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A Little Bomb Story

When I said I was going to Colombia many asked, 'But isn't it dangerous?'

It didn't feel dangerous - fewer police officers in the capital than in the previous country I had visited, for example - but the mood changed in the south as we drove from the mysterious necropolis collection at Tierradentro towards one of the reasons for my visit, the country's most important pre-Columbian archaeological site, San Agustin. On the roads there were more soldiers, even sandbagged sentry points protecting a bridge or two… or three. Checkpoints everywhere. Normally they let us pass without question but once we were told to open the door of our minibus: a soldier entered, said hello, said that his job was to protect us, said welcome to Colombia, and then said goodbye. He could not have been over 21. He smiled a lot.

Our driver was obviously not in the least nervous and so neither were we. He was, however, perhaps not omniscient as, further down the mountain road, he misunderstood a camouflage-wearing soldier's hand-signals and passed a line of parked vehicles without stopping. We did not get far: around the sharp curve of the mountain road we came to cautionary yellow tape stretched across the route, serious men in bulky, angular black uniforms in discussion and another soldier waving us back. Shamefaced our driver reversed, to the bleating horns of the waiting vehicles, and we parked at the end of a line that seemed definitely to have doubled in length since we first passed it.

What was going on? Someone had called in a bomb threat and the bomb squad was in action. We, and the perhaps 150 others on this luckily quiet road, were however condemned to inaction. We waited. A trucker slept on the road under his cargo. His belly marked the seconds.

Two motorcyclist fish vendors, their goods mounted in Styrofoam boxes on the bikes’ paniers, arrived, failed also to cross the yellow tape and took advantage of our immobility to try to interest the hungry or the bored. Then they left.

We waited. I found that someone had hung a shirt from a branch by the side of the road and weighted it down with a partially full beer-can. Full of what I did not know but it attracted wasps so there must have been something in it. Or they were as bored as we were. I amused myself by speculating that the shirt had been a signal from the guerrillas. That entertained me for a minute and a half.

So I stood, walked and waited. No signal that anything was happening.

Then someone saw a soldier tidying up the yellow tape, rolling it together. Was this a signal?

Nothing happened.

We waited. The trucker's belly maintained its rhythm.

Then the bomb went off.

A crack, a pressure wave and then silence again.

The bomb squad had detonated it and our wait was over.

The trucker, who had been looking increasingly comfortable, rose to his feet, entered his cab and drove off.

And so did we.