The Algiers Connection

Sofaine Laimeche's long friendship with a 9/11 suspect has put his future in America in doubt

Laimeche was born on January 1, 1973, in the capital city of Algiers, a bustling, decrepit metropolis full of densely packed apartment buildings and a mix of French and Arabic architecture. In pictures, the neighborhood he grew up in, called Babel-Oued, could pass for parts of San Francisco.

His parents, Mustafa and Hadda, still live in the first-floor apartment where he grew up, a place where you can never escape the noise of the roads, garbage trucks or neighbors. Laimeche was the third of eight children, and his parents and grandmother shared the apartment, which had a living room, kitchen and three bedrooms.

Mustafa and Hadda grew up about 80 miles from the capital and, in the 1950s, moved to the Arabic section of Algiers known as the Casbah. Back then, Arabs weren't allowed in the French quarter, Laimeche says. But whole neighborhoods were emptied after the revolution, and his father moved into the "free" apartment.

"It's what you fight for," Laimeche says. "You move in, and it's yours."

Corinne says that when she visited Algiers, Mustafa told her that the personal effects of the former inhabitants were still on the shelves when he entered the apartment; food was even on the kitchen table.

His father worked as a security guard in a factory that made Styrofoam packing material; his mother and grandmother stayed home with the kids. They were not poor by Algerian standards, but all the laundry had to be done by hand, and if one of the kids ruined a pair of shoes, he or she might go a month before getting a new pair.

The young Laimeche developed a reputation in his neighborhood. If a weak kid were being picked on, Laimeche would find a way to stop it. He was charismatic and good at soccer, the sport of choice for Algerian youth. Just for fun, he would often pick the worst player on the team and make sure the kid scored a goal.

"I don't like oppression," he says as a way of explaining his altruism.

As the couple walked around the neighborhood during their trip in 2000, Corinne was amused by how many people stopped to say hello to her husband.

"He's sort of legendary, like an urban legend or something," she says.

Lotfi Raissi came from the same neighborhood, and the two developed a strong relationship in their early teenage years.

"He's a big talker; he talks too much," Laimeche says playfully about his friend. "He's a good guy. He was easygoing with me. I like that."

As Laimeche grew into a young man, his country's political situation spiraled out of control. After achieving its goal of independence, the ruling party, known as the Front de Liberation Nationale, had become brutal and corrupt. Though the country has a wealth of natural resources, the economy barely sputtered along. Jobs became scarce. Laimeche and Raissi, like thousands of other young Algerians, lost hope.

One day in early October 1988, the unrest blew up into riots in Algiers as young people ditched school and work to take to the streets. Laimeche admits to throwing rocks at police cars.

"We always did that to show anger," he says.

The unrest from October 5 to 10 — later known as "Black October" or "the Couscous Revolt" — was put down violently by the army, resulting in more than 500 deaths, according to human rights groups.

Laimeche says Islamic imams, far from stirring up the trouble, preached passionately to angry youths in an attempt to exact calm. After listening to such a speech, Laimeche and his brother were walking home when they ran into a mass of people from their neighborhood demonstrating near a government building.

Laimeche says he heard later that one of the protesters may have taken a shot at the building. An army machine-gunner returned the fire, causing the crowd to flee in panic. For two hours, the brothers hid in a nearby barber shop that soon became packed with people.

"We started listening to people crying and dying," Laimeche says. One man who ducked inside the shop was trying to stem the bleeding from a bullet wound on his nose.

Firefighters came to the scene and guided people away from the area. Laimeche says he saw blood everywhere.

If he had any sense of loyalty to the Algerian government before, it was gone from that day on.

"That was big," he says. "I don't have a flag. I don't feel it anymore."

Laimeche soon dropped out of school. He played midfield and forward on a local soccer team and worked odd jobs. Three years went by.

When he turned 19, he became antsy because, by 20, all Algerian males were required to enlist in the military. That was the last thing in the world he wanted to do.

"I'm not afraid of the military itself," he says. "But put me against my own people — what are you going to do, shoot them or get shot?"

An exodus of young men began. Raissi, who came from a wealthier family, went to England to live with his brother and uncle.

Laimeche made up his mind to get out, too. He knew some people who had gone to Italy and decided he would try to go there and make a life with a friend named Hady.

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