Earthquake? Stop moaning!

Observations on Algeria

For four days, Mohammed Boumriche had been waiting for aid workers and rescue teams to reach his home town of Zemmouri at the epicentre of the Algerian earthquake. "Where are they?" he said. "We're a rich country. We've got oil and we've got gas. But what does the state do when there's a problem? Nothing." He was wrong. The state did do something. It sent the president. Almost as soon as Boumriche had spoken, sirens could be heard throughout the northern coastal town that was once a beach resort for French colonialists.

A black Mercedes saloon drew up outside the remains of a mosque where youths were digging with their hands in an attempt to reach bodies in the rubble. The car door opened and President Abdel-aziz Bouteflika emerged into the bright sunlight. Boumriche ran up to join the crowd that was gathering around the man who seems likely to stand for re-election next year. "Resign," they yelled. "Get out of here. Go back to France."

At first, Bouteflika did not seem to realise what they were shouting. He stepped forward to shake hands and dispense words of compassion, as he had done on the night of the earthquake in the provincial capital of Boumerdes. But as the first stones rained down, he froze. With security guards forming a scrum around him, he retreated to the Mercedes, although not before a French television reporter had asked him for his reaction. Bouteflika turned. "The Algerian people are always moaning," he said. "It was you, the French, who taught them to moan when you were here. It is your legacy."

They have certainly been moaning in Zemmouri over the past week. The earthquake, which killed at least 2,200 people across northern Algeria, affected the town particularly badly, wiping out row upon row of the colonial villas occupied by locals when the French expats fled in 1962. But by the weekend, there was no sign of government help: no aid workers, no rescue teams, no excavators to clear the rubble, and no tents for temporary shelter.

"We have been forgotten, ignored, abandoned," said Boumriche, a 28-year-old clothes-shop owner, whose home and business were destroyed in the 21 May quake. "If you want to see what I mean, go and look at the clinic." This lay across the lane from Boumriche's former shop - a two-storey building that was now cracked and unusable. Doctors were having to treat their patients in a makeshift tent formed by blankets and string in the courtyard. "The state just doesn't care about its citizens," said Boumriche. "It never does anything for them."

The criticism was a little unfair: the authorities had tried to set up an aid operation, albeit an unbalanced, disorganised one. But the anger has been building since Algerian independence in 1962. As Boumriche pointed out, Algeria is rich. It is the world's 16th-biggest oil producer and sixth-biggest producer of gas, and its central bank is reported to have $25bn in its reserves.

But the money has been frittered away, much of it ending up in Swiss bank accounts belonging to the real masters, the military generals. As a result, Algeria remains firmly rooted among the nations of the developing world.