Weirdly, I see variations of this scene every couple of years. It’s not a recurring nightmare but a “hostile environment course”. These two-day residential retreats are run by former soldiers. The customers are people whose jobs take them to nasty places, mainly aid workers and journalists.
Thanks to make-up and prosthetics, the injuries look fairly realistic. Covid-19 meant no mouth-to-mouth resuscitation practise, but even though the “victims” wore masks, there was still some highly plausible wailing and screaming. The course is designed to test, not just first-aid skills, but the ability to triage an incident under pressure.
This must be the tenth course I’ve attended. They seemed to catch on after the September 11th attacks. Or, more specifically, they were a necessary response to some of the gung-ho journalism which followed 9/11. The risks we took in late 2001 would never get past the hazard-assessors now. This was before media outlets routinely hired ex-special forces soldiers to act as bodyguards and advisers. In northern Afghanistan for instance, just after Kabul was liberated from the Taliban, a colleague bought a handgun from the black market. It wasn’t bravado. We needed the protection.
In the town of Taloqan, which had become our operating base, media crews rented out mud-walled “villas” from the locals. Through a local interpreter it was possible to hire AK-47-wielding guards, of dubious loyalty and proficiency. But, in reality, we were sitting targets for desperate men who knew we had sat-phones and dollars.
The organisers of the hostile environment course I went to last week rightly stress the danger posed by car accidents in countries where the roads are more pot-hole than surface.
In a neighbouring villa gunmen forced their way into a villa occupied by three Swedish journalists and their translator. A cameraman, Ulf Stromberg, refused to open his bedroom door. It was riddled with bullets. Ulf became the eighth western journalist to die in Afghanistan in the space of a couple of months.
A year later and things had changed. I went on a week-long residential course near Porton Down in the build up to the invasion of Iraq. We learned how to decontaminate ourselves in the event of a nuclear, biological or chemical (NBC) attack by Saddam’s forces. Latterly we learned he didn’t have weapons of mass destruction. But at the time? I spent a very uncomfortable birthday – March 28, 2003 – wearing an ill-fitting gas-mask when the sirens sounded after a nearby air-strike on a suspected NBC cache.
In spite of our training, four journalist colleagues embedded, like me, with the American Third Infantry Division, didn’t make it to Baghdad. One died of a heart attack. Two were blown up in a missile strike and a fourth drowned after his humvee veered into an irrigation ditch.
There limits to what people can be taught to expect. The organisers of these courses give it their best shot.
The organisers of the hostile environment course I went to last week rightly stress the danger posed by car accidents in countries where the roads are more pot-hole than surface. But, again, looking back on the US Army’s dash to from Kuwait to Baghdad (the quickest armoured advance in military history), no lessons – no matter how good – can predict the reality.
My cameraman, producer and I took it in turns to steer our humvee through the desert. We drove hour after hour. At night-time we did so using night-vision goggles, which make everything look depthless and 2D. If we’d become separated from the convoy of tanks and other vehicles I don’t know what would’ve become of us. It was exhausting and at one stage our humvee had to be towed back onto the ‘road’. We later abandoned it completely on the banks of the River Euphrates.
My point, I suppose, is that there limits to what people can be taught to expect. The organisers of these courses give it their best shot. The medical training is useful, although I’m perplexed by the changing fashions of first-aid. Tourniquets are in, then they’re out. The kiss-of-life is an important part of CPR, then it’s not. But the other stuff? For a while, when Iraq was going through its bloody agonies of kidnappings and beheadings, our hostile environment “refresher” courses included mock abductions. Attendees knew what was coming, but it was still a shock when men in balaclavas put a sack over your head and indulged in a little light rough-housing. A cameraman friend on one such course, being both well-built and cussed, entered too fully into the spirit of the exercise. When a man in a balaclava and fatigues approached with a gun, he punched him in the face and bolted.
Colin Brazier is the author of Sticking Up For Siblings: Who’s Deciding the Size of Britain’s Families? (Civitas)
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