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     Volume 4 Issue 47 | May 20, 2005 |

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A Dream Destroyed

Algerian Karim Saidi was visiting his bank when he was arrested as an al-Qaida suspect and locked up in Belmarsh. He insists he came to the UK only in search of a better life. This is his story

Algeria can be a scary place, but I'd always felt safe in England. That was until early last year, when one afternoon I went to the bank, and 10 armed policemen bundled me into an unmarked van on suspicion of being an al-Qaida terrorist. I ended up in Belmarsh for five months without any charge being brought against me, petrified that I would be deported to Guantánamo Bay.

I came to the west not to blow it up but to look for a better life. I'd slept on the kitchen floor in Algeria. The earthquake in 1995 had destroyed most of our flat except the kitchen and the lounge. Nine of us lived in these two remaining rooms. The kids took turns to do their homework using the toilet seat as a table. My dad was mentally ill and would often attack my mother. As the eldest son, I'd clean up her blood and take her to hospital.

I left school for college to study literature but could never concentrate with all the stress of my family situation. It was hopeless. I wanted to get my mum and the kids out of that house, but we had no money and nowhere to go. I couldn't find any work, except sharing my friend's banana stall for £50 a month, and I felt constantly frustrated. I started thinking about going abroad.

After six years of working on the stall and doing a few other odd jobs, I'd saved enough money to buy a visa. I told my mum it would only be for a few months. I wanted to be able to help my family, buy a house for us all, then get married. There was one girl I particularly liked but there was no way her father would have let me marry her when I had nothing. In Algeria there are men of 45 killing themselves because they still can't afford to get married.

I took the boat to Marseille with a visitor's visa and watched the port of Algiers grow smaller in the distance. It isn't easy to leave your country. I worked for a short time in France, helping some friends in a market there, then saved enough money to buy a fake Belgian passport. I came to England via the Eurostar. Nobody stopped me. I was wearing a business suit and walked with a confident air. As soon as I felt safe, I called my friends in Leeds and I went there. I lived off their generosity for two months until I found a job washing up in a restaurant. I was relieved to be working but I was paid £3.50 an hour. I paid tax, so my money didn't go very far (as a supposed Belgian, I was able to get a temporary National Insurance number). But I was able to send my brothers and sisters some really good clothes.

I was quite nervous about working illegally and knew that there was only one way to fix that problem - get married. But business marriages cost £6,000. I had one bank account already that I could try to get a loan from, but knew that any loan offered wouldn't be enough, because of my low income. So I decided to open a second bank account and eventually ask for a loan there too. This was the worst mistake of my whole life.

I went to the bank, filled in an application and left it with them. The next day, a man from the bank called me on my mobile, asking me to come in and answer a few extra questions, which I said I would do happily. As soon as I arrived I was taken into this little room. A man said, "We'll be with you in a minute," but something about him made me feel really uneasy, so I said I wanted to go outside and make a phone call. "No, use this phone," they smiled, then quickly locked the door. Suddenly the bank was full of armed police who surrounded me, handcuffed me and took me away in a van. I'd been trapped.

When we arrived at the police station, I was taken into a room with electronic security doors. Two policemen arrived from Special Branch. I thought it would be best to admit everything. I explained that I had entered Britain with false documents and that I had been working illegally, but they looked straight at me and said, "Do you know what al-Qaida is?" I replied, "Of course, they are terrorists." Then they asked me directly, "Are you a member of al-Qaida?" I thought I was going to throw up - in Algeria people have been shot or made to disappear just for having the same name as a terrorist. I started shouting that I was nothing to do with them and that whoever they were looking for, it definitely wasn't me. They were very direct but polite to me, then asked someone to get me food and drink. I couldn't touch it. I had watched the news a few times and all I could think about was that I might be sent to Guantánamo and no one would ever hear from me again.

In the morning it began again. They kept going, "Come on, tell us how you really feel about al-Qaida." I was saying, "I told you. I'm just a normal person. I don't want trouble. All I know about politics is bits from the TV. I've got nothing against the west. I would never hurt anybody." While I was in there, the police raided my flat, where they found nothing. Special Branch officers also visited the restaurant where I'd been working, which led to several foreigners being sacked immediately as the managers wanted to cover themselves. "We've finished interviewing you now," an officer said at the end of the third day. I was put in a van and after a quick court announcement was sent to prison. I felt very confused and couldn't understand exactly what I was being

accused of. But I knew my immigration status wasn't what they were really interested in. All my friends clubbed together and offered to pay bail for me, but it was rejected.

I was sent to Belmarsh, locked up for 23 hours a day. Whenever we left the cells, there were fights. One Tunisian inmate dressed like a devout Muslim. Prisoners would often pull his beard or take his religious hat off and play "catch" with it. After five months I was told that I could leave prison and go to a detention centre, where I have spent the past nine months.

Recently my solicitor visited me and told me that the police investigation into me had finished and that they were satisfied that I was not a terrorist. They never had any evidence against me whatsoever. It was bizarre. I have been able to write to my mother and tell her not to worry and that I love her. I call her sometimes but I end up crying because she is crying. Many of us have left prison but are still held in detention centres for months while the authorities decide what to do with us. The one thing that keeps me cheerful in here is sport. Algerians are very passionate about football.

I haven't felt so helpless since I was at primary school. At Eid my mum sent some baklava for me but I wasn't allowed to accept it. Cakes from outside are banned. I rarely sleep well. I just lie awake at night, thinking about my mum and my God. I've never stopped praying.

I am hoping to get deported soon, but I am still nervous about the Algerian police. I am scared the regime will hear about me being investigated for terrorism but not about me being cleared. The government is supposed to be more fair now but I won't relax until I get through the airport and back to my mum's house safely. No amount of western money could buy a mother like her.

I can't believe I've made such a mess of my life. Thousands of Algerians leave the country and come back happy, with plenty of money and nice clothes. Back home we only hear the success stories from abroad. I've never been a terrorist. I love the freedom of England: that's what I came here for. All I needed was the chance to make a bit of money towards a house; the minimum things that any man would want. I was totally exhilarated when I first came here. Now I'm too tired to struggle any more. To be locked up for something you never even have a chance to deny makes you despair. All my dreams are broken. But there is no point complaining, this was my destiny. God willing, one day I will have a wife and a child and try to forget it all.

KARIM SAIDI is a pseudonym. Interview and translation by Stella White. This article was first published in the Guardian.



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