By Andrew Ross
The story of the recent earthquake in Algeria lies buried in Western newspapers nearly as deep as its victims lie buried in rubble.
The aftershocks of this quake are still being felt, and the living conditions in the quake zone have deteriorated far enough to make it likely that many of the estimated 9,000 injured will join the 2,000-4,000 who have already perished.
The magnitude and severity of this event surely eclipses the single case of mad cow disease that has been dominating the headlines of late, but this story was quickly relegated to the least-read part of the newspaper. An article describing an aftershock that killed three and injured 187 ran on page 14 of Wednesday’s Calgary Herald. This was apparently less important than “Girls beat boys at writing,” “Klein vows to stay for re-election run,” and “Internet cattle market sees sales drop to zero.”
This wouldn’t be as big a deal if the Algerian people didn’t desperately need outside help. The Algerian state is acting like a character from L’Etranger, the country’s most famous novel by the country’s most famous son, Albert Camus. The government has lacked initiative, leadership, direction, and perhaps even concern for the well-being of its citizens. Accusations were made, reminiscent of those made after the Turkish earthquake a few years ago, that the government ignored corner cutting by the construction industry in a quake-prone area. This earthquake only measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, yet many buildings completely collapsed.
To make matters worse, President Abdelaziz Bouteflika is the Mersault (L’Etranger’s protagonist) of this story. “The total absence of the state” is the common refrain used to describe the disaster area. Bouteflika’s government was slow to respond, so Islamic groups (including radicals) stepped in to raise funds and provide aid. Bouteflika’s response was to ban them from raising funds for disaster relief. The people, already angry, protested the Interior Minister’s visit to the region, which prompted him to threaten that there would be no aid if the survivors rioted.
Bouteflika’s own visit to the disaster area was cut short when crowds chanting “assassin” and throwing stones chased him into his car. In another town, he was greeted by shouts of “leave, we don’t need you.”
Like Mersault, who made a point of borrowing a black armband for his mother’s funeral, Bouteflika’s government voted to create a crisis prevention centre following a major flood two years ago but, like Mersault’s armband, it turned out to be a meaningless gesture.
Even Zinedine Zidane–probably the biggest name in soccer today–has offered to participate in a friendly match to raise funds for disaster relief, if anyone were to organize such a match. Hopefully Zidane, who was born in France to Algerian parents, is not counting on Bouteflika or his administration to take the lead on that project.