Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1259, (20 - 26 August 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Old brothers, new enemies

Tensions are rising between the Berber and Arab populations in the Algerian Sahara, writes Mélanie Matarese in Ghardaia

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Al-Ahram Weekly

Except for a few carpets and mattresses rescued from the fire, Ammar has nothing left. But at least he is alive.

“The attack began just after dawn prayers, at around 4 am. We heard cries and went up on the terrace. The house was surrounded by men whose faces were obscured by Arab scarves [the headscarf worn by men in the Sahara] and armed with iron bars and knives,” Ammar said.

“We negotiated to have the women evacuated. They jumped over the courtyard wall, and we were beaten and Molotov cocktails were thrown at our house, which was completely burned. In the fight, one man lost his scarf. Then I recognised him — he was my neighbour.”

Fifteen days after 23 people died in clashes between the Mozabites (Berbers who follow the Ibadi Muslim rite) and Arabic-speaking Muslims from the Maliki tribe (a branch of Sunni Islam), tensions have escalated in Al-Guerrara, a town of 75,000 inhabitants 100 km from the Sahara desert city of Ghardaia in Algeria.

Violence is not new in this area. Clashes between the two communities date back to 1975, but the conflict has picked up in intensity and frequency since 2013. This summer, the death toll in Al-Guerrara exceeded that of 2013 for the entire valley.

Under a blazing July sun, where the temperature can rise to up to 45 degrees Celsius at noon, children play in the courtyard of a centre for the victims of violence. The Mozabite community has taken care of hundreds of families who have fled the violence, like Ammar’s, and distributed them in four schools across the city.

“We brought in a psychologist for the children because they were traumatised by what they had seen,” said Abdelhamid, the centre’s manager. Highlighting the fact that the Mozabites have “not waited for help from the state to act,” he shows a board where a list of families and the regulations of the makeshift camp have been posted.

In the classrooms the children’s drawings and conjugation tables remain displayed on the walls, propped up against cardboard boxes and furniture blackened by the flames. A burning smell is still very present.

In the Larbi Ben M’hidi district, inhabited mostly by the Arabic-speaking population, men come out of a mosque and gather to talk. Ben Barek Al-Hajj, an Arab Atatcha tribe notable, opens an iron door along the empty street. This is where 25-year-old Bashir Messaoud was killed just days before his wedding.

Nothing is left of the house except shattered walls, fingerprints on the soot covering the earthenware, and a burned bag of dates turned upside down. On the front, the slogan “Amazigh out!” has been written in chalk.

There might be as many versions of the attack as there are stories of the history of both communities. Critically, each side claims the right to live in the area. Responding to the Mozabites who say they were the first to inhabit the valley, Bengrid Al-Bouti, a member of the Maliki Council who is considered a moderate, said that his Atatcha tribe (Arabic-speaking) has been living in the valley for centuries and that the first Ibadi mosque “was built on the house of Ben Aissa Atach, the founder of Al-Guerrara.”

Responding to the Malikis, who accuse the Mozabites of being harkis, or collaborators with the French army during the country’s war of independence, Ahmed Bensalah, an elder from Al-Guerrara, recalls that the poet Moufdi Zakaria, who wrote the Algerian national anthem, was a Mozabite.

“The problem is not in the Ghardaia community, and it is even less about religion,” said an activist with the Socialist Forces Front, a Berber opposition party with deep roots in the region.

“The Mozabites and Chaambas [the largest Arabic-speaking population] are primarily hostages of the state, which has provided no national narrative and left each side to build its own narrative against the other for the past 50 years.”

The problem perhaps has to do with the landscape. On both sides of National Road 1, the mythical Trans-Saharan highway linking Algiers to the southern town of Tamanrasset, new dormitory towns have grown up in the desert, challenging the heat and sandstorms.

One of these towns is Oued Nechou, about 20 km from Ghardaia. It does not meet any urban-planning guidelines. Space is tight, and cohabitation between the Chambaas and Mozabites has proved difficult, evidenced by regular insults and stone-throwing.

From the top of the rocky hill overlooking Ghardaia, a city recognised for its award-winning urban design, Ahmed Nouh sees the unplanned urban sprawl as the root cause of the tension between the two communities.

“When the Mzab Valley was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1982, it should have been protected, but the state did nothing to curb pressure on the Valley,” Nouh said.

“Ghardaia holds the record for the most densely populated area of Algeria. In the city centre, the traffic jams look like those in the capital. Do you think this is normal for the heart of the Sahara?”

A former state representative from Ghardaia is convinced that the Mozabites “are paying the price of a policy led by Algiers since 1962” and that the situation in Ghardaia should have been viewed in the context of the conflicts between the Tuareg (the Berber nomads of the Sahara) and the Arabs in southern Algeria instead of being presented as inter-community clashes.

“The Tuareg and Mozabites are the only ones who opposed the division of Algeria that was wanted by France in the 1950s. Yet they have always been fought against nonetheless. Algiers has never hidden its desire to destroy the traditional institutions,” the former state representative said.

The Algerian state has decided to treat the Ghardaia issue as a security problem. According to a source in the intelligence services, nearly 8,000 policemen have been deployed. The military is hardly visible except in the nearby hills, where its trucks are parked. But the police are omnipresent at every junction and roundabout in the city.

Exasperated by the heat and the situation they have lived in for the past year and a half, the police maintain tense relations with the local population, especially with the Mozabites who accuse them of siding with the Chaambas.

Mohamed, an entrepreneur and member of the ruling party the National Liberation Front, laments the turn of events. In his modest office an old election poster of Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika hangs on the wall with a slogan saying “for a strong and serene Algeria.” On another wall there is a quote from the late Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. “If we cannot find common values, let us at least remain committed to the value of honour.”

“Instead of finding out who was here first, we should learn to live together again as we have always done. Otherwise, the region is going to burn,” Mohamed warned.

Ouahab, a trader from Setif, has trouble believing in the power of this kind of goodwill. “Unfortunately, young people today are less and less influenced by the notables and are more receptive to the provocations of the Mozabite extremists and the excited Salafists who call for jihad on the social-media networks,” he said.

“I understand that we hold the state responsible for the chaos. However, who else but the state is able to mediate between the two parties?”

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