Ramadan meals comfort Algeria’s quake victims

Published: 25 November 2003 0:00 CET

Rana Sidani in Reghaia and Rouiba

At first sight, the town of Reghaia, some 24 km east of Algiers, seems contradictory. At the entrance to a complex of new whitewashed chalets, is a collection of sad canvas tents.

The buildings are full of cracks, caused by the earthquake that devastated the country last May, leaving 2,200 people dead, 10,000 injured and 180,000 homeless.

In the middle, amid the chalets, the damaged buildings and tents, are three gleaming aluminium mobile kitchens, full of chicken, meat and other dishes. From time to time, the kitchens emit a blast of steam, like trains pulling into a station.

In the evening, with the setting of the sun, the view makes more sense. Dozens of people emerge from the buildings and tents to receive the hot meal, prepared by the Algerian Red Crescent (CRA), that will break their daylight fast during the month of Ramadan.

“Offering hot meals during Ramadan is one of the Red Crescent’s annual activities, and this year, it has become a real necessity because of all the people living in tents,” says Bouchakour Elhassan, who is in charge of the Ramadan food services in the Reghaia camp. “We chose to locate the mobile kitchens here because there are many people in need.”

Children or their parents pass by the kitchens to collect dates, bread, “frik”, the traditional Algerian soup, salad and “tajine”, the main meal containing chicken or meat.

A crowd of women that has assembled to help the CRA prepare the dishes notices with surprise the four enormous hi-tech stewing dishes in each mobile kitchen.

“Cooking is our speciality, but we’re being replaced by technology,” protests one of them. “The way our mothers cooked will remain the best.”

“It’s not only technology that’s replacing us in the kitchen. There are men, too,” says a mother, taken aback by the fact that the person in charge of preparing the meals in 27-year-old volunteer, Tarek Nahar.

“We prepare meals for 800 people thanks to these three mobile kitchens, which can be rapidly transported and deployed anywhere,” Tarek explains. “Each kitchen can produce 300 meals every two hours.”

Even if the government recently authorised the use of ovens inside the tents – something that had previously been banned due to the risk of setting fire to the canvas – there remain dozens of people who prefer the hot meals provided by the CRA.

In Rouiba, one of the places hardest hit by the earthquake, it is a similar story. A mobile kitchen provides not only the evening Ramadan meal, but also breakfast for around 100 children in the CRA crèche, whose kitchens were damaged in the tremor.

“Each kitchen has four large casserole cookers and two water containers. The machine is economical, quick and practical – and steaming food is good for people’s health,” explains Belboukhari Lahcen, 37, a CRA volunteer cook.

“Before, I was unemployed. Now, thanks to the red Crescent, I have learnt a new trade,” he adds.

The mobile kitchens will stop functioning at the end of Ramadan, but they will not stay idle for long.

They will be used during summer camps, and will also form part of the CRA’s disaster preparedness planning – able to be deployed during the kind of emergencies – earthquakes, floods and landslides – with which Algeria has become all too familiar.