Monday, February 16, 2009

When there's nothing you can do...

I began the hostile environment training at Centurion Risk Assessment Services today (for journalists and aid workers who are working in war zones). During the morning we covered basic first aid, and were given an outline of what the week would entail. It seemed pretty straight forward. I didn't understand what all the fuss was about (These courses have a really great reputation and cost somewhere around $3,000 for one week). One of the other students told me he had heard the practical work was very realistic, but I didn't think much of it.

After lunch, we were told we were going to take a tour of the campgrounds in which the course was taking place. The 10 of us students loaded into a van and were off. When we reached a gate about 10 minutes into the woods, the driver stopped until they opened the doors.

All of a sudden, gunfire broke out to the left of the van and men wearing black masks over their faces ran towards the van, pointing guns at us and screaming at us to get out. We all knew it was part of the training, but it was, as I had been warned, extreamely real. In fact, it was the realest simulation I have ever participated in.

They started pulling people out of the van and throwing them onto the pavement. I was further back in the van and had a bit more time to think. But I had no idea what to do. I considered hiding in the van, but figured they would find me and only beat me harder for disobeying. They grabbed me and knocked me down onto the pavement. "Heads down!" they screamed, as they covered our faces with black hoods, all of us lying face down on the ground.

Then they forced us up onto our feet, and marched us about 5 minutes away. I couldn't see a thing and was guided only by the person in front of me. I had a hard time keeping up with them because I was being pulled from behind by the next person in line. When eventually we stopped, they forced us all to kneel. The ground was wet and I could feel the mud through my jeans. Then one by one, we were pushed up against a cement wall, our hands up against it. They came by each one of us and searched our whole bodies for any valuables. They stole my ring and watch - that's all I had with me of any value. Then they got in the car and drove away.

I didn't know what to do or if they were truly gone, so I didn't move. I stayed there, with my palms against the cement wall, my breathing getting heavier and the black hood seemingly closing in on me more and more with every breath. Everyone was quiet. I wondered what the others were thinking, and what to do next. I tried to inch my hand over to see if I could reach the person next to me, but was scared to move it too far or too quickly.

Then I heard one of the others try to move - and immediately a gunshot. As I suspected, our captors hadn't yet left - at least not all of them. I tried to listen intently for any indicators of what was going on. I thought about what to do, what my options were. I couldn't think of anything. I couldn't see. I could barely breathe. I didn't know where I was or who was with me. And I didn't know how the captors would react to any movement. I knew it was all fake, but I kept thinking to myself, "if this was real right now, what would I do?" And my mind was blank. I thought of calling out to the captors - asking what they wanted. But I feared that too would result in death. So I just kept quiet and still.

It's crazy how quickly and easily we can be made to feel like little nothings. And it's crazy what the power of guns can do to people.

Slowly, the area around me got quieter and quieter. I heard people being taken away and by the end it seemed that I was all alone there. Then someone grabbed me from behind and led me along through the mud. A few minutes later, he forced me back onto my knees, pushed my head down and removed the hood. All the other participants - already free - were standing there waiting and smiling.

Back in the classroom, we debriefed. I had so many questions. What is someone supposed to do in that situation? Is it a good idea to comply, or should you try to escape? Should you communicate or stay silent?

We went through the whole scenario of abduction, from the surveillance you undergo before it happens all the way to the rescue, if there is one. We talked about the mental challenges of being in captivity and about the ways to avoid being abducted in the first place.

In the end, we were told the best opportunity for escape is in the first few moments of the capture, when there is confusion and lots going on. It's in those first few moments, when you do not yet realize what is happening, that you have to be most prepared and alert. Once you're hooded and tied, your chances of escape are slim to none. The instructors told us to co-operative completely. You should never give up and always pay attention to what is happening and opportunities to escape, but never give them any reason to be angry with you.

I have begun getting used to being completely at someone else's mercy. It's a weird feeling. You fight with yourself. At times you feel weak for complying so completely to their orders. At others you fear the slightest resistance could get you killed.

Of course, there is no right and wrong in these situations. Once you're in this position, there's not much you can do but try to stay calm. I think that's the most this type of training can do for you - it prepares you mentally for the possibility of this happening, so that if it does, the shock is smaller and your reaction better. That might be the only thing that keeps you alive...

The wonders of Bloomberg

Last month, I had been given a grant by the Rory Peck Trust to take a training course on being a journalist in hostile environments. These are very expensive, week-long courses offered to journalists and aid workers who work in war zones. Back then, given my work in Sudan, I thought it was high time I did such a course. The training was in London, England, and this grant - given to freelancers who can't afford the training themselves - covered most of the cost. So I signed up for it, only to have to leave Sudan a few weeks later. Still, I thought it would be a worthwhile thing to do because who knows where I will end up. So here I am in London! And I came a few days early in order to discover the city, meet some friends and take care of some business.

One of my first stops was the Bloomberg office, to meet some editors and get registered in the Bloomberg system (There is no office in Sudan, and so, until I got to the small Cairo office, I had never met anyone that I worked with).

All I can say is WOW. The biggest newsroom in Canada doesn't even come close. I have never seen anything like this. When you walk in, it almost feels like a bar, it's so dimly-lit. Security guards wearing ear pieces and suits guard the front escalators. A woman sitting in front of a digital screen checks your identity. Once you get past the woman and the guards, you ride the escalators - lined with neon blue lights - up to the reception. They take a picture of you, print it on the spot, and make you a badge. To the left is a massive snack bar with all-you-can-eat chips, fruit, drinks and other treats for the employees. Red couches along the side make the place feel like a cool evening lounge. Then through a hallway into the newsroom area are three floors of journalists, all visible through the transparent glass walls, ceiling to floor. At each desk (ie. for one person) are between 2 and 4 computer screens. Each desk is also lined with a "Bloomberg" notepad, "Bloomberg" pencil and tons of coffee-stained paper "Bloomberg" cups. They have an incredible system of financial analysis - stats, graphs, calculators, analyst recommendations, contact numbers - all right there in the system. Financial reporters can just punch in whatever commodity or company they are looking at, and up comes a whole series of analysis and numbers - gold prices went up because of this, gas prices are 40% lower than yesterday, etc. etc. It's truly madness. It had been a long time since I was in any news room at all, and this one just blew my mind...

And more ...

It's been a bit weird being on this side of the fence...

Sudan expels reporter over Darfur, arms: US

Journalist told to leave Sudan
(Public Radio International)

Canadian journalist recounts days leading to expulsion from Sudan

"They asked me why I was asking about arms. Then they said they wantd me to leave the country"
(Reporters Without Borders)

Sunday, February 8, 2009

Goodbye Sudan

By now most of you have heard the news.
I was kicked out of Sudan. National Security called me in for a meeting and told me I had two days to leave. They said it was because I was asking questions about the arms industry. Who knows what the real reason was. I am now in Cairo with family deciding what to do next.

Here are some articles about my expulsion:

From AFP

From the Christian Science Monitor