I first visited Algeria between reading The Plague and A Savage War of Peace.
‘…the plague bacillus never dies or disappears for good …’
Albert Camus’ fiction of the plague in Oran from 1947 is quoted as the Afterword in Alistair Horne’s visceral history of the decade leading to Algerian independence (as written in 1977).
The civil war started in 1991 and it was still underway when I first travelled to Hassi Messaoud in 1997. I found a legacy of silence, resentment and distrust that pervaded any and all business or personal interactions. That’s not to say I disliked the people I met but they had other things on their minds.
Most personal encounters were in remote desert locations off limits bar to those with military passes. Some asked why we risked coming to Algeria at all. Much like them, we too were lucky to have skills that made us employable. They were doubly lucky in a country where the official unemployment rate was at least 30%. And they were torn between the relief of feeling secure in a military controlled region but beyond communication with loved ones experiencing the deprivations of the brutal war.
Security for us foreigners immediately elevated us to an ascendant class that bestowed a perceived value on us that that exceeded the value of every Algerian we met. I had the same awareness of such inequality when working with Iraqis ten years later. I accepted these inequalities because I believed then as I believe now that our business activity was helping their societies despite the different flavours of kleptocracy that were in power.
The security for foreigners meant that a detachment of soldiers travelled with us. This meant there were always enough people to play soccer in the evenings. We also had expatriate mercenaries to liaise with the Algerian commanders. The war meant we had little to no freedom to look around.
Imagine that you have to work in the desert in an office the size of a shipping container. It’s mounted on wheels for mobility and has an elaborates air-conditioning system and UPS (universal power supply) that looks after the expensive computers inside. There’s a double door between which is a hermetic holding area that’s designed to keep the dust out. Fortunately this environment also suits humans.
Imagine you are at a desk in front of a computer screen for 12 if not 14 hours every day. Every day means seven days per week. You’re there four weeks before congé, a term for leave, the break in your work. The nice thing about the congé was that it was an equal period that sets up a working rotation. Four weeks on, four week off. Since we worked 12 hour shifts, there might have been up to four people for every role. There were often three roles. Six at work, six on congé. In practice, we tended to have one person at night because of other logistics. We always needed to minimise beds, water and food in the middle of the Sahara.
Imagine that there are three of you in that small twenty foot space, a ceiling just eight and a half feet above the floor. I worked in such mobile environments in many deserts including Patagonia and the Sahara.
You’d think you get to know the people with whom you so closely share your workspace. The Malvinas conflict, a decade earlier left the Argentinians I worked with guarded and hard to know in any meaningful way. The ongoing Algerian Civil War made the Algerian’s thoughts a no-go area no matter what language was spoken. There were a few things in common. There was a lot of time to talk and a lot of talk of time. Times for meals. Time elapsed for computer jobs. Times to run 10 km at 44C. Time left until congé.
And so, now imagine we were in the Algerian Sahara desert. In our office, inside the fence, inside the sand berm and over-seen by watch towers. It was very hot outside, well above 50C in the shade but there was no shade except below our mobile office where my thermometer had been maxed out at 50 for twelve hours a day. There were regular sand devils and it surprised me how many days were quite cloudy. We would go running at dusk when the temperature fell to something tolerable, though still many degrees warmer than our blood.
The electrician came into our trailer and tapped a wire he exposed with the back of his hand. It was live. Our air-conditioner wasn’t running properly and there was sweat steaming off us. We were frustrated that we were not getting the support needed to continue. There were two hundred others out working, hard physical work, among the dunes but this was where their work was being validated. The geophysical data we analysed was what they were being paid to record. Then the electricity stopped completely. The fault shut everything down and the UPS gave us time to power down the computers avoiding damage. Days of work were lost but this was the middle of the Sahara. Stuff happens.
Then I did something that I should be regretting even now. I went outside and from the steps to our trailer, I saw the Algerian manager of the campaign. He saw me from afar so I indicated by gesture that the power was cut off. Unfortunately, the gesture I chose was to run my hand across my throat a few times. He ran to the trailer where the camp generators were coughing and spluttering and belching black smoke. Shortly after his run, the rhythm stabilised.
The power was restored and with it came a new reputation that only became apparent to me that evening while out running. One of my Algerian colleagues had joined me and explained how many people were having their throats cut during the civil war.
I apologised profusely to the camp boss that evening. He had understood my intent and was taken aback but he was very gracious nonetheless. I met the same camp boss ten years later, after the war was over. We were in another part of Algeria and he told that crew why they should take me seriously but with a smile on his face.
Back in the trailer, we shared workstations among shifts. There was one communal PC for email and technical support. It was connected to the world by Inmarsat. This was 1997 and we had technology in the Sahara that most were still dreaming of having in their urban homes.
Someone did searches on our PC on CIA webpages for French airborne nuclear detonations in Algeria in the 1960s. Our local security folk asked me some questions on foot of someone in the UK IT group having reported the search query made in a country with an ongoing civil war. We’d been taunting the same UK IT team using searches for holidays in Scunthorpe because their crude algorithm flagged four of the letters as forming a word that was deemed unacceptable. We were told to cease and desist from searching (taunting) the CIA and holidays in UK resorts.
Curious, I wondered why Karim had needed to do this search other than because he could. This was long before Google change the world and web access for Karim was ineluctable. Karim told me that when he was bored at night, he’d search the web. Then he realised that he could find out more about the high incidence of cleft lips and palates in his hometown. Was there a connection to the nuclear tests that occurred over their heads? The Reggane District was Karim’s homeland and the horrific legacy of French nuclear tests and the shameful disregard of accountability still makes news today.
I spent three months in five rotations in the same trailer with Karim and others. One other in particular became a friend that I would work with on and off for the next decade.
The Algerians I’m writing about talked to me perhaps because I wasn’t British or French or American. Perhaps it was because I was asked about revolution in Ireland, stories of which were well respected in Algeria. Perhaps it was because of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Perhaps it was because I was interested.
The friend I’ll call Hakim because he’s insightful in the Arabic meaning of his name. He shared a story that he started to tell when he got a message to say his grandmother had died. It took hours even to tell me this because he was struggling with emotion and trepidation. Then we went on congé for four weeks.
I asked about his grandmother’s funeral when we met up again. The reply shocked me. I had no idea that someone I had spent months with was going through hell.
In short, he simply wanted to visit the grave of his cousin. The story came out in a jumble. He wasn’t sure where the grave would be. His cousin was a farmer, working his own land near Algiers. Their shared grandmother and his cousin’s youngest daughter were in Algiers. That was the grandmother that had died the month before. They lived in GIA controlled territory. His cousin’s family had been taxed in produce by the insurgents. The GIA took 10% of their crops at first but it had risen to 90%. Not only could his family not live on 10% of their produce, they had no resources left to plant for the following seasons.
In case you don’t know of the GIA, you can web search them or just accept that they were an Islamist insurgent group, Groupe Islamique Armé, who eventually became Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. They were dedicated to ‘purging the land of the ungodly’ and as brutal as subsequent AQ, IS, ISIL or ISIS.
The extended family advised Hakim’s cousin to abandon the farm many times. They warned him that paying any such tax to insurgents would be harshly regarded when the government took back control. The stink of any alleged collaboration would never wash off. Hakim said that they’d also warned him that 10% was just the start. The tribute would rise.
His cousin had refused to move. Then he refused to pay.
The rebels didn’t take no for an answer. They came back one night and they blinded his grandmother in front of the family. Then they tied her together with his youngest child and put them outside the house. They put the younger children upstairs, tying them to their beds. They raped the mother and her oldest daughters in front of the father. They tied them all to chairs on the ground floor. Then they set fire to the house and watched while everybody got to hear everybody else screaming as seven died.
Which left two witnesses neither of whom could describe the rebels. But they could recount every detail of the events. Forever.