Our reporters get a hostile lesson in covering war

THE sudden rip of gunfire punctures the calm of the rolling countryside.

Confusing shouts follow. Armed men in fatigues, their faces covered with black ski masks, surround our jeep. They yank open the door, haul me out at gunpoint, and throw me to my knees.

"Keep your head down," one gunman yells, pushing my face toward the grass.

There is no time to protest. A gun is cocked against the nape of my neck. A man shouts into my ear: "Shut the [expletive] up!"

This is a game, I try to remember. This is only a game.

As one of three Monitor correspondents who regularly work in Afghanistan, I'm taking war-zone survival training. The five-day course run by Centurion Risk Assessments at a bucolic English country estate, puts us through our paces with the help of former British Royal Marines.

The glamorous mythology of the war correspondent's derring-do in far-flung places is embodied by the words of a young Winston Churchill when he wrote that "nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result."

But there's nothing glamorous about this country drive turned hostage-taking as a canvas bag is dragged over my head and its drawstring pulled uncomfortably tight. We are marched away in a human chain, for what might be a few minutes. But sightless and directionless, two minutes feel like 20. I feel a new set of hands on my shoulders, which throw me to the ground. My hands break the fall, but they are kicked away until I'm flat on my stomach.

Soon the searching begins. Hands are exploring my arms and pockets, plucking off my watch, searching for other bits of jewelry. I am flipped over on my back for another search. Back on my stomach, they splay me out like a starfish. (Later, all five women in our class of 21 acknowledged the fear at this point that they might be raped.)

There is silence, except for the occasional crackle of an AK-47. I smell grass through the tiny holes in my hood. Long strands of hair are stuck in my face and mouth. My mind raced to Daniel Pearl and eight colleagues killed in Afghanistan. My family thousands of miles away. The fear that I could end up here, in some far-off land. Did I say I wanted this job?

Ten minutes or maybe 15 go by, but it feels like hours. I'm finding it increasingly difficult to breathe in my tight hood, and am convinced that I will soon pass out. I try to loosen the hood. A hand bangs me on the crown of my head, hard enough to sting for a while, unexpected enough make me wonder how far this game will go.

My breathing is getting choppy, my head is going fuzzy, and, on the verge of tears, I realize that even in a real situation, I wouldn't be beyond begging for mercy – or just a little more air.

"Please just loosen the strings a little. I really can't breathe," I plead, making the forbidden climb onto my knees. Someone yanks me up and drags me a few paces toward the woods. Is this it? I wondered. But the hood is taken off, and a mix of relief and fresh air flutters through my body.

I watch the faces of the captives as they are unhooded in the sunlight, looking pale and squinting. The last one is a slight man, dragged in backward by two men and then turned around to the crowd. They have placed a crudely drawn Mickey Mouse mask on top of his hood – he had tried to escape twice.

They whip off the hood to reveal Suleiman al-Khalidi, a Palestinian-Jordanian reporter based in Amman, Jordan, with Reuters news agency. In real life, Mr. al-Khalidi was taken prisoner in Kuwait during the Gulf War and held for a month, most of it blindfolded. "I wasn't thinking clearly. I thought they weren't looking, so I tried to run away," al-Khalidi says a few days later, over a civilized dessert in the dining room. "Even though you know it is a game, there is a certain bullying factor that plays a role," he says. He was struck by the way we, as prisoners, all fell into line so complacently, limp and timid.

That, of course, was the point. As we discussed our behavior later in the classroom, the instructors told us that it is often the captive who resists most or stands out as the troublemaker who will be the first to "get it." "Be the gray man," they advised.

And an escapee might doom his colleagues who would have survived, if he had not left them. The theft of pictures of loved ones and jewelry was meant to teach us to leave valuables home. (The hostage-takers threatened to cut off Scott Peterson's finger if he didn't turn over his wedding band; family photos could be "weapons" against you in your "climb up the morale ladder.")

We dissected every angle, looking at the clues we picked up from the "terrorists." The fact that they hid their faces suggested that they didn't want us to be able to recognize them later.

"Ah, so there's going to be a 'later,' " cooed the instructor. Or so we all want to believe.

'We'll be shooting at you today'

After almost a week of ambushes, we were getting good at hitting the deck.

We were in a leafy English forest, learning to identify war-time threats. Then the shots rang out – powerful blasts from an AK-47 assault rifle. Another assault rifle responded behind us. We were caught in a cross-fire.

"What are you doing, people?" shouted instructor Jan, as 10 dust-covered reporters remained belly-down on the trail, in full view of the attackers. Remembering a previous lesson, and using muscles untested since boyhood, I crawled off the trail and straight into a patch of stinging nettles, searching for lower ground.

Of course, we all knew this ambush was coming. That very morning, our instructors informed us, cheerfully: "We'll be shooting at you today." But still, the question had ricocheted around my head: What exactly was I doing in these woods, ducking imaginary bullets and mortar rounds? More important, why was I in this supposedly glamorous but suddenly dangerous business of journalism? The answers were as comforting as those stinging nettles.

It seemed oddly appropriate to be confronting our worst fears in a lush green rolling landscape straight out of the Teletubbies children's TV program.

It was here that our instructors threw (fake) grenades in our midst and taught us how to duck. (Quick lesson: Grenades explode up and outward in an inverted cone, with shrapnel traveling up to 40 yards. So instead of running, hit the ground with your feet pointing toward the grenade, legs crossed, and hands on your head.)

It was here that we learned how to search cars for makeshift bombs or booby traps. (Terrorists appear to have a fondness for Tupperware containers, in which they put simple timers, 9-volt batteries, and plastic explosives.)

And it was here that we learned how to look for land mines – and how to de-mine an emergency path for ourselves using only a kitchen kebab skewer. In Afghanistan alone, for instance, it will take 15 years to clear just the 30 square kilometers of minefields that aid workers consider their main priority. To clear the rest is estimated to take 4,300 years.

Time and again, our burly band of commandos hammered home the point that our greatest defense against all these hazards was a tool that we reporters use all the time: observation. And our greatest enemy is carelessness.

"What you are looking for are silhouettes, shapes, textures, and colors not found in nature," said our instructor, Jan, marching us along a deeply rutted muddy trail through the woods.

Some of the danger signs on that trail were obvious. A camera perched in the crook of a tree, for instance.

"Should I pick this up?" said one of the observers, also named Jan, reaching for the camera. Some of us mumbled "no," but clearly we should have been more forceful.

BAM! We all hit the ground. In real life, we might have been hurled to the ground, either injured or dead. Jan showed us the booby-trap mechanism inside the camera. The camera had been attached by wire to a set of alligator clips. A small piece of plastic kept the clips apart, but when the camera was pulled, the clips snapped together, forming an electrical connection that ignited a bomb hidden behind the tree stump.

"If you ever lose equipment in the field and you find it several hours later, just leave it behind," advised our instructor. "It only takes two hours to set up a booby trap."

Other signs were more subtle. Twigs on the ground forming an arrow could signal compatriots of a trip-wire or land mine, without tipping off an intended target.

Coming up to a bend in the trail, we noticed a large tape deck perched in the crook of a tree. Off to our left we could see no particular signs of danger, no trip wires, no mortar shells rammed into the soil. Just a long straight path that stretched to the horizon.

It was then that our instructor Jan told us there was a sniper down that long road, and he already had one of us in his crosshairs. Never mind that we couldn't see the sniper – he was wearing a camouflage suit with leaflike flaps that hid the silhouette of his body. The point was that he could see us.

"Sniper, would you wave your hand?" He did, but we still didn't see him. "Sniper, would you move a bit more?" Still no sign. "Sniper, come out of the bush." Suddenly the bush itself moved. This was our sniper.

"There are things that you won't see," said Jan with a sigh, "but still you can cut your risks by not walking down a long open road and making his job easier."

What a relief to be learning this in an English country wood, and not out on the job.

Wear natural fibers: They burn more slowly

Fumbling with the tangle of straps on the back of my gas mask – with eyes closed to simulate the conditions of a liquid nerve-gas attack – I yank the rubber respirator over my head, pray that there are no gaps in the seal, and exhale as forcefully as my strained, half-filled lungs will allow.

"You've got nine seconds to put this on," barks instructor Peter Scotland, one of Britain's top nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) weapons experts. "None of this gear is optional."

And a mountain of military gear there is. Beside the mask and NBC filter, there are rubberized boots, rubber gloves with separate liners, a vacuum-sealed charcoal-lined pullover and trousers, and a host of detection papers and decontamination powders.

Every step is critical to survival, and must be taken in the right order. Even in this English estate barn, I am having trouble getting it together. I try not to imagine how difficult this could be in real life. What if, for instance, Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons in northern Iraq, as he has in the past.

Under those conditions, I would be wearing a cumbersome bullet-proof vest, and would be afraid that this suit – even if put on properly – would immediately turn into an oven. I think about how I traipsed into northern Iraq at the end of the 1991 Gulf War with just a gas mask, old flak jacket, and three pounds of black olives for food – in retrospect, blissfully ignorant of the actual risks.

Of course, not every conflict will involve the danger of nerve agents or mustard gas. So what else did we learn about protecting ourselves in hostile environments?

Nearly half the course was devoted to first-aid techniques for saving colleagues after a mine blast, a bullet hit, or a car accident. We learned how to focus first on breathing, then on "turning off the tap" of a major blood flow. We learned how to evacuate the wounded with makeshift stretchers and back carries, as well as how and when [rarely] to tie tourniquets. Earning the Boy Scout's First Aid merit badge was never like this.

But learning to prevent those scenarios was the top priority. We viewed footage of riots and civil disturbances, and saw how a crowd that welcomes journalists can transform in a second into a dangerous mob.

Hard-rubber shoe soles can defeat burning petrol bombs. Fire-retardant underwear and gloves – as used by race-car drivers – do the same things. Always wear natural fibers, which burn more slowly. Plastic and nylon jackets can melt onto your skin and keep burning. (The mannequin target of the Molotov-cocktail illustrated the lesson).

Always keep your eye on the escape route; use natural barriers such as lampposts and traffic dividers as protection during a police or riot advance.

But what about the more traditional risks of the front line, like flying objects? We were taken to a nearby British military firing range, where a host of barriers had been set up. Our instructors – all well-versed in the art of war, and sometimes heavily decorated with tattoos – wanted to show us that "protection" is a relative term.

Pistol rounds were fired into brick walls, which broke apart. Car doors barely slowed the bullets. High velocity rounds fired from an AK-47 cut straight through a foot-thick piece of timber.

Fear was used to focus our attention. "This is the target that best approximates what can happen to you," said instructor Al, pointing to two five-gallon plastic jugs full of water. Rifle rounds burst through and toppled them, spilling out water – to the gasps of journalists, who watched through binoculars. A single armor-piercing bullet burned through one quarter-inch steel plate.

But there was some hope, too. Another armor-piercing bullet was stopped by the same type of armor plate we all use in our heavy-duty bullet-proof vests – a piece of gear that I may never leave at home again.

QR Code to Our reporters get a hostile lesson in covering war
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today