In Algeria's wildfires blame game, misinformation threatens more lives

Conspiracy theories, social media rumours and the killing of a volunteer create an unsettled atmosphere

Wildfires in Algeria killed at least 90 people, but there are concerns that conspiracy theories centred on the blazes could lead to more destruction.

Algeria has been suffering the worst wildfires in its history. They have swept across 19 provinces in the north of the country for more than a week, and the Kabylie region is the biggest casualty.

When the fires started, the blame game began. Kamel Beldjoud, Minister of Interior, Local Authorities and National Planning, said the wildfires that broke out in Tizi Ouzou, Kabylie's main province, were started by criminals.

“Only criminal hands can be behind 50 fires breaking out at the same time in parts of the province,” he told reporters during a visit to the province on August 10, the day after the fires started. As yet, no arrests have yet been made.

Others, like blogger Amir Dz, who lives in France and has more than 100,000 followers on Facebook, accused the “deep state” of being behind the fires to subjugate residents. Historically, relations between the people of Kabylie, who are part of the Amazigh, and the state are tense.

On August 11, Djamel Bensmail, 38, was beaten and burnt to death outside a police station in Larbaa Nath Irathen, a village in Tizi Ouzou ravaged by flames.

That day, rumours and an accompanying video claiming a fireraiser was seen in the area spread on Facebook. These were deleted.

Bensmail, who was not from Tizi Ouzou, said he travelled to the area to help with relief efforts.

As soon as he learnt of the crowd’s suspicions, Bensmail sought police protection. A crowd that outnumbered his police escort dragged him out of a police van, beat him and set him on fire.

The crime was captured on video and posted on Facebook. It was taken down by the platform.

The brutality of the crime and racist chants from the mainly Amazigh mob against the Arab Bensmail shocked many people, and there were protests calling for retribution.

The Ministry of Telecommunications criticised Facebook, threatening to sue for the comments that appeared.

Police arrested 61 suspects in connection with the killing. Some of them appeared in police videos purporting to reveal the suspects' links to a separatist movement for the self-determination of Kabylie. The public was not convinced.

Some cast doubts over the authenticity of the confessions, while others said that even if perpetrators were arrested, justice would not be done.

Journalist and opposition campaigner Abdou Semmar, who is in France, said he had information that contradicted the official version of Bensmail’s murder.

Although the killing led to divisive and hateful comments, the murder was the result of wide-scale misinformation.

For example, the Facebook page of privately-owned El Djazairia One TV channel, with more than six million followers, posted a video on August 11, captioned: “The moment two people were caught red-handed while starting fires in Larbaa Nath Irathen in Tizi Ouzou”.

Despite the headline, the video showed nothing of the kind.

It led to thousands of angry comments calling for those who were detained to be burnt alive. After the killing of Bensmail the Larbaa Nath Irathen video was deleted by the broadcaster.

In a televised speech the day after the killing, Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune said: “Some fires have been caused by high temperatures, but criminal hands were behind most of them.”

No arrests have been made despite the government’s insistence there were acts of wilful fire-raising.

Whether it was a criminal act or a human mistake that caused the fire, environment experts said climate change is also to blame.

“Even if it’s criminal, we cannot escape climate change,” said Ali, an expert in forest management in the city of Tigzirt, who asked that his surname not be reported.

He said the government needed to focus on prevention by enacting environmental protection laws and raising awareness in schools, as well as buying equipment to deal with fires.

Algeria is believed to be one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.

The fires broke out as a heatwave swept across the Mediterranean region. Temperatures hit 46°C. Other countries – such as Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Lebanon – suffered wildfires, deaths and casualties.

In Algeria, residents feel let down by the government.

“I had to leave my house when the fire started last week," said Hanane, a doctor who lives in Tizi Ouzou and asked for her surname not to be used.

"My husband had to go to his village to bring his parents, who didn’t want to leave their house and their farm. My in-laws are devastated; all their savings were invested in the farm. The government sent civil protection but that wasn't enough to save our belongings. They failed us. Now it's all gone.”

“How do you restart a life at 70?” Hanane wondered, referring to her in-laws.

For people like Hanane, their suffering was compounded by the conspiracy theories that led to Bensmail’s killing.

"I went on social media to check on the aid coming to our villages, and I wish I hadn't. The murder of the young man is like a nightmare, alienating an entire region."

The incident prompted some calls to withhold assistance for the area.

"I truly hope we can all figure out how to heal from this national double tragedy,” Hanane said.

This article was written in collaboration with Egab

Updated: August 18th 2021, 4:25 PM