When I was working in Algeria earlier this year, the big talking point in the street cafés of Annaba (in the north-east of the country) was that, for the first time, the body of a girl - a young girl, a girl with her whole life ahead of her - had been found washed up on the sea-shore near the former French city of Bône.
Corpses - bloated and anonymous - have become an increasingly common sight on the beaches of Algeria's Mediterranean coast over the past three or four years. The country has, on the whole, become resigned to the nightmarish phenomenon of young men, usually in their twenties but sometimes in their teens, so desperate to avoid the misery of their homeland that they flee their patria by any possible means.
And the most common means is to pay a faceless, moral-free "shark" to convey them across the Mediterranean to mainland Europe - on boats that, more often than not, are doomed never to reach their destination.
It is hard for a western European to imagine such desperate hopelessness: would you do anything, absolutely anything, would you knowingly risk your life, for a "better future" that might involve - if you’re lucky - ending up ten to a room in some seedy Parisian hostel? Yet this is the El Dorado, the profane Mecca, not just for troops of young Algerians but also for many Libyans and Moroccans and, indeed, a sizeable slice of sub-Saharan Africa.
A few years ago, in the middle of the Sahara, I stumbled across a Nigerian man, little more than a boy, who was walking the length of the desert to reach Tripoli and, he hoped, eventually the southern shores of Italy. This young man wasn't, as I later learned, some rara avis. A Tuareg guide told me that earlier that year, as he was searching for firewood in the Akakus region of the Libyan Sahara, he had encountered the corpses of nearly fifty men, bleached and burned by the African sun, who, seeking shadow where there is none, had died of the hands of thirst.
So, to return to the cafes of Annaba: why was every Algerian seemingly talking about the unidentified girl washed up on the shore? Quite simply because hers was the first female body that had ever been found. Up to that moment the harraga - literally "those who burn (their identity papers)" - had all been men seeking to avoid the life of the hittiste, "those who prop up the walls (because there's nothing else to do)". Now, for the first time, Algeria, this most patriarchal of countries, was having to wake up to the fact that life was as meaningless for its young brides-to-be as for its disenchanted manhood.
It begs the question: when will the Algerian government acknowledge the misery of its citizens? And when will we in the west have the desire to do something about these weekly mass migrations?
For hittistes, see this link, and for an evocative description of the desperation that drives young North Africans to desert their homeland, see Tahar Ben Jelloun's Partir.