Society / Algérie
Daikha Dridi - 15/09/2004
It is three years since his family came to live here, in western Algiers, in the neighbourhood of Beni Messous. Rachid, however, still does not feel part of Beni Messous. He was born in the great heart of the city, in Belouizdad, the old popular area, very crowded, very animated, so Algiers.
With a gesture, Rachid points without even looking at it, the city where he now lives: a collection of relatively new large blocks of flats painted in white and blue that the Algerian State obviously constructed in a hurry in order to re-house all kinds of disaster stricken families. The inhabitants, like Rachid’s family, are from old crumbling houses in the city centre, neighbourhoods destroyed by the floods, shantytowns raised to the ground ,or apartments that didn’t survive the earthquake that struck east Algiers last year.
Like a transplanted tree that refuses to grow in its new soil, Rachid looks abandoned here. Nevertheless, this new environment that he prefers not to look at, makes up one of the most conspicuous places in the capital’s new urban landscape. Near the forest and the sea, it isn’t a neighbourhood, it is an actual town that is developing here, lurking like a concrete river in the bed of the oued Beni Messous and assaulting its flanks up to the crest. A crest with such a pretty name: Sidi Youssef
Such a pretty name that recalls some very bad memories.
Six years ago, in the night of the 5th September 1997, 56 people: men, women, children and elderly were massacred with indescribable cruelty and in unbelievable secrecy, here, at the feet of the hillock where Rachid has chosen to sit.
A forest without trees
Behind Rachid’s shoulders, surges the mocking face of Faouzi, his cousin, same age and also transplanted here two or three years ago. “Before, I lived in Zeghara”, brags Faouzi as if he had said he lived on the Champs Elysées. In fact Zeghara is actually a popular neighbourhood, nearly seedy, where the old houses began to turn into a shanty town overflowing onto the hill where the splendid basilica of Notre Dame d’Afrique stands. Inhabited by a middle class impoverished by economic liberalism, Zeghara has the advantage of offering one of the most fantastic views of the city. Despite Algiers rapid change, it has kept from its past of socialist capital the fact that the city’s less wealthy still benefit from one of its most beautiful views.
Faouzi like Rachid considers living at Sidi Youssef like changing one’s skin, it is like leaving the navel of the capital to go and live at its back, in the middle of nowhere.
“Don’t go any further, be careful of the jackals! This place is full of jackals!”, Faouzi shouts laughingly to stop us going ahead towards the scrub. “Here all traces of life end!” he says in the academic Arab that no-one speaks unless in the purpose to sound absurd. He lives in a new house built by his family on the other side of the road and works as a mechanic in his father’s garage. Like Rachid he takes the smallest pretext to go back; for whatever occasion to see his friends in the old neighbourhood. “We left Zeghara because my father loves nature!” he snaps sarcastically, with a distrustful gesture of the hand at the word “nature” to the spectacle of the destroyed forest. The huge stretch of green, slightly shorn, that goes off to die in the horizon of the sea and that Rachid stares at so constantly, was, six years ago, a real forest of more than 1235 acres of resinous trees: Bainem. Bainem that the inhabitants of Algiers proudly called «the lung of Algiers». When the war broke out, at the beginning of the 1990’s, the Islamic armed groups that raged in the capital chose Bainem as their refuge. The military ended up considering the trees as their enemies and decided, in 1999, to raze everything to the ground to help find the rebels. When came 2000 and return to security in the capital, the foresters have put all their energy into re-planting Bainem, but it will take many years before the replanted pines show the same beauty than the old ones.
Money and concrete
Even if Rachid and Faouzi cannot become attached to these places that seem empty and history-less to them, Sidi Youssef is the hinge between the forest of Bainem and the oued Beni Messous and had a life and a history well before the spectacular and recent arrival of concrete. These places were inhabited well before independence and also afterwards, without ever suffering from over crowding. Some old houses that discretely prefer to go a little further into the forest are the survivors of a past, not that long ago, when Sidi Youssef was part of the backwards pastoral plan of the city.
“We were living well here before, so well, it is the arrival of money that has changed everything”, murmurs an old man with white hair and dressed in faded Chinese blue with a timid smile. As far as he can recall, his family and relatives have always lived in Sidi Youssef, but like all the old inhabitants of the region, he still waits for the property deeds of the house in which he lives, that before independence belonged to the colony. For this reason, the “olds of Sidi Youssef” (as they like to call themselves) to whom the State refuses access to the houses in which they were born, are witnessing, staggered and sometimes surly, the birth of a new town in their neighbourhood, once a silent rural and quiet place.
Their houses can now be recognised by their red tiles, decrepit old walls, a palm tree growing somewhere for no reason, an enclosure with a clucking turkey. These houses that resolutely do not respond to the most fashionable type of architecture in Algiers in the year 2000, are surrounded on all sides by a gigantic building site of a residential city of high blocks built as quickly as possible by untiring Chinese labourers for the not yet impoverished middle class. Surrounded by these half constructed buildings that is typical of council housing - walls not yet painted but windows already overflowing with rags. Surrounded by all these new concrete and brick colour buildings built on the side of the road, horrible from the outside but that we can imagine comfortable inside.
“Look at them, they’ve gone mad ! it is all about corruption to build near the road! Facing the road, that’s guaranteed business, it’s value added if one day one wants to sell”, says Rafiq with a sad and yet ironic intonation. Rafiq is 24, unemployed, slim, hair slicked back, clean appearance; he is a child of Sidi Youssef.
Like the rest of the country, the upper middle class leaves their apartments in
the old overpopulated suburbs to go build houses stuck next to each other, all clones of the same prototype, as if all planned by the same architect. The most common fantasy of this newly wealthy class are these homes in small buildings, where the ground floor invariably is made up of garages or shops and services, while the higher floors are the flats in which they live, rent or leave empty until the kids get married and the family gets bigger. Let’s hide the dead…
As Sidi Youssef has become a symbol of the violence that occurred in Algiers in the nineties, it has become difficult to try to find the exact site of the massacre.
Everyone remembers that terrible night: “it happened a bit further down, where the disaster stricken people’s town is today. That night, they were putting projectors up to light up the forest so that they could see the terrorists, when one started to hear people screaming” says Rafiq. The other inhabitants, both new and old, “prefer to forget”. As a young engineer sums up “the dead are dead, at that time, all of Algiers lived in terror, Sidi Youssef wasn’t an exception. Today, the important thing is the living ones who suffer in poverty, the young people without work, the corruption of politicians, the important today is to speak about this, not about massacres.”.
Any sign of the poor massacred deads disappeared, buried under the concrete of the difficulties of everyday survival. There is nothing that recalls to the living the suffering of these unarmed civilians originally from a great tribe of cattle breeders of the Great Plains that had been settled in Sidi Youssef for generations. Innocents asked to go out of their houses one by one like sheeps, by a bunch of armed bastards usually hiden in the forest who firstly gathered them all together to then slam their faces to the ground and cut them up with knives.
After their death, the authorities refused to start an inquest and today, not even a plaque indicates the site of the massacre for those who wish to honour the memory of the blood bath victims. If you ask people on the road how to get to this place, they will indicate a bend, then a eucalyptus, behind a funny soulless building. Under the tree, there are just scattered remains of destroyed walls on which vegetation is growing. The houses of the massacred of Sidi Youssef were demolished by a stupid mayor who thought in this way to wipe the massacre out of the memory. None of the inhabitants seem to find this surprising, abnormal or shocking; “these houses were destroyed in 2001 because they weren’t serving any purpose, they didn’t belong to anyone” they say shrugging their shoulders. Even the few survivors, as they do exist, as opposed to what the local residents say. The survivors appear like silent ghosts when they hear that visitors have come to the scene of the crime. They say that their grievous memories, the scares on their bodies are nothing compared to the immense distress they feel when faced with their disturbed children.
It’s even the only thing they say.
“The dead have left, they won’t come back, the important thing is the living ones”, they repeat, as if trying to be in harmony with a society that decided, pragmatically, to go and ignore the great loneliness into which it has thrown the victims of a war still not fully digested. A society that believes it buried its memory of the dead, its shame of having done nothing, its shame of having accepted and swallowed it all without questioning. Daikha Dridi