Into the Woods

Into the Woods

The fight between terrorism and tourism in Algeria’s Atlas Mountains.


In late September, the news came that Hervé Gourdel, a 55-year-old French mountain guide who had been hiking in the Djurdjura in northern Algeria, had been executed by Jund al-Khilafah, an armed group claiming to be part of ISIS, or, in Arabic, Daesh (Islamic State in Iraq and Sham, or Syria). Gourdel had worked in the French Alps and trekked in Southeast Asia, Jordan and Morocco, where he also trained Moroccan mountain guides. After meeting Algerian hikers through Facebook, he planned his first trip to Algeria, where he hoped to discover new beautiful mountain landscapes. (For a country where tourism is dramatically underdeveloped, online contact was by far the easiest and obvious way to organize the trip.) On September 22, during his exploration of the Djurdjura, he was kidnapped by Jund al-Khilafah. Two days later, his abductors, following the example of recent assassinations of American and British journalists in Iraq and Syria, filmed his execution and posted the footage online. Gourdel was made to kneel in front of four armed men with covered faces—the viewers can only imagine from his face how he struggled to retain his self-control—while a voice read a long text accusing France of waging war against Muslims and pledging allegiance to the ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The trees in the background of the image have been blurred, presumably to avoid disclosing the location of the execution. But the perpetrators didn’t manage to expunge the sound of birds twittering in the background. Western media reported the story of Gourdel’s murder as retribution for the French bombing of regions of Syria under the control of ISIS. That may be so, but the murderers’ choice of locale had a very particular and sinister meaning for Algerians.

In the 1990s, the Algerian state and armed Islamist groups fought a decade-long civil war that claimed perhaps 100,000 lives. For ten years, kidnappings, executions, beheadings, throat-cuttings and the public exhibition of dead bodies or severed body parts were among the acts routinely committed by armed Islamist groups, though back then images of these macabre deeds were not posted online. But the resonances go deeper. The Gourdel tragedy unfolded in the Aït Ouavane forest at the edge of the Djurdjura national park in the Atlas mountain range, a region where a strange contest between violence and tourism has been under way since the 1930s.

Hearing the Aït Ouavane mentioned in the news reports about Gourdel brought me back to a hike I’d taken there in 2011. I had an idea for a research project about the present-day national park, of which the Aït Ouavane is only a section, and before diving into the archives I wanted to explore the terrain, especially the spectacular forest of cedar and pine surrounding a resort named Tikjda. It still felt daring to be hiking in the mountains. For some Algerians who had known the park before the civil war, the sense of apprehension was still too great. There was talk of small groups of terrorists—dubbed by the authorities “residual terrorism,” a highly criticized concept—and theft-related kidnappings in the region. On the weekends, families and large parties visited Tikjda, but out of worry or habit they never wandered very far into the woods, creating a strangely overpopulated patch in the middle of the forest. A few feet away, the woods were peaceful and translucent.

I was walking with a friend who knew the area well, and when we strayed deep into the woods, it was only in areas that he knew to be safe. He recalled an occasion several years earlier: while hiking in the area, he stumbled upon a man rolled up in his sleeping bag, a firearm by his side. My friend slipped away quietly. He also remembered that for several years during the “black decade” of the 1990s, the entire park was unsafe for hikers and visitors. He and his companions had hiked instead on Tala Guilef, another massif in the Atlas range. But there, too, the boundaries of available terrain constantly shrank as the civil war dragged on. Terrorism has a way of barring people from places formerly their own, restricting spaces of leisure and community as well as of daily life and work.

In 2011, however, the forest around Tikjda was perfectly safe: in retrospect, it felt more adventurous to me to be there than it actually was. The forest floor was littered with the traces of several wars, harmless but inescapable. Small flasks of brandy from French Army food parcels could still occasionally be found, remnants of the French military presence during Algeria’s war of independence (1954–62). More numerous were empty food tins of the ANP (or Armée Nationale Populaire, the Algerian Army), which had fought the Islamist groups, with use-by dates indicating that they were from the black decade. Tins were under our feet at almost every step.

Tikjda is on state-owned land confiscated from local tribes in the nineteenth century, often in reprisal for insurrections, as was the case in Kabylia after the Moqrani revolt of 1871–72. Peasants fought long and hard to retain their woodlands, and the archives attest to their never-ending struggles against the French administration. The French were still expropriating land from peasants in the 1930s, after the Djurdjura national park had been established and many chalet-style houses had been built at Tikjda, where skiing and hiking trails attracted Algeria’s European settlers. The small, stone cabin of the local Club Alpin Français, the French mountaineering association, is still visible, with its collapsed roof and crumbling walls. Upon independence, in 1962, former landholding peasant families surely dreamed that the revolution would reverse the injustices of colonization and return the woodlands to them. But state-owned forests are a powerful symbol of sovereignty in the modern era, and no serious state, even a revolutionary one, has ever restored them to their former owners. Despite the rhetoric of a “year zero,” state continuity prevailed: what had been the property of France passed directly to the new Algerian state.

During the war, Algerian combatants took refuge in the rugged regions of the Aurès mountain range in the east. For the French officer David Galula, whose thinking would influence David Petraeus while he was commanding US forces in Iraq, areas of the Atlas range in Kabylia were textbook examples of rough terrain—mountains, forests and marshes that thwarted the movement of heavily armed troops but not the light footprint of an insurgency. In Pacification in Algeria: 1956–1958, published in 1963, Galula demonstrated how his soldiers turned the Mizrana forest of Kabylia into a sort of no-man’s-land, setting mines in forest paths, then destroying entire areas with napalm. Because so much of forestland had been destroyed during the war’s counterinsurgency operations, once independence was achieved the new Algerian state insisted on reforestation as a means of effacing signs of the conflict and asserting its control over the entirety of Algeria. In the 1960s and 1970s, under the leadership of Houari Boumediene, the state also developed national tourism, leading to the rehabilitation of the (this time Algerian) Djurdjura national park in 1983. An Austrian, Winfried Müller, also known as Si Mustapha Müller, veteran of the National Liberation Army, was the park’s architect, and the first advocate of environmental protection. The tall tales surrounding Mustapha Müller would make a great a book: he is said to have fled a concentration camp during World War II, and later joined the Soviet forces on the Eastern Front fighting Nazi Germany. During the Algerian war, he met National Liberation Front emissaries and was converted to the cause. He joined the National Liberation Army in 1956, fighting in the same forested areas that he later fought to protect, and became close to the future President Boumediene. Müller trained many of the rangers who work in the forest today.

During the black decade, the forest and mountains of the Djurdjura were again exploited as rough terrain, this time by jihadi Islamist groups. Tikjda, in the heart of the forest, was occupied by a handful of armed men. The strategy used by the army to root them out is still unclear, though evidence of an intense and protracted clash is everywhere. One hears that the army may have exploited local rivalries in order to retake the forest; it’s said that vast swaths were destroyed to deprive armed groups of protection, with the Algerian Army, now a regular army, using the tactics once deployed against it by the French. In 1998, a huge forest fire destroyed ancient cedar trees, and many claim it was deliberately set to smoke out the jihadis. Vast areas of felled trees were still visible in 2011.

Because it is only around ninety miles from Algiers, Tikjda is woven into the memories of the inhabitants of the capital city. For many of them, it is evocative of the relative peace of the early years of independence, of family trips and holiday camps. In those years, tourism became a way of reclaiming territory—beaches, mountains, forests and desert—that was just becoming national. In 2011, I met a man from the capital who told me of his daughter’s return to Algeria, at the beginning of the 2000s. Sent abroad as a teenager during the civil war, the young woman was determined to see Tikjda again, the scene of many happy childhood memories. Her father warned her that she would be disappointed, because the forest was no longer what it once was. Nothing could convince her; she insisted on seeing it for herself. After her father took the last turn of the access road with apprehension, he stopped the car so they could contemplate the park from a distance. Next to him, facing the forest ravaged by war, he could feel his “little girl”—his words—sobbing and shivering.

After the 1990s, fears about security deterred tourists from returning to the mountains: it was difficult for Algerians to believe that most of the Djurdjura was safe again. In the past few years, however, I have sensed during my trips to Algeria that, slowly and apprehensively, people are again taking pleasure in being together in public. There has always been collective life of course, but in the aftermath of the civil war, the desire and pride of being together was difficult to perceive. The state of shock caused by the horrors of the civil war seems finally to be fading. Groups of maverick hikers are no longer the only people on the trails of the Djurdjura. One also encounters families on outings and groups of friends sharing the weekend together, enjoying their health and one another’s company. At first with slight disbelief and then more naturally, friends have taken to sharing the telephone numbers of the chalets and hotel in Tikjda. In the hotel cafe, decorated in the style of the 1970s, with floor-to-ceiling beige curtains and brown carpet on the walls, I saw a guest trying to motivate an apathetic waiter: he should be rigorous in his work, the cups needed to be cleaner, the service impeccable. If he wanted tourists to return, he must show a bit of enthusiasm! In this burst of paternalism, there was a palpable desire to escape the despondency of the black decade, to return to the impossible normal life, the impossible collective life, the life of an emerging, though modest, middle class that could enjoy the Tikjda of the Boumediene era.

Since 2012, each day in Algeria has marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of a particular victim, or victims, of the civil war. In the days that followed Hervé Gourdel’s kidnapping, it was the death of eleven female schoolteachers from Sidi Bel Abbès, then, the death of raï singer Cheb Hasni, then Abderrahmane Fardeheb, an economist from Oran. And the list goes on. In a couple of years, we will commemorate the 1997 massacres of Raïs and Bentalha. There are few official commemorations, because the amnesty and civil concord laws have made it difficult to mention the collective tragedy in public, but informal commemorations, individually or online, among associations or within family circles, are everywhere, and always condemn official silence.

Hervé Gourdel’s murderers know this history well. They perpetrated their crime in a place where the collective projection of the self has been strong, where the dream of an independent Algeria took a simple and pleasurable shape for so many people. The execution of Gourdel and its video recording are intended to terrify, to revive memories that can still be stifling, memories of a trauma that is only beginning to be put into words. They are meant to destroy, once again, dreams of a peaceful collective life. Fear is not so distant that it cannot be revived, and Gourdel’s killers know this. Since their gruesome act, time has been suspended.

It will take many words to prevent shock and stupefaction from setting in again. And walks in the woods. We need walks in the woods and hikes in the mountains.


Ad Policy