Exclusive: A First Person Account Of Crowd Violence In Algeria

Written by Maher Mezahi

Eighty kilometres west of Algiers in the ancient Roman city of Tipaza, a pathway leads out of the ruins, over a verdant hillock and into a clearing, where a mud stump of about three feet stands.

Natives of Tipaza will tell you that the pillar was a favourite of Nobel Literature laureate Albert Camus. He would spend hours against it, watching waves crash over waves and scribbling cursive in a moleskin notepad.

In his brief essay, “Les Noces de Tipasa,” Camus wrote, “There’s a time to live and a time to recount. There’s also a time to create, which is less natural. Experience Tipaza, bear witness to it, and a work of art will follow.”

Camus was essentially preaching the necessity of living in the moment. The philosopher’s words certainly hold in the face of sublime beauty. However, in scenarios of utter chaos, a restructuring of Camus’ words is probably in order.

On Saturday July 12, I found that it was necessary to bear witness to a demoralizing event I never wanted to find myself present in again.

f*cking sh*t up!

On the day, MC El Eulma hosted ES Setif in Group B of the CAF Champions League. Only 20 kilometres separate El Eulma and Setif, so it was only natural that their meeting last weekend would prove a fractious affair.

El Eulma were clearly the better side on the night. The men in green traced passing triangles around the visitors who seemed lost after a mass exodus of experienced cadres in defense.

The match’s turning point came with the introduction of Setif’s El Hadi Belameiri late on. The French-born winger provided incisive running and his impetus pushed Setif to a last-minute goal.

The collective mood at the Messaoud Zoughar stadium immediately soured.

A few elders to my right, dressed in camelhair qashabias held their intertwined hands on their heads, their mouths gaped in disbelief. Two rows down, an ultra group started singing, “tonight, we’re f*cking sh*t up!”

Crowd violence is not new to Algeria. During the 2014-2015 season, 58 matches were played behind closed doors in the country’s top two divisions because of hooliganism.

One player was stabbed in Saida, some supporters have been killed in clashes outside of the stadium, and most notoriously, Cameroonian striker Albert Ebossé was hit in the head with a projectile in August that caused him to hemorrhage to death.

In the middle of chaos

At the final whistle of the MC El Eulma vs ES Setif I had attented, a group of supporters in the “tribune officiel” began breaking plastic chairs and launching them onto the pitch.

Two-liter water bottles flew at Setif players that had the temerity to celebrate with travelling support. Rocks were dug up from nowhere and launched at paramedics. Police officers chased gangs of supporters around the stands with their wooden batons.

The bedlam shocked me, but it was nothing compared to what was taking place outside of the stadium.

The parking lot was a warzone. On my right close to a 100 adolescents formed a scattered vanguard. Half of them wielded cement blocks the size of my head. On my left, riot police, with their scuffed plastic shields were collectively backpedaling, catching “missiles” on their shields, or dodging them deftly.

I found myself bang in the middle.

Every fiber of my being urged me to counter Camus’ words: to not be present, to head back into the stadium that was relatively safer. But I found it necessary to document what was happening. It was more than a responsibility; doing so was my obligation as a journalist.

Every other minute, the supporters collected enough blocks to charge and launch. I sided with the kids, filming this otherworldly scene with my back towards them. I took my canvas Nike backpack and placed it on my head. It probably would not have provided much protection, but I felt safer with any sort of makeshift helmet.

I kept a safe distance, keeping the camera rolling with 30-or-so youth in my buffer zone. The naivety of my actions did not dawn on me until a gangly kid with a bad case of acne accosted me.