The leafless trees are pencil drawings on a tissue mist.
I am driving to see Andy and he will tell me his story. He has been back from the hostage siege in Algeria for ten days now.
Here is his story:
The alarm at about 6:00 am first told them something was up. Soon after that they heard shooting, single shots and shouting and more vehicles driving into the compound. They knew immediately it was terrorists.
They followed the protocol — hide and wait. Andy, Paul and a Norwegian had adjoining rooms. The other rooms on their corridor were empty except for some Japanese at the far end.
They decided on the storeroom because it had covered widows and was normally locked. One of them had a key. They let themselves in and locked the door from inside.
The shouting and sporadic shooting continued.
They silenced their mobile phones but were able to call and get instructions from head office. They were told to stay where they were. The terrorists probably didn’t know how many foreigners there were in there.
Later they heard footfalls in their own corridor again. A voice said “Good morning” in a kind of sing-song tone, as if trying to sound like mom calling up to her kids.
Andy and the Norwegian simultaneously raised their fingers to their lips.
Later they heard lots more shooting and people on their corridor again. Someone turned their door handle a few times, then said something. The voices moved away.
They stayed there for the reminder of the day and into the night. It was quiet in the night and the voices they heard were far off.
They decided to make a break before dawn and headed out into the desert as it started to get light. It was cold.
After about half and hour, in the dawning light, they saw vehicles ahead of them. They had a discussion: should they stay out until nightfall or give themselves up, hoping they were military?
They decided to give themselves up and headed towards the vehicles, raising their arms. At about fifty metres they kneeled with their hand raised.
The soldiers were Algerian. “I can’t describe how relieved we were,” he said.
Andy and his friends only learned later what happened to other foreigners, like the ones who were taped with Cemtex and daisy-chained with twelve others to a suicide bomber. They were all blown up when the Algerian army stormed the main complex.
Or the British man who was persuaded to call that it was safe to come out. They killed him as soon as other foreigners emerged.
There was the brave French nurse, who manned the ambulance complex on the main site and who used wire-cutters to get her group through the security fence. They too found their way to Algerian soldiers.
The Japanese were the worst hit. Ten killed.
“We were not heroes,” said Andy, “just very lucky.”
I read up about the terrorists’ leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar. He is a 40-year old smuggler and weapons dealer, and has just broken away and formed his own group. I guess he wanted to show what he could do. His group is called al-Mua’qi’oon Biddam, meaning “Those Who Signed With Blood Brigade.”
He is also known as Mr Marlboro because he finances jihadist groups mainly from smuggling cigarettes — and hostage taking. In 2003, for example, he kidnapped 32 French, German, Austrian, and Swiss tourists for whom he is said to have got a $6.5 million ransom.
Robert Fowler, a Canadian negotiator whom he held for 130 days, said he was calm and methodical and always used an interpreter. Fowler thought Belmokhtar understood French but the interpretation gave him time to think. He would let the interpreter rant on about the wicked west while he went over practical things like proof-of-life videos and calls to relatives.
It is said that British and French forces are after Mokhtar. I wonder if they’ll get him. He seems to operate over a huge area covering southern Algeria, Mauretania, Mali, Niger and parts of Chad and Libya.
They fear this desert region could become a land of robber barons and feuding overlords, gun-toting entrepreneurs financing fleets of Toyota Land Cruisers and crates of Kalashnikovs from smuggling and hostage taking.
I met Andy while he was helping out at Derek’s gym.
Andy completed a degree in International Studies as a mature student and tried unsuccessfully to get a job with a company like Control Risks.
He hopes his experience in Algeria may help to get him an interview now.
When I first knew him, his money was running out and he was getting very depressed. He said he was forced to take a job with the pirate patrols off Somalia.
I guess he must have got a better offer from BP to work at Amenas.