itself, there were a number of assassination attempts  on President Charles de Gaulle by these French citizens who felt betrayed that France “gave up” their dream homestead.

But it was not as if it willingly did so. France carried out series of massacres, the most infamous being in Setif in May 1945 where Algerian nationalists claimed some 45,000 Algerians were slaughtered by the French.

But France claimed those it killed were 1,500 and that 88 Frenchmen also lost their lives. There were also bloody battles like what became known as the “Battle Of Algiers”.

As I  walked  through the streets of Algiers, I imagined that 1957 battle with the cruel  French military backed by  ferocious armed gangs of settlers blocking and controlling the streets while the liberation  fighters controlled the side streets, homes and hearts of the Algerian  people.

France feared another crushing military defeat as it had  suffered in Haiti, and later in the 1954  battle of Dien Bien Phu, Vietnam. So in Algeria, it was willing to go to any length, including the obliteration of the Algerian people to secure victory. It proclaimed a bloody victory, but it was a pyrrhic one; it could no longer hold Algeria and had to organise a plebiscite. The options were complete integration with France, complete independence or self government in association with France. The Algerians by 99 per cent chose complete independence.

The Algerian struggle produced unforgettable people like Franz Fanon, author of world classics like Black Skins ,White Masks and The Wretched of The Earth. It also encouraged all the subsequent wars of liberation on the continent.

Nelson Mandela after a study in the early 1960s wrote that: “The situation in Algeria was the closest model to our own in that the rebels faced a large white settler community that ruled an indigenous majority”.

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