Saturday 5th April 1996 remained etched in my memory forever as the most moving day of my family history. Here occurred one of the strangest and the most shocking coincidences of my life. After the graduation ceremony, with my diploma tucked under my arm, I got back home, fancying that the riches of the universe had belonged to me. Soon arrived, I would walk into the kitchen where my mother was preparing a banquet for the occasion. Inside, she stood calmly underneath a portrait of the Algerian former president, Houari Boumediene. As usual, Mamma and Yasmina, my old sister, had been awake before dawn to knead and shape the dough. They would have let it rise for a few hours before carrying it to the public oven.
The flavour of the food was so intense that, instead of telling Mamma what happened during the ceremony, I found my tongue involuntarily spooning mouthfuls of delicious harira, a special Algerian soup. Near the gas oven, metal plates were filled with green peppers and tomatoes, ready to be quickly charred, and then peeled for salads. Clay pots covered with parchment paper also waited their turn. Inside our traditional oven were tagines of sardines and snapper rich with tomatoes, potatoes, cilantro and spices, and upon the stove the chicken stewed in the bottom of the pot, producing steam that seeped through the holes of the sieve, and cooked the couscous in the top layer.
Yasmina was sitting by the radio, and trying hard to concentrate, for the news reader’s voice was barely audible. She turned the volume up, and the news reader's voice filled the room.
“There's a report of another disturbing slaughter in Algeria. Seven members of a family had their throats slit, including a seven-month-old baby. The baby was then booby-trapped with explosives. The booby-trapped baby exploded in the arms of a government soldier as he was carrying the corpse to a waiting vehicle,” reported the radio correspondent.
“My goodness!” screamed Yasmina.
“I thought it was over,” I said. “But still innocent people are dying.”
“They are killing babies now,” she yelled.
“Babies?” I wondered as I watched the tears falling down her face. “I can’t bear to think how eager humans are to kill one another.”
“No, do believe it,” she said. “They don't care who they kill.”
“Our country is abused and helpless,” my mother's voice sounded harsh and broken as if she had already known what I wanted to tell her. “What else can we do?”
“I really am sorry,” I said. “I would have liked to tell you something better.”
“I don’t mind, my son,” she replied in despair. “I get used to having such terrible news.”
“By the way,” Yasmina interrupted us, taking something out of the cupboard. “You’ve got a post today.”
“From whom?” I asked.
“Sorry brother, but” she lowered her voice.
“Speak up, Yasmina,” I shouted. “You’re certainly hiding something.”
“Tell him, Yasmina,” told her Mamma. “Tell him that he’s been called up.”
“What!” I shouted. “But how did you know that?”
“It’s written here on the envelope back,” said Yasmina. “They have even put the Barrack address.”
“Oh dear,” whined Mamma, with silent tears of sadness falling down her perfect cheeks.
Every worry was for naught, because there was always a greater hand guiding mine. A greater purpose seemed to surge ahead of my own feeble reasoning and efforts. That hand had always been my father’s. To please him, I decided to become a doctor when I was about 15, and after graduating, I was very glad, but initial happiness that had just taken my breath all along the ceremony turned into a very deep sorrow for his loss.
The next morning, I intended to be up very early, knowing that youths called to military service had to get to barracks before eight or they would be on trial for draft-dodging. I quickly rushed downstairs to find that my mother had already made my breakfast consisting of a warm milk and instant coffee with bread and olive oil.
“Allah save me and be with me,” I prayed, and with my small suitcase strapped to my back, I left my home, wishing my father were among my family members following me out. Even though I was sad I knew what I needed to do; a deep breath and dive in.
The final goodbye at the door was as I expected; tears as big as boulders came rolling voluntarily down my face. I didn’t care what people in the street thought about this woman and her son hugging each other, crying and wiping each other’s tears away.
“Don't let me down,” moaned Mamma.
“What do you mean, Mamma?”
“You shall be away for more than six months.”
“Well, I know this. But what does that mean?”
“Don't you think you’re going to be alone for the first time?”
“Of course I do,” I answered, “but still can’t get the idea of what you say.”
“I want you to be a God-fearing man,” she suddenly approached me, fixed her eyes in eager scrutiny on my face. “You are 25, and so mustn’t depend on us anymore.”
Before answering her, I looked at the matter from every point of view, and then was driven to the conclusion that my duty was to hide my confusion about where the line between adulthood and childhood ought to be.
“Don't be afraid,” I reassured her.
“I'm not afraid,” she blustered to cover up her confusion.
Poor mother! Not only might she be pondering how badly she would suffer in my absence, but also recalling the ambush in which several youths had recently been caught, and when she sensed my deep concern, she came towards me, and tenderly kissed my head.
“Get in, doctor,” the taxi driver called me from outside. "We’re going to be late.”
“I’m coming, Ami Ammar,” I answered him, wishing to stay longer with them.
Just before midday, I was at the bus station. There were about twenty youths waiting for Algiers bus. Nothing had changed since I had made my last trip; the same decaying buildings, and the same mess in almost every coin. I joined them, standing somewhat aside, but no one paid any attention to me. They were all absorbed in their own thoughts, but I was strangely able to read fear on their eyes, even though they were not thinking aloud.
I spent the whole afternoon waiting for that bus, and things began to get more and more strained so that everybody ended up leaving the bus station. All this just seemed to confirm my sense of foreboding.
“Look there. Isn’t this Algiers bus?” shouted one of the future soldiers.
“I'm afraid it is not,” said another.
“I hope it is,” a third one interrupted them. “I cannot bear waiting for it any longer."
"Don't mind, my friend,” said the first. “We won't stay here this night.”
Sitting on the bench, and listening to the youths’ conversation, I became aware of country voices floating around the bus station. Before climbing into the bus, a young man noticed me and walked over.
“Where does this bus go to?” he asked cheerily.
“To the capital.”
“What time does it leave?"
“That may be after twenty minutes, or thirty,” I answered him. “Honestly, I don’t know.” “These youths have been telling me,” said he, “that the bus driver is lunching in the restaurant.” “Yes he is,” I confirmed. “Have you ever been in Algiers?"
“There is no need for you to be there.”
“That should be the city of death.”
“That’s right.” “What do you do to relax while waiting?” he asked. “You want the truth?” I said. “I hate waiting for buses.”
He remained silent for a short moment as if he had not found what to talk about, and then sat beside me.
“What don’t you like in the bus station?” he asked. “Don’t tell me it’s noise?” “The combination of smells,” I answered. “They never failed to make me nauseous.” “Nauseous?” he wondered. “You’re language is a little bit different.” “I’m a doctor,” I said to him. “Due to force of habit we unintentionally use medical terms. I’m sorry if you felt frustrated.”
“Don't bother to think about it,” he interrupted me. “Try to enjoy the sight of sunset.”
“Oh, goodness,” I exclaimed quiet enough so that only Moh heard me. “You’re right. It’s fantastic.”
The sun sank low, and its brightness changed to a dull red with neither rays nor heat, as if it would never be back again, and none of us would admire its shining magic the following day. The crowd rushed towards the bus, as Ami Issa appeared from the restaurant entrance. He looked as tall as buildings spires, and had a blurred face as though eroded by age, sorrows, or perhaps illness. As soon as he got on the bus, I noticed that he was eating something, popping things into his mouth one by one, picking them out from his cloak pocket. He spotted me watching him, but pretended not to notice me.
“Slowly boys! There are enough places to sit,” he said. "Call me Issa. I’m 60 year. I hate twaddle and gossip, so try to be as calm as you can.”
I got onto the bus with some minutes to spare. I was out of breath and flopped on to a seat by the left hand window panting like a dog. For the first time, I had been faced to new people who gave orders instead of candies. My brain galloped into overdrive, and I began to think if I should count something outside or stay fixed to my seat until Ami Issa would decide to set off for Algiers. There was something ominous in the atmosphere that was foreboding. I felt a strange and deadly coldness, but after Mohammed had put his hand on my shoulder, warmth pervaded my soul. Green-eyed with a head of dark brown hair and a powerful physique, Moh stood five foot ten in his stockinged feet. Everything in him was to please, and his behaviour endeared him to me. The green of his eyes gave me a feeling of peace and pure innocence.
“I have been travelling to Algiers several times,” said Ami Issa, “but I’ve never felt this way about the trip.”
“Don't frighten us, Ami Issa,” said Moh.
“Try to stop talking and take a little rest," remembered Ami Issa. “Travelling to Algiers is very hard.”
“You're absolutely right Ami Issa," replied Moh. “We really need a good night rest.”
Having just begun their long adventure, the 21 future soldiers had left many memories behind them. The idea of being with their families and of living without concern changed very quickly, as Ami Issa drove out of Guelma. Probably, most of them were not to take into account the current conflict between the army and the terrorists.
“I think it is necessary,” said one of them, “that the army must recruit more troops.”
“They fight each other,” said another. “But who should be the victim?”
“We are the victim, my friend,” answered the first.
“Beware, Ami Issa!” said a third one. “No matter what happens, you should not stop. Drive straight to the capital.”
“For what?” asked Ami Issa. “What should I be cautious about?”
“Try another joke, Ami Issa,” laughed the one who was warning him. “There would be terrorists like stones; behind trees, over hills, and even under rocks.”
“Let’s talk about something else,” suggested Ami Issa.
We were very fortunate to get to the outskirts of the first village when the talk about terrorists came to an abrupt end. Mohammed had become silent, giving no reply to so distressful a speech, and when we came to the top of a small hill overlooking the lower half of the village, Moh suddenly stood straight up with a terrible fury impossible to describe.
“Look there, Doctor,” he said. “My old brother was slaughtered upon that hill."
“What did you say?” I cried while the others were looking aghast after they had heard Moh’s terrible sentence. “Who murdered him?”
“Yes, my dear brother has had his neck slit upon that hill,” he took a deep breath, raised his head, and began weeping like a child. “He was caring after my sick sister suddenly widowed and left with two younger children besides her mother-in-law.”
“Oh, dear,” I said, trying to assuage his grief. “I’m so sorry for him.” “It’s not easy, Doctor,” he said. “I’ll never forget the sorrow I still feel, till I avenge him.”
Moh’s terrible story, the way he was telling it, and the shuddering of his shoulders as he wept spread panic among our terrified minds. Moh drew his face back from the window, and asked me for water to appease his thirst. The others tried to comment on what Mod had just said. They all started asking him simultaneously about his brother’s murder, but Moh remained silent and motionless, ignoring all their questions. “Hey, Moh, Do not mind, brave friend,” Ami Issa tried to bring some comfort to Moh by telling him some soothing words. “Your brother is in paradise now, and he will be forever proud of you.”
“It’s difficult, Ami Issa,” whimpered Moh. “It’s tough to shoulder the burden of such a loss.”
"I know this,” replied Ami Issa. “But what should we do?"
“Our population is about to perish,” said Moh. “But we shrug and say there is nothing.”
“We really have nothing to do,” I interrupted their conversation.
“No, you’re wrong, dear,” replied Moh. “If we had the will, then we could solve all our problems.”
“We’d better remain far from their conflict,” I hinted.
“I'm afraid to say we should react against such savages. Our silence may encourage them to go ahead in their massacres.”
“The army is strengthening its ranks in the performance of its mission,” remembered Ami Issa.
“It is not enough,” said Moh. “We all should help them fight those animals.”
“The only thing you must do now is to say some prayers for your brother,” advised him Ami Issa. “May Allah answer them!”
“You know something, Ami Issa?"
“When I get into bed, I imagine out a real nice prayer to say always.”
“What is it?” wondered Ami Issa.
“May Allah get back my wicked soul and clean it from all its impurities,” pleaded Moh. “Then, I can join my brother.”
“Not this, my son. Never say this,” objected Ami Issa. “Allah would never accept this kind of supplication. You may instead request for repentance and for your country salvation.”
Though Ami Issa’s assuasive words had proven to be spot on, Moh’s sorrow seemed to be rather profound. Needing to rest for a while after recalling his brother’s murder, he fell down in his seat, and tried to expose his burning cheeks to the smooth whisper of the fresh air. His tearful eyes and his trembling voice showed how much pain Moh had felt after he had suffered such a loss. For my part, I began to love him as a brother, and his deep grief filled me with sympathy and compassion. No one could be confident to say that he would still be living the following day.
It was about seven o'clock. The fallen sun seemed to keep above the horizon, as if it wanted to last forever to let us enjoy more light, and forget about the coming darkness for a while. Moh continued to sleep, his eyes mid-closed, and his chin pressed against his chest, and so, I did not want to wake him up, for the previous hour had stirringly been tough for him. Minutes later, Ami Issa took a swig of olive oil, whilst the others began having their dinner; some bread and dates to make the trip length more bearable.
In an hour after sunset, the darkness had taken complete possession of earth and heavens. The village had melted into the night, and none of us managed to see it from a long way off. Everyone felt tired, and lay dead on his seat, except Ami Issa who kept awake, and remained seated for a long time in order to reach the village as soon as possible.
Although the landscape got darker, the village appeared on slight rise of the undulating road, and from where I was setting, I could only see weak and glowing sparks, which were running by themselves, and reaching higher the sky. Flowing out of the first house, those sparks were as useful as the road became more visual to Ami Issa. In just a couple of minutes, we were at the village entrance, which did not look different from any other in the country, but an unusual and weird feeling of insecurity prevailed.
“I’m going to Hakou’s to have dinner there,” said Ami Issa. “Would you prefer to accompany me?”
“No,” I hesitated. “I should be staying here to keep watch of my friends.”
“But, you must be hungry, mustn’t you?” he said, noticing my hesitation.
“Well, I’ll go along with you to discover the mystery that lies beyond the village entrance.”
As we walked up the rise towards the village, Ami Issa and I could feel eyes fixed on us. People seemed not accustomed to seeing strangers in the evening. Conversations had suddenly stopped, the villagers started abandoning their seats, and hurrying in all directions as if they had seen phantoms. Moving along the narrowing passages that led to Hakou’s, we could hear whispers emanating from almost every wall.
“Can you hear something?” I asked.
“Hush! Keep silent,” he hushed me up, trying to check the eatery surroundings.
Coming out through a slit set high in the wall, a weak shaft of light was quite enough to kindle the awfully darkened area. The further we went the louder their voices grew, as if they were pursuing us, yet neither shuffled footsteps nor murmurs were audible. Regardless of the imminent threat, yet mindful of it, Ami Issa went on walking around the eatery as if he had suspected that death might be hiding there. Failing to summon all my courage, I intended to hide my fear and to appear rather heedless, but he cleverly sensed my confusion, and tried to make me feel better. Even though, I never thought him capable of it, his tender voice right close to my ear cleared up my doubts.
“Don't be afraid,” he whimpered. “You're not alone.”
“But I've never been in such a place, have you?”
“Yes, of course I have.”
“Don’t tell me we’re going to die.”
“Shut your mouth, and keep moving,” he murmured.
At last, we were able to get a better view of the eatery door from which an old man arose, taking a bottle of wine in his left hand and a slice of bread in the right. Bewildered and confused, he hurried towards us, and then grabbed Ami Issa by the arm, carrying him behind the eatery to be out of sight. For my part, I decided to follow them without asking.
“Who are you?” The old man shouted. “And why are you here?”
“What do you mean?” Ami Issa told him. “We’re here to have dinner at Hakou’s. Is there any problem?”
“Of course,” the old man trembled. “There’s death here. You must leave immediately.”
“Thank you so much for helping us,” said Ami Issa. “Now I can understand everything.”
The shouting and the laughter grew louder from inside the eatery, and Ami Issa became aware of the fact that there was not much time to lose.
"Follow me, but try to be silent,” he ordered.
"I told you, never ask!” he shouted. “I know exactly what to do.”
After having run away for safety, I strongly wished that I might be granted a brief respite to catch my breath, but Ami Issa, unwilling to stop, kept racing madly towards the woods without uttering a syllable. He tried to speed me up, but I proved just a slow person as though walking across deep sands.
“Don't be afraid,” Ami Issa abruptly addressed me in a confident voice. “Brace yourself and nothing will happen.”
“I’ll do,” I replied, “but tell me what’s going on.”
“Just trust me.”
“Listen, Ami Issa,” I interrupted him. “At least tell me who we’re escaping from?”
"Don't bother yourself asking me, you’re not going to understand.”
“But why? Just tell me the truth,” I begged him.
“There’s no truth,” he admitted. “What seems fair to you may seem foul to others. No one can imagine the situation in which we've got involved.”
“Can you explain more?”
“It is so complicated to explain, my son.”
The First Encounter
After half an hour of an adventurous escape, we were rewarded with a wonderful sight of a thick Atlas cedars forest with blue-green leaves, which gave off the sweetest scent my nose had ever smelled. First, we skirted around the edge of this, and then found a walkway, which apparently took to its middle. We stumbled along the narrowing paths, which became impassable due to an army of prickly shrubs of red alders. Ami Issa asked me to rest for a while at the bottom of a huge oak, and then started talking about people whom we only saw their shadows, and heard their murmurs.
“Do you know that there are two different kinds of terrorists?” he asked.
“No, I don’t.”
“Do be warned that each part has got its own convictions and principles while fighting against the army.”
“So, to which part do men we have just seen belong?” I asked.
“I’m not sure. They may belong to the Islamic Army of Salute.”
“Yes, IAS. This is an organized army that fights our National Army after the IFS dissolution.”
“IFS?” It sounds like the political party?”
“That’s right, but they have nothing against ordinary people.”
“Are you kidding me?” I roared. “So tell me who killed the baby yesterday?”
“Calm down, my son,” he answered. “I suppose you’re talking about terrorists not rebels.”
“Don't make me laugh, Ami Issa. Do you see any difference?”
“My dear, you’re still young. You still have so much to learn in this country.”
“There must be something you hide,” I said, sensing grown all the fear that had been haunting me since I had left my mother’s arms. “I think it must be scary. Please tell me the truth.”
“You should know before that these are not only extremists but also more atrocious than you expect.”
“Why? What makes them different?”
“They allow to themselves the assassinations they commit only in order to reach their aims. These belong to what we call the IAG "the Islamic Armed Group" and their intransigence expressed by their famous claims ‘No dialogue, no reconciliation, and no truce’."
This was one of the few times in my life that I was much more interested in such matters. For many years, I had been banned to even talk about terrorists or rebels, and there were times when my father avoided watching TV news when I came into the sitting-room to share with him hot talks about political conflicts; “Mind your own business, and care only about your medical studies," he often told me.
There were now a few minutes of fearful stillness, during which a sudden remembrance of death drove the blood in torrents upon my heart, and for a brief period, my entire body lapsed into an unusual insensibility, so that I felt unable to move a step. What fate perhaps even more fearful awaited me? That should be nothing but death. Ami Issa did not notice my state; for he was busy examining the area around us, even though he could no longer distinguish things from one another.
“Those savages conducted their search with greater vigilance and method,” said Ami Issa. “So we shall be hiding down in the causeway.”
“Our end is nigh, Ami Issa.” I snivelled, took his hand, and squeezed it tight to my chest to show him that my heart had just stopped beating.
“I told you not to be afraid,” he remembered. “You’re here because of me.”
“Do you think they’re close?”
“I could distinguish their footsteps.”
“They are causing the faded leaves to rustle, and the branches to snap.”
At the same time, I heard several voices muttering everywhere in the forest, but I was able to distinguish only one phrase that I dreaded hearing; "they are here!” Ami Issa remained inert and completely appalled showing a deadly face, and kept staring at me without at least wrinkling his brows. Having been most of the time tongue-tied, Ami Issa might dread to think about the consequences of our probable captivity.
“Stay calm,” mumbled Ami Issa. "One more word and we're dead.”
“Oh my goodness,” I said, trembling at the very thought of being killed. “I don't want to die. Please, do something.”
“Stop talking! They are coming,” he grumbled when he believed the men came closer than before. “Listen! You must follow my orders.”
“Yes, I’ll do every thing you say.”
“Move off toward that gourbi,” he directed me. “Can you see it?”
“Where? I can’t see any gourbi?”
“Up on the causeway, and there you could wait till I join you.”
No further did I dare to ask him about what had been happening until then, and without delay obeyed him as a son, dragging at full pelt to take my way straight towards the cottage. Even though we were facing a great danger, he strangely appeared less impressed as if he were expecting his friends’ coming. He kept his little eyes tightly open, and did not look up at me until we heard the noise of guns beating upon our ears with more echoes as much as the men came nearer towards us.
“Go up!” Ami Issa shouted. “What are you waiting for?”
Then above the clang and clamour of dreadful massacre, I went over a long causeway to get across the Oued (little river in North Africa) very quickly. Seconds later, I managed to go up a rise in the ground to climb a low cliff upon which stood a gourbi; an old decayed Algerian cabin made of clay. Helpless, I tried to scan more narrowly the real aspect of the building. It seemed to be that of a country family which had certainly left it months ago. Its exterior looked rather mystic, crummy and desolate with neither apparent windows nor a front door through which I might enter to hide away from the rebels' eyes.
Shaking off from my spirit what should have been superstition, I tried to find out a visible entrance but in vain. Each point on the grey wooden walls seemed closed. Still wondering how impossible was to go inside, I luckily caught sight of a slender loophole at the bottom of one of the cottage corners, which seemed rather small to allow me getting through. That hole had to be worth a fortune for me, especially when I thought it could perhaps make me reconsider that my death would have been certain without it.
Rubbing my eyes, I immediately crawled into the loophole, and found myself in a small but lofty room, being empty of anything could have a relationship with life as if its owners had left it long ages ago. With the aid of the moonlight, I could notice very small windows underneath the decayed roof but with no apparent lamps. On the floor, there were no prominent objects, except two broken plates and an old cooking pan, and three jars hung on the dark walls with a brown drapery mottled entirely with a dry blood.
“How will Ami Issa meet them alone?” I thought, “What would happen if they killed him?”
Then, through one of the small windows on the roof, I managed to see the bearded men arising from the causeway upon which Ami Issa had been lying at full-length under a thick tree. They stood for a while side by side, looking around as if they expected that someone might emerge from the quite obscurity of the surrounding big trees.
"Don’t shoot!” shouted Ami Issa. “It’s me, Issa.”
"I can see him," said one of them, taking up his position a few steps behind his fellows. “There he is,” said another.
"What on earth are you doing here, Issa?" asked their leader.
“Madani,” Ami Issa shouted. “It’s been a long time since we met in Jijel.”
“What are you doing here?” Madani asked again. “You should be on your bus, shouldn’t you?”
“Well, well,” said Ami Issa. “They’ve been tracking me for a long while.”
"Who?” asked Madani.
“Those dogs of IGA.”
"Have you seen them?” asked Madani, getting angrier and his voice louder. “Where did you meet them first?”
“No,” answered Ami Issa, “I didn’t see them, but felt them following me. I heard them talking inside Hakou’s eatery.”
"I really am surprised that they may appear again,” said one of Madani’s soldiers.
"Why?” asked Ami Issa.
"So you may not have heard the news yet,” said the soldier. “They have commandeered an Airbus of Air France.”
“No,” exclaimed Ami Issa.
Climbing up onto a crumbled wall ledge, and clinging harder to the window frame, I could hear some of what they were saying, and so learn more things about the world of armed groups. Such was the world of gangsters and terrorists. They knew only one language and one way of life, which was to live by the sword. Thus they could only hold their chaotic world together with fear and violence. I was, of course, happy to see Ami Issa still alive, yet at the same time found it almost impossible to believe that he had any close relationship with these bearded men.
“There is someone who is hiding in the gourbi,” said one of them, emerging from the trees. He couldn't have been more than fifteen. "I can see his eyes glittering through the window.”
“Who are you talking about?" asked Madani.
"Let me kill him.”
“For heaven's sake," Ami Issa cried, "don't shoot at him.”
“Then why should he hide in the cottage?” asked the bearded youth, turning his gun in my direction, and when he pointed it at me, I made a desperate error of judgment. Instead of immediately acting submissive - coming to a complete halt, putting my hands above my head, and making no sudden movements- I hit the window, certain he was going to fire at me. This caused him to roar at me, as he now tried to get me in his sights. Then, suddenly, Madani tackled him, knocking him to the ground. I took a very deep breath, remained focused, and hoped I got through it. All I could do was to keep silently telling to myself: Allah is here, and I’ll be fine. Madani swung a tight fist, banging it into the youth’s stomach. The youth groaned, and Madani brought his boot down hard on the hand that was holding the gun.
“Let go of the gun,” Madani demanded.
“But chief,” the youth screamed. “He may be one of those dogs.”
“I hate impoliteness,” said Madani. “You should have heard Issa when begged you not shoot at him.”
“Yes,” Ami Issa interrupted them. “I told him to hide in the gourbi.”
“So,” said Madani. Then he turned to me and asked, “Where is he from? And what is he doing here?”
“In fact, he's my nephew," answered Ami Issa.
“ I have not seen your bus.”
“It's at the village entrance. I've left it there to get rest.”
“And whom did you leave there?" asked Madani.
“No one! As I told you I’m travelling only with my nephew.”
“Are you kidding me?”
“Never,” said Ami Issa. “I'm just jobless these days; I want to go to Algiers in order to buy some spare parts for my bus.”
“Call for your nephew,” demanded Madani. “Tell him not to be afraid.”
"Come on, son," Ami Issa called me. “These are just friends.”
Hardly had I heard Ami Issa’s call, when I went down the causeway, where they all were waiting for me. On my way down, I prepared myself to be sentenced to death, but soon felt a small comfort after I had caught sight of the rebels’ faces. The men appeared like people who had not eaten or slept for a long time. A moment's glance was enough to restore my confidence, and Madani's voice proved reassuring.
“How are you, young man?"
“As you can see,” I answered, “I'm still alive."
"Why do you say this?" asked Madani, “Who said you’re dead?”
“I thought you were going to kill me.”
"Really?" he laughed gently, trying to hearten me "Any way, is it true ?"
“Issa is your uncle?"
"Uncle?” I hesitated awhile before I answered, “Eh, yes of course he is."
"Anyway, Issa,” said Madani, “You can go back to your bus."
"We should meet in a better condition,” said Ami Issa. “Then, we'll have a very interesting chat."
"Yes, we will. So brothers in arms,” said Madani, addressing his soldiers. “We have some duties to perform!"
Madani and his fellow soldiers were rather busy seeking something else than spending more time with us. “Back to your bus, Issa,” he said. “But be careful little feet where you go in order to avoid any surprising terrorists' appearance. We then stood and looked upon the scene before us while they were leaving towards the mountain, and disappearing as they went along the valley.
Back to Life
The sky was so dark, scary and threatening. It was as if someone had thrown a moth-eaten blanket over the earth, and the stars were like little holes that had been eaten away by ants. The ground was ever steeper; descending into what was obviously a dark small valley. This was not what any of us had been expecting, and it was as we approached the edge of the valley that a sense of foreboding gripped me.
“Hurry up!” shouted Ami Issa. “Something may happen to your comrades in the bus.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“What can’t you believe?” Ami Issa wondered.
“Hurrah,” I shouted. “Tell me that we’re still alive.”
“Yes, we are,” answered Ami Issa, “but we must go back to the bus. It is risky to stay here.”
“Well, Ami Issa, but you owe me an explanation about all what has happened since we left the bus.”
“What do you want to know?" he asked.
“Why did we go into the woods?"
“In fact, we did not go there, but fled.”
"Excuse me. Fled from whom?"
"Some IGA eyes were at Hamouda's.”
"What? IGA? So we were about to die, weren’t we?”
"Stop talking about death!” he angrily shouted.
“Tell me, Ami Issa. Are we really going to be killed?"
"If you keep talking, I'll kill you myself,” he laughed. “Try to help me crossing the valley, spoiled child.”
After we had crossed the small valley linking the slope of the mountains to the national road, Ami Issa flicked his battered petrol lighter, and held it above his head, aiming to locate his bus. There was a period of dead silence, while he was trying to find it out. He vain managed to visualize his engine in the endless darkness, as if it sank in the nightmarish landscape.
There was a sudden thick fog all around, and we could only see a few metres in front of us, so we walked on as far as we could see the bus. We would walk back and forth sometimes through the same directions, repeating paths, and sometimes going through the same footbridge, but on the opposite sense. “I am 60 and cannot walk that far,” moaned Ami Issa as though injured. “I’m sure there will be someone who can help us. Allah will never ever leave us.” I told him.
"Can you see the bus? Tell me, can you see my bus?" he kept repeating in despair, losing all hopes to find it.
"I’d hardly see you, Ami Issa,” I answered him, trying to persuade him that the bus was maybe anywhere in the darkness. “Don't worry Ami Issa. We shall find it.”
Feeling my steps gradually getting heavier, I trudged wearily up the valley bank, and my feet helplessly struggled to carry me forward while Ami Issa had to splosh across the valley, and his feet already too wet to care about going up the bank. “You won’t leave me here, boy,” he said. I then grabbed him by the arm, and strove to carry him over the valley bank to the road, crossing the footbridge, which normally led to the main road. “Can you see that light there?” he said. “Or am I dreaming?”
“You're not dreaming, Ami Issa! But it seemed a fire rather than a light. Perhaps someone is trying to show us the right path, but who can he be?”
“I find it difficult to imagine,” grunted Ami Issa, “that the man who is holding the torch belongs to the extremists.”
"Did you say extremists?"
"My word,” he yelled. “Did I say this?”
“Of course you did.”
“Anyway, don't care! That’s only a crock!”
“A crock! What do you mean?”
“Yes, a crock!" he shouted, "I mean it’s a foolish talk,” he continued, but after having thwarted his attempts to bait me to an argument, which he thought I was still young to deal with. “Let’s go discover the source of that fire.”
In a short moment of surprise, all our concerns were away, for we caught glimpse of a burning human posture, which stood silhouetted against a dark background as the light faded at the top of its hand. “It’s not Moh, is he?” murmured Ami Issa. It was nobody but Moh, handling a newspaper on fire to show us the right path, and covering his head and face with a hood.
“Hey, where have you been?” asked Moh. “I have been looking for you.”
“Salam, Moh.” Ami Issa saluted him. “I left you asleep, didn't I?”
“I thought you did all the night as you were so tired." I said to him.
“Moh is a wolf; half-asleep and half-awake,” said Ami Issa.
“The others are still lying dead," said Moh.
“What?” I screamed, “You said dead? Goodness, I was certain they would be killed."
“What are you saying, Doctor?" asked Moh. “Are you,”
“How did you escape?" I interrupted him.
“Hey, wait,” he stopped me bursting in a long laughter. “What are you talking about? Nobody was murdered, my dear.”
“You said dead, didn't you?”
“I did, but meant that I left them asleep like dead corpses.” Moh’s jaw fell open, and burst into a deep loud laughter, talking to Ami Issa between his foolish guffaws.
“As if you have never laughed before,” I wondered what I had done wrong that they should laugh at me so much. I therefore kept it all to myself, although I knew from the start that I had said something strange. How could something that makes laugh so much be anything other than absurd? A strange feeling of confusedness descended on my mind as long as the stress boiling in my brain subsided to a gentle simmer, then disappearing altogether. I tried to catch up with them as they went ahead, wondering what they were talking about together in whispers.
Nothing disturbed the darkness and silence that surrounded us from all sides, no one knew what the next few hours might hold for us, perhaps death, perhaps nothing, and Allah alone knew the fate in store for each one of us. I could only perceive our shadows, moving like extenuated ghosts, and still attempting to reach the bus as quickly as possible. Ami Issa could hardly breathe, and had difficulties to follow us.
"Hurry up!" Ami Issa shouted from behind us. “Surely a storm is at hand. We should be at the bus in a few minutes.”
“There’s no sign to a coming storm, Ami Issa.” I said.
“Don’t argue,” he said. “I’m almost sure.”
I swung from wonder and awe to sentimentality and nostalgia as I stood watching a scene of a very strange battle; waves of grey clouds veiled the dark sky, and overran the field of shining stars, causing them to vanish one by one, and when they vowed to renounce their right for survival, the sky had already hued to a dull silver-grey, and then the first drops of rain began falling. Darkness became so intense that it was only by feeling my way among trees that I could manage to move along. The rain turned heavy, and then within a few minutes it became torrential so that I found myself soaked to the skin and shivering with an unusual April cold. I was aware of a strange sensation above my head, having that horrible and vulnerable feeling one got when a lightning strike was imminent.
“Come on, Doctor!” called me Ami Issa. “Hurry up, or we’ll be here all night!”
“I’ll be joining you.”
“No, not now!” shouted Moh. “Go down the footbridge.”
Hardly had I heard Moh warning me when I ran down to lower ground to make myself a more difficult target. A bright flash of light suddenly shot across the hail curtains, turning it into an ocean of fire. Raindrops kept falling on my whole body so that I felt a real concoction of emotions boiling within my cursed head. With each step, I felt more and more exhausted, for I was alone in a place where none should be alone. My heart raced as if it was the first time I had been under such a rain.
"Give me your hand," Moh called me. “Give it to me, Doctor.”
“Where are you, Moh?” I yelled. “I can’t see you.”
“Just give it to me,” he said, grabbing me by the arm.
By the time we got into the bus, I was cold, bothered, wet, and frazzled, but all that mattered nought when I looked around and realised we were about to be part of a divine marvel. I feasted my eyes on that spectacle until the lightning struck a very high tree, and travelled just underneath its bark. The explosive expansion of the lightning return stroke blasted off some of the wood, along the length of the lightning channel, and suddenly blew the trunk apart like a stick of dynamite, sending large branches flying, splitting the trunk in two, and reducing large parts of the tree to splinters.
My heart leapt up as I beheld a visible flame sparking from the tree branches. That incident sparked a big fire as well as a very warm conversation within the clan. Everyone gave his own interpretation to the lightning as if trying to shake off their fear and doubt if there were any.
“The night turned into day!" exclaimed the youngest.
“It is an exciting,” said Ami Issa, “and a spectacular show, isn't it?”
“You're absolutely right, Ami Issa,” said another. “It reminds me of fireworks I watched in Paris some years ago.”
“You’ve been in Paris?” asked Ami Issa as he scrutinized the youth, as if trying to recognize him, but vainly did.
“Yes, we went regularly to France during summers,” answered the youth.
“Look there!” shouted Moh.
“The sky's full of sparks,” I commented. “That's wonderful! Allah is beautiful, and loves beauty.”
“For that reason he created on us this sense of beauty,” remembered Ami Issa.
"Can you see Allah's miracles?" asked Moh. “After we've heard and watched his discontentedness, he is offering us this wonderful show to convey us his unlimited gratification and needed indulgence.”
“Right,” agreed Ami Issa. “Allah is permissive but only when he desires it.”
While listening to Moh, I remained dumbfounded not only that there might be youths who thought, and used language like he did, but that Moh spoke to the brain as well as to the heart. He knew what he was talking about, and because of this understanding, he was able to focus on the key points and avoid all the irrelevancies. He had been guided to this by a superb teacher; life. Most importantly, there was a powerful energy behind his words. I would not call it anything mystical, just a confidence and clarity born of knowing, despite of his 21 years of age.
“Hey! My friend, get up,” Moh told me. “The spectacle is over. The rain has quenched the flames and snuffed out the candles that was lighting the darkness of this night.”
“Unfortunately,” I said.
“You want the truth, Doctor?” said Moh. “Actually it has snuffed out all the warmth, all the excitement, and all the intensity brought about with the fire.”
"You're so affectionate Moh. You are so romantic that you superbly manage to turn a simple image of fire into a magnificent painting. You're able to turn common words into poetry.”
“Don’t exaggerate, my friend.”
“You know Moh? I would be so luckier and so prouder if you were my friend.”
“But we already are,” he answered, trying to reassure me. “I would be myself honoured if you became my friend. You're a future doctor, yet I'm nothing. I'm just a young man who lacks requisite qualities or resources to meet any task. Don't think I'm diffident or pessimistic. It's just my truth.”
“Don’t say this, Moh,” I told him, trying to make him feel rather confident. “Keep confident all the time because you deserve a better life.”
“Confidence and certainty come from knowledge and reason,” Ami Issa interrupted as usual to give us some of his wisdom.
“But knowledge has nothing to do with me,” replied Moh, looking a little bit frustrated. “Then, I have not acquired the needed level that could make me an intellectual man. The reason my friend comes as an immediate result of the acquired knowledge.”
“Sometimes you may find people with a good reason even they have never been in school,” I said, trying to dissuade him.
“But they manifestly lack depth, and I belong to this community," said Moh, feeling more and more disappointingly foiled. We could read nothing upon Moh’s face but frustration, or even the determination I got accustomed to see in his eyes.
"So, allow me to tell you that you're reasoning better than many students I met in the university.” I tried really hard to dissuade him, but it didn't work. All my former concepts and acquired knowledge were utterly useless to make him change his mind.
“Believe me, my brave son! You have a good reason;” Ami Issa interrupted us again.
"By the way, what were you studying in the university?” Moh wanted to shift to another subject. “You must be a doctor, mustn’t you?”
All the thwarting and all the vexation he had just experienced vanished as a ship did over the horizon. Therefore, I paid no attention to Moh’s inexplicable and sudden vagary, and chose to go on our chat by merely looking at him.
"Yes I'm a doctor in medicine.”
"Great, you are a doctor like my deceased brother,” he said in an afflicted voice, giving an impression of being a little bit secretive. “My poor brother! Was he wrong?" he moaned. “Were they right when killed him? Were they forced to slaughter an innocent youth? If he were their enemy, they would have at least fired him.”
"Why then did they slaughter him?” I wondered. “At least there were numerous ways to murder him.”
"You see how cruel they have been,” he sighed. “Fierce like animals. Violence and treason were their creed. He had many hopes. He was expecting a promising future, but they put an end to his great expectations.”
"They must have committed a barbarous crime,” I said.
"You know, Doctor?” he resumed. “They were able to let him leave. They could tell to their Emir that they had found nobody. I'll avenge his murder one day and make them regret all the cruelty and the brutality with which they behave.”
"Stop, Please. Your eyes are getting too red and totally tearing." I told him, while he was still looking at the sky trying to get glimpse of his deceased brother through the beautifully gleaming starlets.
"Yes, you're absolutely right. Words are not able to express my suffering," said Moh as Ami Issa opened the radio to hear what no one of us dared to imagine.
“In another attack, security forces said that the rebels slit the throats Wednesday of seven civilians and wounded five others in southwest Algeria. This was the latest in a long line of atrocities during nearly seven years of struggle between government troops and the rebels!” interrupted the reader news voice.
“Animals! Barbarians!” Ami Issa shouted, starting to hit the dashboard of his bus.
“You see, Doctor?” Moh said “They kill anybody they encounter!”
“Try to forget, Moh,” I said, trying to shift the discussion from a gloomy atmosphere to a friendly one.
“Forget what?” Ami Issa intervened as usual to comment on what we wrongly said, “It’s high time we acted. They’ve been performing intolerable murders,”
“Look at the moon, Moh,” I told him, ignoring Ami Issa’s blubbering.
It was a marvellous painting in the middle of the sky. The moon was like a beautiful bride surrounded by the shining stars which were accompanying her like a princess.
"What do you think Moh? Isn’t it wonderful?" I asked him, trying hard to make him forget about the grief he had suddenly felt.
"Yes it is. It is even paradisiacal. These marvels are Allah’s oeuvre," he said. "But how could it happen, Doctor?”
"It is so easy and amazing at once," I answered, noticing that his eyes were gleaming like two big ripe round black grapes. "First, it is a lunar phase that occurs when the Moon is on the opposite side of the Earth from the Sun. At this time, as seen by viewers on Earth, the hemisphere of the Moon that is facing the earth is fully illuminated by the Sun and appears round. Full Moons are traditionally associated with temporal insomnia, insanity, hence the terms lunacy and lunatic, and various "magical phenomena such as lycanthropy." I explained while Moh was following as a little pupil listening to his teacher. However, I thought he was doing so as to showing respect to someone older than him.
"Am I disturbing you?"
"At all! I really enjoyed what you were saying about the full moon. All what I know it is its beautiful shape and the sweet impression I can get from admiring its lustre.”
“I admit you’re a poet.”
“You have got the command of a wide range of knowledge.”
“Don’t exaggerate, Moh.”
“Medical studies are very difficult and I think you could scarcely afford enough time to other disciplines."
"Being difficult doesn't mean neglecting other fields; Medicine requires having idea about everything.”
We went on into a long debate in which I had been the speaker and Moh the listener; Ami Issa was listening to one of ‘Oum kaltoum’ songs in the radio while the others were sleeping like logs.
“Sleep, Doctor,” suggested Moh.
“I’m not going to sleep, let’s talk about you.”
It had been yet another eventful day, but as the others quickly fell asleep, I struggled to get comfortable. But gradually I reached the stage in between asleep and awake. As for Moh, he seemed to have an abnormal fear of sleep. “Don’t mind, Doctor. I feel dead when going to bed.” he said, trying to keep me awaken during night, and so we went on talking for hours as if we wanted to tell everything about each other. Aiming to convey me all his thoughts, Moh was talking with every part of his body even with his eyebrows. “I have strong feelings about what is happening in Algeria.” he said, but in a calm and unemotional way.
“What do you think of IAS rebels?”
“What do you think of IAS rebels?”
“Listen, Doctor! They are all the same.”
“Alright! I do understand.”
“That’s not because of my brother’s murder.”
“What do you mean?”
“Simply, there’s no reason to war,” he said in sad voice. “We’re brothers of the same nation, the same religion and the same language.”
The next morning, there was still a note of tension in the air. Moh was still talking about terrorists, and Ami Issa shaking over a spider that had tried to walk into his mouth. With the first light of dawn, the rain ceased to fall, and the clouds dispersed. We had been travelling all night so that Ami Issa suggested we should rest. The other youths thought they had probably been sleeping for little time.
“No need to hurry,” said Ami Issa. “We’ve got plenty of time. It’s still early.”
“We may go to the village, Ami Issa,” demanded Moh. “I need to buy something from there. The village of Grarrem would be over there.”
“People are warned against getting into that village.”
“Why is that, Ami Issa?” asked one of the youths, and then started laughing unreasonably. “There may be some dragons.”
“Stop laughing child!"
"Why? I was just kidding."
"Many terrorist attacks have occurred during the few last weeks.”
“What! Terrorists!” the youth shouted. “I knew before we were not going to live anymore”
We all stared searchingly at Ami Issa, and started whispering to one another, but still loud enough for Ami Issa to hear.
“Very well, my sons,” he said. “We should have already gone. We have to leave before any villager gets up and sees us here.”
We had been listening to him as obedient sons, without uttering the littlest word till a bearded old man, with a brown burnoose,( a hooded cloak worn especially by Arabs and Berbers) and a white cheche, (a garment worn by the Touareg people over their heads and necks to protect themselves from the wind) came hurryingly to the bus.
"You must be mad to come here!” exclaimed the old man.
"But I don't want to go among mad people,” remarked Ami Issa in a joking way.
"Why did you say this?" Moh asked.
"Because it's the first time I have seen beardless men in this village since years.”
"Stop father! They are still young,” Ami Issa laughed. “Perhaps you're talking about me because I'm older than you.”
“I'm not joking man!” he cried out getting increasingly nervous. “I'm really serious.”
“How?" asked Amis Issa. “Is it a must to be a bearded man?”
“Two men have been publicly slaughtered last week because they were beardless, and you're joking!" the old man retorted as his face turned red and his eyes were about to get out from his head.
“That’s Ok, father. We have to leave before they appear,” Moh politely replied, trying to appear rather wise.
“Were they killed only because they were beardless?” I asked him.
“Of course, I'm sure. They said it themselves.” answered the old man while Ami Issa was exhorting us to hold our seats.
“Quick! Quick!" Ami Issa shouted, "I beg you to climb into the bus if not I'll leave you here!”
No sooner did Ami Issa finish his warning than we all were on the bus, except the old man, who kept bewildered at the sight of people being scared to death. Everybody began brooding over Ami Issa's troubling warning. Moh sat tight, maintaining the same position as if nothing had been said.
“In case of any terrorists' shots, please lower your heads as much as you can.” Ami Issa told us.
We were then able to see people rushing into their homes in an attempt to save their lives, others, in their hast to leave safely, forgot their possessions on the ground. There was a hint for a massacre to befall eventually. losing his usual control, Ami Issa accelerated his bus, and drove into a slip road introducing small woods; a dense growth of underbrush covering a relatively confined area.
“Don’t worry, Moh!” answered Amis Issa. “We must hide till the terrorists move out of the village,”
“But the road leads to nowhere!”
Avoiding any hazardous situation, Ami Issa intended to go on his plan to insure our safety.
"Why?" asked Moh while we were full of trepidation about a massacre that was never likely to happen.
"I've never seen terrorists before. I tremble at a very thought of them," one of the youth said. "As I have heard, they never let you say one word…they slaughter or shoot anyone they meet."
"Be a real man! Don't be afraid we are all with you.”
“I’m with nobody,” replied the youth. “I’m sure if they come, everyone will be thinking of himself.”
“Yes, you're absolutely right,” the others agreed.
“We must unite, we have to be one," said Moh.
"You think we can do?"
“Stop talking, you bunch of idiots!” yelled Ami Issa. “You want to be killed, don’t you?”
“But we’re going to die, no doubt!” The talkative youth replied again, in a hysteric way.
“Calm down, son! We’ll be easily noticed if we go on telling about our fears,” said Ami Issa, continuing his adventurous intrusion into the woods. “We’re going to stay here, till the GSPC fighters leave.”
Unable to say a word, I remained fixed to my seat, so that no one noticed me as I tried to hide my panic and tension. The word GSPC might mean numerous things, but there was one and only one image that fitted that abbreviation. An image of fright and fear, of killing and murder, of inhumanity and cruelty, an entity I feared.
"So it begins," said Ami Issa, who was supposed to know about skirmishes.
"Tell us Ami Issa. What is a skirmish like? And is it like an ambush?" one of the youths asked softly.
"A real skirmish is a minor battle in war, as one between small forces or between large forces avoiding direct conflict. But in our country it's not the case of war. It's a somehow guerrilla or as it is called; bands war,” explained Ami Issa.
“Could you make it easier?” the youth asked again.
“Stop asking,” Moh intervened as I moved closer to the youth.
“Listen! Terrorists, who are said to be small group or at least the weaker, clash indirectly with the ALN army by means of several ways; among these the ambush. The confrontation would be harder for them," I explained to him with an easier way.
“Perfect! Now I do understand,” said the youth, and then turned to Moh. “Since you're not kneeling, tell us what you see?"
“I see nothing but fire.”
Ami Issa, by his finger, signed him to kneel, but Moh proved rather stubborn, arguing that the skirmish was further. He wanted to watch the whole fight, but nothing came into his sight.
“I wish I was there,” said Moh in a fierce voice.
A few minutes later, an adult passed running straight into the bus. The man with a shaggy long beard was sweating and breathing heavily. He could not have been looking where he was going. He was fleeing death. Moh jumped out by the window, and tried to stop him. He was running too speedily like a djinn, so that Moh was about to be carried out by him. Moh finally succeeded to stop him, and then started asking him many questions about what he had seen in the Village of Death, and after having been hesitating for a while, he began narrating the whole scene. I found myself wanting to discover the evidence. I was also impatient to find a 'good' story; a mass atrocity.
“Tell us what’s happening in your village,” asked Ami Issa.
“A violent skirmish's been opposing elements from the security services and a group of terrorists,” said the man.