Mad rain on a morning in paradise

Independent Decade
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Indy Lifestyle Online
You could not find a more sleepy lane, meandering through cypress trees past streams flooded by the night showers. This is how they used to illustrate paradise in children's books. That was when we were ambushed.

I don't like the "we". But you cannot stick a journalist's flag on top of an Algerian police vehicle; besides, the bombers would have been more than happy to know that they had a foreigner as well as 16 gendarmes as their target. And when the first bomb went off, it sounded, inside our leading armoured vehicle, like a tyre bursting behind us. But the police knew what it was.

The second bomb went off as I opened the rear door: a wall of sound and a sheet of concrete and smoke behind the second police van. I looked through my camera at the second car when there was a third blast like a massive door being slammed and, through the telephoto lens, a great curtain of roadway, grass, iron and muck streaming upwards in slow motion. A policeman ran in front of me, firing into the yellow-flowered field to the left. A woman came screaming out of a broken-down house shrieking and imploring God and the police to stop the noise. A rain of stones and concrete thundered on to the roadway and the petrol cap of the third van came bowling down the roadway past my face.

That was when the fourth bomb went off. "Get down, get down, there may be another," the police commandant shouted. I looked around me. There was a ditch beside me, a deserted barber's shop on the other side of the road with Coiffeur des Jeunes painted on the glass door. So we were lying on the ground when the shrapnel came pattering down again - a kind of mad rain on this beautiful morning in paradise.

Then there was silence broken only by the crying of the woman and the sound of men breathing and coughing and a voice on a radio asking if anyone was hurt and a policeman saying, very quietly, "God is Great." The gendarmes began spraying the trees with bullets, the rounds hissing into the leaves, then they fired into the fields again, the bullets thwacking through undergrowth and howling off towards the railway.

It was a perfect ambush. The Armed Islamic Group had set the roadside bombs 50 yards apart, four of them to hit the four vehicles of the patrol, each spaced out 100 yards from each other. "They were very professional," the commandant said. "They waited till we got out of our vehicles before they set off the fourth bomb, but our vans were spread out. Then they ran. They could be there." And he pointed to the village of Chaibia, deserted now, not a soul on its streets. "Or there, or there." His finger swept across the horizon where the sun splashed merrily on the walls of hamlets almost buried behind the trees.

We trudged warily into the fields, the lead cops firing in front of them, looking for the wires, splashing through the soggy grass and stunted orchards. That was when we found the detonator lines, leading to four car batteries, carelessly covered with earth. The wires led across the fields and a police sergeant followed them, pulling them out of the mud and water like that scene in Bridge on the River Kwai when Alec Guinness discovers that someone is planning to blow up his bridge. The line ended on the railway tracks. That's where they had waited for us, three, maybe four of them, listening on their scanners to the police radios. And looking back, I remembered how deserted the fields had been as we approached, even though the orchards behind us were full of workers. And I noticed that all the windows in the village were open, to spare the glass, their owners warned of what was to come.

An old man was cutting grass in the fields. "There were some guys here this morning with hunting guns," he said. "They were shooting birds." But in truth everyone in the village must have known what was going to happen. When we left, the people did not look at us, did not even glance at the bomb-damaged van. It was as if we did not exist - which was, after all, the fate the GIA had intended for us. All that was wrong was the distance between the bombs.

"Distance. Keep your distance from each other," the commandant called. And then he said "God is great'' again. The cop beside me muttered "Mohamed is the Prophet of God''. Then he turned and said: "We had beautiful luck today.''

Robert Fisk won the UK Press Gazette award for Foreign Correspondent of the Year in 1995 and 1996, and the Foreign Press Association award for 1996, for his reporting on Algeria.

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