Page last updated at 11:15 GMT, Saturday, 24 April 2010 12:15 UK

Algerians keen to step out from shadow of violent past

By Chloe Arnold
BBC News, Algiers

Algerian policemen patrol a beach
Algerian policemen patrol a beach west of the capital, Algiers

After years of civil war, Algeria is desperate to move on from its violent past. And despite security measures remaining extreme, big steps are being taken to get the country back on its feet.

A few weeks ago, I was having dinner with some Algerian friends, when the conversation turned to the security measures at US airports.

When a Nigerian man tried to blow up a plane flying to Detroit on Christmas day, the American government responded by putting Algeria and a handful of other countries - including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq - on a blacklist.

Anyone flying in from these places would be subjected to extra security checks before they could set foot on American soil.

'Like Fort Knox'

Karima, our hostess who is normally cool and calm, was absolutely furious. "It's an insult," she said. "It's totally demoralising. I refuse to fly anywhere near the United States until they take us off the list."

I have to admit I was a little bemused by her reaction. After all, Algeria does have a security problem. Pretty much every week, the local branch of al-Qaeda ambushes a police convoy or kidnaps someone.

Security in Algiers is like nothing I have ever experienced. There are armed police everywhere - on motorbikes, waving metal detectors or standing in pairs at 100m intervals in the middle of every road.

Algerian police patrols in Algiers
The country has recently emerged from a civil war that began in 1992

Every embassy, government building and ministry has reinforced steel gates and walls, which are twice as high as a double-decker bus and topped with jagged glass or barbed wire. Sometimes both.

We live a few doors down from the Italian embassy. I did not think they could improve on their security, but for the past month workmen have been building the walls up even higher and attaching yet more rolls of barbed wire to the top of them. It is like Fort Knox.

Security measures here seem to have trickled down to the most mundane aspects of life.

The 'black years'

When I first arrived in Algeria, I had trouble finding any potatoes. And then a friend explained to me what had happened. "They've banned the use of the fertiliser you need to grow them, because it's sometimes used to make home-made explosives," she said.

I am glad to say that law seems to have been relaxed, or at any rate farmers have discovered a new fertiliser, because potatoes are now back in the shops.

So why was my friend Karima so annoyed to be included on an American security blacklist?

She was not the only one complaining. Algeria's foreign minister summoned the US ambassador here to protest about the new measures.

The reason is that if things are not great now, they are far, far better than they used to be.

Rewind five years, bombs were going off all the time in the capital and people were too scared to go out after dark.

We want the rest of the world to know Algeria for something other than Islamist violence
Farouk, shop worker

A photographer friend vividly remembers seeing trees hanging with arms and legs after a bomb exploded nearby. Others recall headless bodies lying in the streets (beheadings were a common occurrence during the most brutal years of the civil war).

Slowly, haltingly, life is getting back to normal. The violence has not gone away but it has declined.

Today, cafes and shops stay open late and there have been open-air concerts put on at dusk - something unthinkable a few years ago.

Even the US security blacklist has now been revised and Algeria has been taken off it.

More than anything, Algerians are desperate to put what they call "les annees noires", or the "black years", behind them.

Brighter future

It is something I hear so often. Last week I was speaking to Farouk, the man who stacks shelves in his cousin's tiny grocery store at the top of our road.

Algerian fans celebrate Algeria qualifying for the 2010 World Cup
It is the first time in 24 years that Algeria has qualified for the World Cup

He is big and fat and every time you ask him to get a jar of honey down from the top shelf, you fear that this time his rickety step ladder will give way.

He loves to laugh and chat with the customers and if his cousin isn't looking, he creeps over to the jars of sweets and gives the children free lollipops.

But sometimes you can see a sad look in his eyes. If you catch him on his own, he becomes more serious.

"We just want to move on," he told me. "We want the rest of the world to know Algeria for something other than Islamist violence."

Farouk spent seven years living in England, escaping the civil war at home to work in restaurant kitchens in south London. He picked up a broad cockney accent and every week he sent money back to his family in Algiers.

Now he has come home and, like so many others, he wants to see a brighter future for his country.

That is why there was such excitement when Algeria's football team qualified for this year's World Cup finals in South Africa.

Hundreds of thousands of young people descended on the centre of town to celebrate.

They rode on the tops of buses and hung from lamp posts singing "Viva l'Algerie!"

For many of them growing up with daily violence, it was the first time they could be proud to be Algerian.

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SEE ALSO
Country profile: Algeria
26 Feb 11 |  Country profiles


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