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...


Kamal Shaath said...

WOW .. it is amazing what weapons can do to people... it can creat fear and panic in no time... and it could make those weak helpless people..... into monsters..

This is a very interesting training course... what else did you go through during this week?

Take Care and Stay Safe :))

Umm Fatima said...

I think this course is extremely beneficial - especially if you are planning on returning to a troubled spot, God willing.

Sometimes, we don't know why things happened, but then you look back - and somehow it all makes sense.


Camille said...

i am so glad you did this course. it reassures me to no end knowing you have a bit more training and experience should you end up in a sticky situation.

stay safe sugar plum. xoxo

Camille said...
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