Algerians denounce lack of government support as forest fires rage

Algerians denounce lack of government support as forest fires rage

Tizi Ouzou, Algeria – With bloodshot eyes and hoarse voices, young volunteers buzz around a line of shops along Boulevard Krim Belkacem in their neon vests. Most of them haven’t slept for days.
The shopping street of Tizi Ouzou, in northeastern Kabylia in Algeria, is the main disembarkation point for hundreds of trucks delivering humanitarian aid to victims of forest fires across the country, and the reception and the distribution of supplies continued. uninterrupted.

Tizi Ouzou has been at the center of humanitarian aid efforts as it is the province hardest hit by the days of ruthless forest fires that ravaged Algeria.

“We started fundraising and volunteering during the last wave of COVID-19, so many organizational mechanisms were already in place to tackle these fires,” said Mokrane Nessah, a 54-year-old coordinator for one of the charities on site.

According to the Directorate General of Civil Protection (DGPC), on Thursday there were 100 active fires in Algeria and 38 of them were located in Tizi Ouzou.

When the first fires broke out on Monday, conditions helped them spread quickly.

Temperatures soared above 40 degrees Celsius (104F), non-stop gusts of 20 km / h (12.4 miles per hour) fanned the flames and forecasts in the Kabylia region suggested that no rain was imminent.

However, without the activity around the makeshift shelters, the town itself was eerily quiet.

“The closest fires are probably in Beni Douala,” said a boulevard trader, shaking his head.

“It’s only a 20 minute drive to the hills from here. I have never seen such a thing. “

At least 69 people lost their lives this week, including 28 soldiers.

Several young volunteers load packs of bottled water into a van in Tizi Ouzou as they prepare to transport aid to Beni Douala, a nearby village affected by forest fires in Algeria [Maher Mezahi/Al Jazeera]

In the village of Beni Douala, amber smoke polluted a clear blue sky, the smell of carbon and caramelized sap permeated the air, and particles of ash danced in the wind.

The center of Beni Douala itself was not affected by the fire, but almost all the neighboring villages were evacuated.

Many evacuees denounced the government’s lack of support.

“Since yesterday, we haven’t seen a single policeman or gendarme! said a young volunteer named Fethi, as he led the congested traffic in and out of the village.

“The only things we saw were the helicopters above and the firefighters, but no one came to give us instructions or help us evacuate. “

As he spoke, semi-trucks with giant metal water tanks raced past, followed by vans stuffed with shovels and digging equipment.

Evacuated families gathered at the Akal Aberkane Mausoleum, a historic site usually used for religious festivities.

The man responsible for helping them is Cherif Hamlid, a tall old man, with a long white beard and blue eyes.

“There are over 80 people here. They have everything they need. We have medical supplies, food and we sleep outside, ”he said.

As he spoke, a small explosion could be heard a short distance away and immediately dozens of young men sprinted empty-handed toward the thick black smoke.

Clouds of smoke rise in the air as forest fires burn on the mountainside in Beni Douala, a village in Algeria’s Tizi Ouzou province [Maher Mezahi/Al Jazeera]

People criticized Algerian authorities online throughout the week, saying their government lacks firefighting technology like amphibious planes.

As a result, the North African nation had to ask its European allies for help, but most were concerned about fighting the fires in Greece.

On Thursday, the European Union finally agreed to send two Canadair amphibious planes to help fight the fires in Algeria.

“To the Algerian people, I want to give you all our support. Tomorrow [Thursday], two Canadairs and a command plane will be deployed in the Kabyle region, which is plagued by violent fires, ”French President Emmanuel Macron said in a tweet on Wednesday.

Three more Canadair aircraft are expected to arrive in Algeria over the weekend from Spain and Switzerland.

Macron’s Algerian counterpart Abdelmadjid Tebboune stressed the importance of national unity in a televised address Thursday evening.

“We must stay united! The Algerian state is indivisible and so are the people, ”he said, adopting an energetic tone and periodically slamming his desk with his hand.

The president said the fires were started by arsonists and announced that 22 people had been arrested, including 11 in Tizi Ouzou.

However, no evidence was presented against these individuals, leading activists to denounce a climate of paranoia which led to a tragic event in Larbaa Nath Irathen, a commune of Tizi Ouzou.

Young men suspected of starting fires were arrested and taken to the nearest police station.

A mob quickly formed and lynched one of the men, who would later be identified as Djamel Bensmail, a 35-year-old musical artist who came to Tizi Ouzou to help with humanitarian efforts.

Bensmail’s murder caused widespread shock and anger. The Justice Department has announced it will open an investigation.


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