Immolation in Algeria, how far can the fire go?
Ghania Khelifi - 28/01/2012
A young man immolated himself at the end of the year 2011 in his village situated o the east coast of Algeria. He was 24 years old and has only had right to a little paragraph in the press. His act is not unusual, just an incident. In fact, it was quickly replaced in the news by another 20-year-old young unemployed who tried to commit suicide on Thursday the 22nd December in front of the labour office in Ouargla.
On the West coast, three days later, a 32-year-old woman wanted to immolate herself in front of the daïra’s (district) headquarters. Her young brother had immolated himself last November in front of the same headquarters of Arzew’s daïra. The young woman had unsuccessfully tried to meet the mayor to demand a compensation for her family after the incident that cost her brother’s life. Those who are cynical would say that those who missed their suicide were lucky not to be sentenced to up to four years in prison. This was what was the government decided. After criminalising the Harragas* attempts to illegal immigration, the government is now repressing the extreme way in which some Algerians protest.
The daily newspaper l’ Expression reported that a suicide candidate had been arrested and brought before the judge after hospital care. The “accused” was a street vendor whose goods had been seized by the police in the popular district of Bab El Oued in Algiers just like a certain Mohammed Bouazizi. At the time of the Tunisian revolution that sparked, so to speak, by young Bouazizi’s self-immolation, the phenomenon increased in Algeria reaching more than fifty cases in 2011. However self-immolations existed before.
All journalists remember Djamel Taleb, the first man to immolate himself in public. It was back in 2004, in front of Tahar Djaout Press House in Algiers. Worried by the breaking Arab revolutions, as from January 2011, President Bouteflika asked for measures to be taken to stem this deadly wave that killed youngsters but also mothers and fathers and sometimes parents and their children.
Wishful thinking. Some cases have been more publicised than others. This was the case for Abdallah Kebaili, a 25-year-old unemployed young lawyer in Ouargla in Southern Algeria. On the 14th November, Abdallah splashed himself with petrol to end up with all these closed doors he faced with his countless steps to find a job. His death triggered a strong anger movement especially among the unemployed of the city among whom he was active for years.
Each time, these suicides raise the indignation against a political system that is unable to respond to such social distress. Nevertheless, in such a religious country like Algeria no one thinks of condemning this act. Even if in the beginning of the Arab Spring, religious institutions such as the reference institution Al Azhar recalled that Islam “strictly prohibits suicide for no matter what reason and does not permit the decision to separate oneself from one’s body to express uneasiness, anger or protest”.
Taking to the streets is no longer sufficient to bring the increasingly autistic people in power to reason.
Psychologists believe that protest is not enough to explain the phenomenon. They recall that the trauma suffered during the terrorist violence decade, massacres and rapes are engraved in collective consciousness and since they cannot be expressed otherwise, they manifest themselves through an extreme act permitting to sublimate pain and the lack of recognition. This act verbalises and recognises pain before calming it down.
Just after the 1990’s nightmare, the Algerians were subjected to national reconciliation decided by the power without the possibility to resolve the tragedy, to uproot it and delineate its responsibilities. Practitioners are the only ones to daily notice the damage of self-destruction with its myriad of suicidal pathologies. When suffering is meaningless the absurd comes as a relief.
* Harraga (in Algerian) means, literally, those who burn, and it refers to the symbolic act committed by many of these migrants, who burn their papers before they depart, making it difficult for the host countries in Europe to identify them and thus repatriate them.
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech