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EXCERPT: In Algiers, They Called Me "Death's Head"

The casbah in Algiers during the height of the troubles in 1962 was probably the most dangerous place in the world for foreigners. Every day, I passed corpses on my route. Occasionally, I'd get trapped in a firefight as nervous French soldiers fired at shadows. Last in a series of excerpts.

This is the last of three of excerpts fromLooking for Trouble, the memoirs of the late, legendary Canadian journalist Peter Worthington, now available for the first time as an ebook. Worthington died a year ago, on May 12, 2013. All proceeds of book sales will go to a memorial fund in Worthington's name at Toronto General Hospital's Supportive Care Unit in Heart Failure. (Read Part One here [LINK] and Part Two here.

The Casbah in Algiers during the height of the troubles in 1962 was probably the most dangerous place in the world for foreigners. In fact, Algiers in those days is probably still unmatched as a place of indiscriminate, sudden murder. What began as a straightforward anti-colonial war for self-determination and independence, deteriorated into a virtual racial/religious war of terror and assassination, where skin color alone was sufficient reason to kill.

Nowadays, terrorism is rampant. Algeria in the early 60s was a freak, ahead of its time in violence, so to speak. Four times the size of France, Algeria was always considered something special, even among France's African colonies. It was not a colony but officially a part of Metropolitan France, with all inhabitants, European or native, having full rights as citizens of France.

When factional violence broke out in Algeria, I was in Miami, trying to charter a boat to Cuba to cover the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs, when I got orders from the Toronto Telegram to head to Paris, then Algeria. I caught a special journalists' flight and booked in at the Aletti Hotel, headquarters of the world press.

The style of murder in Algeria was a bullet in the head. Ordinary people were targets. Every day the newspapers carried a list of yesterday's assassinations. People read them the way others read birth, death and marriage announcements. There would be 40 or so a day.

The bloody anarchy continued through 1961 and 1962 and beyond. It seemed endless. By 1962, when I was there again, most moderate Europeans had left Algeria. All who remained were activists, fanatics and the working poor.

In the 2,500-bed Mustapha Hospital, largest in North Africa, with 28 operating theatres, doctors boasted they were becoming the finest neurosurgeons in the world, treating in a month the number of head wounds a surgeon elsewhere would encounter in a lifetime.

The Casbah was the centre of the violence. French troops had their automatic weapons chained to their bodies so they could not be stolen if they were shot. They went on regular patrols in the Casbah and for a time, foreign journalists could go with them.

Once I was approached by a man who whispered that my friends and I should get out quickly. My friend Robin Stafford of the Daily Express and I paid heed, for once, and left. Our companion, a French photographer named Jean Poggi didn't, and stayed for a few more pictures. Twenty minutes later Poggi was dead from a 9mm bullet in the forehead.

Every day, I passed corpses on my route. Occasionally, I'd get trapped in a firefight as nervous French soldiers fired at shadows. One night, as I dashed door-to-door down the street, hoping to dodge stray bullets, the Aletti Hotel press corps gathered in the recessed hallway of the hotel, betting on whether or not I'd make it. I tried to time my dashes between bursts of machinegun fire, and made it, to the cheers of my colleagues. Those who won bets bought me a beer.

I seemed to encounter so many assassinations in Algiers that Bob Nielsen of the Toronto Star's London bureau, began calling me "death's head" which, while amusing, bothered me more than it should have.

In some ways, Algiers was the perfect journalistic story. It could be covered at several levels: as a running color story with enough violence, imagination and mayhem to satisfy any tabloid or Fleet Street popular press (or, for that matter, the Toronto Telegram. Or it could be covered as a sociological study. Or a political, ideological story. Or, simply as a war of liberation from colonialism. It had everything.

There was no law, no attempt to catch murderers. Many used the OAS to settle old scores. The police kept to themselves, tried to protect their own. The conscript soldiers from France, whose loyalty was suspect, maintained a neutrality. One day only postmen might be assassinated, causing a general strike; next day only pharmacists might be shot; then café-owners, then schoolteachers. Next day, who knew? Every day brought a fresh horror.

There was comic relief, too. A cruise ship stopped at Algiers and tourists were allowed off to stroll through downtown, usually safe enough because no one was after tourists, who were easily identifiable.

I saw an elderly British couple, dressed in matching tweed suits, him with a Sherlock Holmes

cap and muttonchop whiskers, she with an umbrella, sensible shoes and a hat like a pancake with a feather in it.

They achieved the seemingly impossible: the couple climbed over barbed wire to get into the Casbah, strolled unguarded and unescorted through the heart of the Casbah, and emerged unscathed at the other end. Not only unscathed, they had a wonderful time.

A patrol of Zouave troops crossing the abattoir could not believe its eyes. Nor could journalists. An impromptu press conference ensued.

"We had the most marvelous time" said the tweedy lady."Tiring but absolutely delightful. All those funny brown and black people in nightgowns and sheets..."

The husband was distressed that the alleys were too dark for his photos to turn out.

Newsmen were incredulous that they had managed to take photos, the most hazardous journalistic job in Algiers, and certainly taboo in the Casbah. Photographing there provoked riots.

"Of course we took photos", Mr. Tweed Suit said. "One has to have souvenirs. Everyone was jolly nice."

"You journalistic chaps do tend to exaggerate things!"

Once, in the middle of a firefight, a French soldier jumped out and waved for us to cross the street. I was suspicious, darted out and jumped back -- just as a burst of machine gun fire chewed the wall behind me.

In Bab-el-Oued, CBC broadcaster Stanley Burke and I crouched behind a pillar during an intense firefight as he calmly spoke into his microphone. When we got back to the hotel, I found a neat round bullet hole burned through the sleeve of my coat.

Eventually, the rebel attacks tore the heart out of European resistance. Charles DeGaulle had promised the Algerians independence, and, for the first time in its history, Algeria was about to become a country.

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