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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 July 2007, 23:12 GMT 00:12 UK
Enjoying beer in Algeria's woods
Kamal Van Damme's bar

By Mary Harper
BBC News, Algiers

Kamal "Van Damme" has long dark hair, wild black eyes and a bare chest.

We're drinking beer under the very beards of the Islamists
Drinker at Kamal Van Damme's bar

He lives alone in the woods, high up in the Berber mountains of Algeria's Kabylie region.

In an area occupied by armed Islamists, he runs a bar, selling cold beer to his customers.

Nicknamed after the Hollywood strongman, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Kamal has carved ingenious clearings out of the mountainside, each one almost completely hidden by thick bushes on all sides.

Into each clearing, he has put a rickety table and a few chairs, so that people can sit and drink in the middle of nature.

Actor Jean-Claude Van Damme
Kamal is named after the action hero Jean-Claude Van Damme

For the more adventurous, he has even constructed a platform at the top of a tree.

When I visited Kamal Van Damme's bar, there were men lolling around in various stages of inebriation, green beer bottles scattered all over the place.

The atmosphere was completely relaxed.

"We're drinking beer under the very beards of the Islamists," one man joked.

Bizarre

I found it impossible to believe that we really were drinking "under the beards of the Islamists" until a couple of days later, when a military patrol was ambushed in full daylight just 400m away from the bar.

A stairway to drinking heaven...

One soldier was killed and two others badly injured in the attack, blamed on Islamists hiding in the nearby forest.

Eyewitnesses reported that Kamal continued to serve beer during the attack, although most of his clients ran away as soon as they heard the gunshots and other explosions.

Bizarrely, it is in the land of the beer-drinking Berbers that Algeria's Islamist insurgency is most active.

Attacks are frequent and principally directed at the military.

Recent incidents include the suicide bombing of an army barracks in Lakhdaria that killed more than 10 people and a midnight ambush on military positions in Yakouren.

In the first attack on civilians for some time, a bomb was thrown into an amusement arcade in Barika, leaving two children dead and several others with horrific injuries.

Hideouts

Parts of the Kabylie resemble a war zone. Near Yakouren, I saw convoys of military vehicles thundering by as columns of nervous-looking soldiers marched up into the mountains to hunt down the perpetrators of the recent attack.

The Berbers have little sympathy for the Islamists, but they dislike the army even more
Helicopters clattered above, strafing the mountainsides.

Forest fires, started by the military, engulfed the hills, consuming not only the hideouts of the militants but also the ancient olive trees belonging to the local population.

The Berbers have little sympathy for the Islamists, but they dislike the army even more.

One man, a beekeeper, explained how all of his beehives had been destroyed in one of the fires started by the army.

"When I asked the soldiers why they had burned my beehives, they said they would not have done so if I had told them where the militants were hiding," he said.

"How can the army ask for my help when they have destroyed my livelihood?"

And the authorities are indeed asking the population for their help in fighting the insurgency, with daily television appeals requesting information about "the terrorists".

Abdelaziz Belkhadem
Terrorism is on the verge of being eradicated
Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem

Insecurity has been increasing in Algeria, and across North Africa, since the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) re-launched itself as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb at the beginning of this year.

Algeria's Islamists have changed their tactics since joining the al-Qaeda franchise.

There are more suicide bombings, complete with slick internet videos of the young men who were prepared to die for their faith.

Co-ordinated attacks, such as the seven bombs that went off almost simultaneously in seven different locations in February, also bear the hallmarks of al-Qaeda.

Despite the upsurge of Islamist activity, the government insists that what Algerians describe as "The Time of Terror" of the 1990s and early 2000s is now over.

"The Algerian government has perfect control over the security situation and terrorism is on the verge of being eradicated," says Prime Minister Abdelaziz Belkhadem.

Traumatised

The reality on the ground, especially in the eastern Kabylie region, contradicts the prime minister's statement.

Fire in Algiers
There were deadly bomb blasts in Algiers in April
Even in areas where security has returned, the population is traumatised.

Algeria's most fertile region, the Mitidja valley, is like a land of ghosts with memories of the horrific massacres hanging like a dark cloud over the area.

People have still not returned to their hillside villages, preferring to stay in the towns by night, and working in their fields by day.

In other areas, such as Medea to the south of Algiers, people are starting to relax and enjoy themselves.

I visited this region during the weekend, and saw people swimming in the rivers, feeding monkeys and eating freshly roasted meat in restaurants that have only just re-opened after being burned down by the Islamists.

But none of this would be possible without the presence of the army.

Boys swimming in Algiers (Picture by Derrick Evans)
People in the capital are able to relax and enjoy themselves

Medea is the most heavily militarised zone in the country, and it is swarming with soldiers.

The horizon is dotted with sentry boxes and watchtowers, heavily armed soldiers crouch behind sandbags, hide behind trees and perch on rocks.

The place where life really does seem to be returning to normal is the capital city.

Algiers feels like a different country, with a cosmopolitan atmosphere and the hustle and bustle of a fully functioning city.

But step outside the beautiful capital, with its white buildings crowded on hillsides overlooking the bay, and "The Time of Terror" is very much alive.

Either as fresh and bloody memories in people's minds or as the ongoing insurgency led by militants intent on establishing an Islamic republic in Algeria.


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Algeria
01 Jun 07 |  Country profiles
Violence ahead of Algeria polls
14 May 07 |  Africa

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