For weeks, expat Algerians have been streaming home, some just for the weekend, to play their part in the historic changes sweeping the country.
“I took unpaid leave to come and march in Algeria, to be here physically,” said Chahrazade Kaci, who arrived back from London just days before president Abdelaziz Bouteflika resigned in the face of huge protests.
“It’s a duty,” said Kaci, 52, who has spent almost half her life in the British capital since going into exile at the height of Algeria’s 1990s civil war.
Sports shoes on her feet and an Algerian flag draped over her shoulders, she held aloft a sign in English: “Call to all Algerians living abroad — return home and support our citizens in their struggle to build the 2nd republic.”
Kaci was one of many returnees among the immense crowd that filled the streets of Algiers on Friday, the first mass demonstration since Bouteflika announced on Tuesday he was stepping down after two decades in power.
Flying in from Europe, the Gulf and North America, some have used up annual leave or taken extra time off work to take part.
“Since February 22, I haven’t been able to sleep,” Kaci said, referring to the day of the first mass protests against Bouteflika’s bid for a fifth term in office.
“I’m addicted to the internet, I follow developments 24 hours a day and I don’t miss anything on social media,” Kaci said.
She was joined in the crowd by her former husband Salah Allali, who had flown in from Qatar, while her daughter Nada, who was born in Britain, and nephew Yazi Nait-Ladjemil had both come from London to take part in the protest.
Kaci herself arrived back in Algiers the previous Friday and “joined the march right from the airport”, she said.
Following Bouteflika’s resignation, protestors are now pressing on with calls for sweeping reforms and the departure of key figures in the 82-year-old’s entourage.
Bouteflika’s departure was “just the beginning,” Kaci said. “Still to come is the departure of the rest of the ‘gang’ and the building of a second republic.”
Protestors say they want to see the resignations of the powerful “3B” — Senate speaker Abdelkader Bensalah, head of the constitutional council Tayeb Belaiz and Prime Minister Noureddine Bedoui.
– Return and ‘rebirth’ –
Born in Algiers, Kaci studied marine biology, but like many Algerians, left the country when it plunged in the early 1990s into a decade-long civil war that left at least 200,000 people dead.
Back in Algiers, returned expats say they are surprised by the country’s new-found freedom of speech and the strong presence of women at the vast, largely peaceful marches.
Kheira, 65, also took unpaid leave from her job as a teacher in Montreal to take part in “these historic marches”.
She had moved to Canada in 2000, to be reunited with her children after sending them there at the height of the civil war.
“My children have everything there, but they are ready to come work and invest in their country,” she said.
Former trade unionist Salah Allali, who also sought refuge in Britain in the 1990s, took an extra week of holiday without pay to be able to head home.
“The regime must understand that this revolution must end with its departure,” he said.
Yazid Nait-Ladjemil, who has lived in London for the past two years, took part in several demonstrations organised by Algerians in the British capital, but also returned home to play a role in the protests on the ground.
He said he would not rule out a return to his country.
“It’s a rebirth — before, (Algeria) was a bit depressing,” he said. The demonstrations “give me a sense of hope.”