26/04/2010 Three days of war
How do you call someone with a gun? SIR. End every sentence and question with a humble: PLEASE. This short but clear advice was provided on the first day of the three day Safety and Security course. And I used and reused it a lot during this security training which I attended with my three colleagues who also travel to the Middle East regularly.
The location of the training was a former monastery in the middle of the woods nearby Utrecht, the Netherlands. The first day was filled with all kinds of introductions. We prepared a case; the fictional country Bekuran showed many similarities with the former and current situation in Angola) and the training module ‘Remote Medics’ included recovery position, types of bleeding amongst others how to make a tourniquet in case of an arterial bleeding.
The second day we started with ‘Dealing with aggression’. Distinguish three main sources of aggression: frustration, instrumental and psychological. The theory and the cases the trainer described all seemed quite logical and natural. Much of it comes down to: use your common sense. I can assure you it was different from the moment we had to stand in line and were forbidden to talk or to have eye contact. Somebody approached me from behind. Slowly he came very near and chewed gum close to my ear on the left. He observes me silently. Then he moved to my right side and started whispering humiliating remarks in the my ear. Sure, I know the b-word is a ordinary term these days though I am from a different generation and never ever anybody has called me bitch before.
We promised not to give away too many details. This can take away the effect for others who might want to attend the training. Surely surprise is an important aspect of the whole course. But this I can tell; the whole group will be kidnapped at a certain moment. Especially the blindfolding is really frustrating and completely disorientating. By now I was used to the b-word though not yet prepared for the individual treatment the women can expect (‘I will take this special woman to a special place’). Some of us – and yes, the masked kidnappers again choose me – were taken away for an interrogation. I focused on the impressive tattoos of both arms of the gang leader in an attempt to ignore the bright spotlight and the two guns pointing at me. Calm down, keep on breathing and keep in the back of your head: this is a game. These creeps are damn good actors with whom we will drink a beer in another hour. ‘Who you are, what are you doing in my country, you work for the US. Yes, you are a spy!’ Afterwards at the bar I did ask him if the tattoos were real and told him I focused on these as way to reduce the tension. In the old days only hookers and sailors had tattoos. Now every school teacher and pen-pusher has at least one tattoo. In daily life tattoos are impertinent visual details. They divert attention from something that is most of the times already nothing. Therefore – if you are not being questioned – tattoos have to be ignored as much as possible. Yes, he smiled, they are real.
The third and last day every topic (medics, arms, aggression and intimidation) is practised in war situations on the land surrounding the monastery. Startled passers-by with their dog and joggers were informed it all concerned just exercises. This was very necessary because it all – including shouting, bloody wounds and road blocks – looked pretty realistic.
In essence it comes down to breathing and standing in a balanced and relaxed way. Practice on self control; assess the situation before acting. Even if the situation literally is screaming for action; take your time to assess and develop a short term strategy.
Equally important is the awareness of the organization that sends its people to high risk regions. There should be some kind of a field security plan; it does not have to be too extensive or detailed. This will include a risk assessment, a standard operating procedure and incident reporting. For instance; does somebody know how to act in case of emergency 24/7; especially if colleagues are visiting Iraq? I think this is just as essential as training people. The organization will have to take its responsibility and develop and carry out at least some basic security standards. If not; people can be trained until Christmas and Eastern are celebrated on the same day and still the effectiveness will be limited.