Out of Peru: Curtains for terrorists in car-bomb city

LIMA - The distant thump that rattled the windows and shook the front door left me rooted to my chair, but my host was on his feet and halfway up the stairs in a flash. Like parents all over the city, he was checking that the heavy velvet curtains in the baby's bedroom were tightly drawn.

Thick curtain material is a big seller in Lima these days. A few weeks earlier a huge bomb had gone off outside the Bolivian embassy, just behind my friend's house, and the sliding glass door of the garden room had come cascading down on to the sofa where he had been sitting a few seconds earlier. The entire family spent the next few hours huddled in a dark, windowless corridor.

By the time we got to the street where the explosion had taken place, about a mile away, the emergency services were already there in force. About three blocks had been badly damaged, including a number of high-rise blocks of flats, which had hardly a window left intact. The streets were carpeted in glass, and occupants of the damaged flats were adding to the hazards by knocking out broken panes, sending fragments showering down on to people in the street below.

There was a crater 2ft deep by 4ft wide in the middle of Calle Bolognesi; a battered engine a few feet away was all that remained of the 500lb car bomb. Another car, which was passing when it exploded, had been hurled upside down through the plate-glass window of a travel agency. The office had caught fire and quickly burnt out. Further up the street lay the body of an elderly man. He had presumably been killed by falling glass from the big block of flats on the corner: the top of his head had been sliced off.

Only two people died in this blast. It could have been more, but the bomb went off just a few minutes before the 10pm curfew and there were few people still on the streets of this mixed residential and business area. Perhaps the terrorists had not been trying to kill this time; a supermarket and a new Citroen showroom, both closed, were just opposite the site of the blast. Another friend had been watching television in his flat above where the bomb exploded; he was lifted off the sofa and thrown to the floor by the blast, but was otherwise unharmed.

It had been a different story a few months earlier, when a similar-sized car bomb exploded a few blocks away in a narrow, crowded street in the centre of the elegant Miraflores district. Terrorists from the Maoist Sendero Luminoso (Shining Path) organisation had placed a brick on the accelerator of a car loaded with a mixture of fertiliser and dynamite and set it rolling down Calle Tarata. Tall buildings on either side had served to magnify the blast and turned the rush-hour street into a slaughterhouse. A crowded supermarket and several blocks of flats were reduced to rubble, killing 23 people and injuring many more.

A diplomat who was in a restaurant nearby was one of the first on the scene. He organised dazed passers-by into rescue squads and cleared a path through the rubble to allow ambulances and fire engines to get through. 'You'd shift a pile of bricks and find a hand or arm underneath,' he said.

Since then the car bombers had not been very active in Lima, until the explosion in Calle Bolognesi. But the Tarata bomb had been enough to send many members of the prosperous middle classes into voluntary exile, if their means ran to it. Bombs had been destroying police stations in shanty-towns, and banks had been a favourite objective for years, but the targeting of smart suburbs was the last straw for many professional and business people. My friend who was blown off his sofa had only returned the day before after several weeks in Washington.

Anybody with anything to lose in Lima has long since retreated behind high walls, often topped with jagged lumps of broken glass or - the latest craze - multiple strands of electrified wire. Armed guards and night watchmen (known here as wachimanes) are everywhere, controlling access to public buildings and patrolling suburban streets at night, blowing their whistles at intervals to reassure the residents who pay their wages that they are still awake. Private security is, along with glass and heavy curtains, one of few growth areas of an otherwise prostrate economy.

An odd side-effect of this climate of fear is that opinion polls have become even more unreliable than usual. The problem is, as a polling company executive explained, most people are reluctant to open their doors at all these days, particularly not to strangers who proceed to ask them about their political opinions. So the pollsters, who are paid per completed form, are often reduced to using their imagination to fill in the questionnaires themselves. This has led to such bizarre results that polling firms have had to employ checkers to make sure that respondents really had provided the answers themselves.

Maybe there's something to be said for this system. In last month's elections the polling companies did no worse than their British counterparts in April.