They are dirty, their hair is matted, their faces covered with bug bites. And last year, three of them watched a band of Islamic extremists end their mother’s life with a knife to her throat.
For the nine Mebarki children, who range in age from 6 to 21, home for the past year has been a single room in a cavernous shopping center vacated after bombs destroyed parts of it.
Like the Baraudis, the Jaffars, the Moussas and the Barouks - all youngsters who survived attacks, all living in the shopping center - the Mebarkis still know how to smile. Children gather like little chickens when a visitor arrives and proudly announce their names.
But when it becomes apparent that the newcomer can bring no change, the questioning eyes and joyful noises melt into listless stares.
Since the 1996 massacre in which the Mebarki children’s father and two oldest brothers also were killed, “It’s like I don’t live anymore,” said 14-year-old Redouan. He sat on a concrete slab that was blasted off the shopping center’s facade in a 1994 bombing.
Some 75,000 people have been killed since Algeria’s Islamic insurgency began in 1992. But many victims of the bloodshed cannot be counted among the dead.
Children orphaned by the violence, their number unknown, often live a double trauma, losing several family members in a single slaughter and then their homes.
“I can’t take it any more. There’s nothing good here,” Redouan said.
“Here” is the two-story shopping center in Sidi Moussa, 12 miles south of Algiers at the mouth of what is called the Triangle of Death, in the Mitidja Plain. Eight decimated families - about 45 people - call the building home.
Inside, the stench is powerful and there is no plumbing, although the building is blessed with some bare light bulbs. The night winds blow through broken windows, and the roof has a gaping hole.
Redouan recounts the night when 20 to 30 men attacked the family home, armed with knives and guns. Fares, 6, was found in his mother’s blood. Amina, 10, was hiding under the bed. Redouan watched from afar as one of the killers slit his mother’s throat; she was lying on the bedroom floor, shielding her face with her arm.
With no visible emotion, Redouan showed how his mother tried helplessly to protect herself. “It’s like something ordinary when I talk about it,” he said.
The Mebarki family was marked for attack. Naima, 19, an older sister, had been passing information to security forces about suspected members of armed groups in the region, a breeding ground for extremists.
The massacres and random killings that haunt the Mitidja region cut through age groups and income brackets with the sweep of a knife.
The living victims “have lost everything from one day to another,” said Cherifa Kheddar, who co-heads a group to help survivors. Her brother and sister were killed in a June 1996 attack.
“Homes are ransacked, burned,” she said. “Money and jewels are stolen. … In some places, they’ve even taken dishes and furniture.”
The insurgency began after the army canceled parliamentary elections to thwart the now-banned Islamic Salvation Front’s rise to power.
The more radical Armed Islamic Group, based in the Mitidja, has claimed responsibility for many of the attacks. The radical insurgents are trying to topple Algeria’s military-backed government and install an Islamic state based on a strict reading of Islamic law.
Kheddar’s organization, Our Algeria, is trying to help 9,000 people in the Mitidja - a rough figure representing only some of the injured, the orphaned, the survivors with no place to go.
Authorities provide financial aid for victims of terrorism, but first the victims must make their way through the bureaucracy - not an easy task for traumatized survivors, many of whom are illiterate.
Some don’t even know such aid exists. Or, in the chaotic aftermath of brutal tragedies, they just slip through the cracks.
The Mebarki family is a case in point. The traumatized eldest sister is the legal guardian, but often is absent, and the money she receives apparently is being stashed away to be spent on a real home.
“If we don’t get fed, we go see the police or soldiers and get something,” Redouan said. “It’s good.”
Children orphaned in attacks often pass through a period of aggression, then deep mistrust, said Malika Sennia, who heads the social services unit in Blida, capital of the Mitidja.
“It takes lots of work to gain their confidence. They’re mad at the world,” Sennia said.
Her department recently set up five posts in the region with psychologists and social workers to treat massacre survivors. Our Algeria tries to place orphans in homes and seeks money for everything from artificial limbs to plastic surgery; it also sponsors medical treatment abroad.
Meanwhile, the children living in the vacated shopping center languish, their dreams dictated by their needs.
Asked to make a wish, Redouan replied: “To leave here.”
“That everyone has a house,” said Rafik Amimar, 12.
“To live like others,” said Amina Mebarki, 10.
“To eat,” said Manel Zenimi, 4.
“To live,” said Fares Mebarki, 6.