Paradise is not lost in a perfect ambush

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Chaibia - The pine trees swayed in the early morning light, the orange orchards gleamed gold, the fields of yellow rape seed stretched to a grey curtain of mountains. You could not find a more sleepy laneway, 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, many of them in ski-masks, knew what it was. The second bomb went off 100 yards away 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 lens at the second car, to capture the smoke drifting behind it, 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 - an old pied noir villa, I remember thinking - shrieking and imploring God and the police to stop the noise. A rain of stones and concrete thundered on to the roadway around us and the petrol cap of the third police van came bowling down the roadway and 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 sinister ditch beside me, a deserted barber's shop on the other side of the road with Coiffeur des Jeunes crudely 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 spring morning in paradise. Then there was a silence broken only by the crying of the terrified 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." At which point, 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 a railway embankment.

It was a perfect ambush. They - the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), no doubt, led by its new "Emir" in the Blida Wilaya, Said Makhaoufi - 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 oh-so-innocent village of Chaibia, deserted now, not a soul on its streets. "Or there, or there." And the officer's finger swept across the horizon where the sunshine splashed merrily on the walls of hamlets almost buried behind the trees.

We trudged into the fields, warily, the lead cops firing in front of them, looking for the wires, splashing through the soggy grass and stunted orchards. A railway train clicked past, the local diesel from Blida to Algiers, the passengers staring at us out of drowsy windows as if we were on a lunatic field exercise. That was when we found the electric detonator lines, four car batteries carelessly covered with earth, a series of broken lightbulbs for detonators near the massive craters in the road. One of the police vehicles had its windscreen smashed, its door fittings ripped off, shrapnel gashes on the bodywork, no one hurt.

The electric leads 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 to his horror that someone is planning to blow up his bridge. The wires sucked their way out of the mud, stretching to knot on a barbed wire fence from which a single thin green fishing line ran towards the railway. The line ended on the tracks. That's where they had waited for us, three, maybe four of them, listening on their scanners - according to the commandant - to the police radios. And looking back, I remembered how deserted the fields had been when we approached, even though the orchards behind us were full of agricultural workers. And I noticed that all the windows in the village of Chaibia were open, to spare the glass, their owners obviously warned of what was to come.

An old man was cutting grass in the corner of 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. It must have taken hours to lay the butane gas bottles of explosives, the electric lines, the batteries and detonators. They may have lain there for several days, the bombers waiting all that time for a four-car police patrol.

When we left Chaibia, the people did not look at us, did not even glance at the bomb-damaged Toyota 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 into his radio. And then he said "God is great'' again. And the cop beside me muttered a prayer in Arabic and the words "Mohamed is the Prophet of God''. Then he turned to me and said: "We had beautiful luck today.''

The Full Picture, page 35