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Algerians volunteer clean up historic Casbah amid neglect

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ALGIERS, Algeria — The white buildings of the Casbah spill down the steep hillside overlooking the curved Mediterranean bay of Algiers. Barbary pirates had their headquarters here in the 16th century, preying on European shipping and imprisoning many, including Spanish writer Miguel de Cervantes.

Steeped in history with its twisting alleys and Ottoman-era houses, this UNESCO world heritage site is also slowly falling apart and choked with trash thanks to poor municipal services.

Over the weekend, in a burst of civic pride that has often been absent in the North African nation, a group of Algerians of all ages armed with plastic gloves and garbage bags moved through the ancient streets picking up litter and cleaning out rubble-choked lots.

The cleanup project was the brainchild of 25-year-old Yasmine Bouchene, who said such initiatives are happening all over the country as young people start doing themselves what the government has been neglecting to do.

"It is these kinds of initiatives that will restore civil society," she said.

Blessed with oil wealth, Algeria has long had an overbearing state that discourages civil activism and has tried to provide people with all their needs — subsidized food, housing, jobs — in return for them remaining quiet.

The case of the Casbah shows, however, that even with all its resources, the state often doesn't come through. Residents said it had been years since garbage workers had come through the narrow streets.

Sweating in the hot sun, volunteer Mahfoud Touileb, described his horror at the accumulated refuse.

"Bags, lots of bags, lots of bottles — soda bottles, soda bottles full of urine. Lots of bottles like this. It is disgusting," he said with a shake of his head.

Once all the trash was bagged, the volunteers put it into government-provided bins.

Touileb, a spry 70-year-old, remembers how the Casbah was before, when it was still taken care of, before its population was tripled by immigrants from the countryside and the 1990s civil war when it became an Islamist stronghold.

"The Casbah was perfection. The Casbah was clean. There was nothing in the streets," he recalled. "How can we not participate in a citizen action which gives a little hope, which raise awareness among people to take care of a fantastic resource that they are apparently unaware of?"

Bouchene, the organizer, said there are similar activities around the country, including beach cleanups before the summer with many coordinated through websites and online activism — a marked break from the attitude of just waiting for authorities to fix things.


Associated Press writer Paul Schemm contributed to this report from Rabat, Morocco.