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Almost Algeria

I almost made it into Algeria during my trip to Oujda.  The problem is that the border is closed between the two countries, and unless one wants to take a flight to Algiers, one cannot enter from Morocco.  My family has this ongoing, informal competition as to who has visited the most countries.  Visa stamps are needed to validate a claim.  Leanna leads at the moment with 44 countries, I think, but Jamey is in South Africa at the moment, a country that none of the others of us have visited.  Thus, he is improving his position a little.  I could see Algeria on Friday afternoon, could have taken a rock and easily thrown it into the next country, but I have no valid entry to the country yet.

My friends took me to see the beach at Saidia, 30 miles or so from Oujda, located right on the Mediterranean Sea, and tucked into the corner of northeast Africa.  The Algerian economy has never recovered from the Socialist government imposed on the country after it gained its independence from France in 1963.  For the past 20 years or so it has been ruled by a military junta, and there has been terrible sectarian violence perpetrated by Islamic fundamentalists.  It would be quite beneficial to that part of Algeria were transit by car allowed.

The two countries reached an agreement in the early nineties to open the border.  For two or three years passage between the countries was fairly simple.  But Algeria's support for the Polisario guerrillas, a group agitating for independence for the territory formerly called Spanish Sahara, caused Morocco to close the border again.  When Spain withdrew from the Sahara in 1975, King Hassan II marched 200,000 Moroccans into the territory and reclaimed it as part of the Motherland.   The issue has created conflict ever since, including several years of armed conflict; for the past 20 years an effort has been made to hold a UN referendum to let the people decide if they should be a part of Morocco or independent.  Morocco has successfully delayed the vote until they are certain they can get the desired result.  When we had the bookstore in the 80's, the government prevented us from selling Michelin roadmaps since they did not include, what is now called Western Sahara, within the borders of Morocco.

Oujda, with a population of maybe 250,000 is quite isolated geographically from the rest of the country.  Its proximity to Algeria, which has cheap gasoline, and to Spain, which has tons of manufactured goods to supply, has helped create a regional economy which is dependent almost entirely on smuggling.  One entire shopping area for finished goods in the city is called the Mellia market, since everything there is smuggled in from Mellia, one of the Spanish enclaves located on the African continent.  Within the city and along the 50 kilometers or so out to Saidia, every mile or so one sees gallon jars, or five gallon cans of gasoline sitting along side the road for sale.  The price of the Algerian fuel is about half what it costs at Moroccan service stations, currently about $4.50 a gallon.  All the petroleum products are brought in by donkey or motorcycle by passing through the well-known (to the smugglers) holes in the fence, or simply bribing a guard on one side or the other.

I saw a man on a motorcycle riding across a field with five or six of the large cans tied on it.  That has to be high risk activity, especially when trying to elude authorities with full containers.  Similarly, it is not unusual to see a donkey with an incredible number of cans lashed on its back.  That leads me to a story my friend, Rachid, told me about risk reduction. 

Evidently, the donkeys fairly quickly learn a particular route that its owner uses to bring in their contraband.  Once the owner realized the animals were reliable couriers, he saw that actually crossing into Algeria was unnecessary.  To ensure that the donkey does not forget the route completely, he takes a walk-man, and on a rehearsal trip, makes a recording giving instructions at the appropriate time.  According to Rachid, the tape is heavy on the Arabic equivalent of "giddy-up."  At the appropriate time, the walk-man is tied onto the animal, the start button is pushed, and the appointed mission begins.

There are lots of residents who have checked their Algeria box this year.  The soldiers at the fence near the beach, the ones with the rifles and the menacing looks, the one who suggested we not take any pictures of the Algerian flag, convinced me that waiting a while longer to check off that country is in my best interest.  I'll just have to continue to lag a little in the competition.


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