Friday, 30 May 2008

The Debriefing

My five days of hostile environment training on the base have been very enriching. Of course it does take a bit of getting used to waking up to the sound of a bugle and reveille, queing up for breakfast with a few hundred soldiers in full combat gear. But the food was better than I expected and I learned to appreciate the benefits of discipline, straight talk and marching. Somehow it seems I'm moving far quicker from A to B now. I mean, we civilians are still miles away from any serious discipline and our military trainers made no secret of that.

We certainly tested our trainers' patience. We're not always punctual. Looking very unmilitary-like carrying our mineral water bottles and wandering around with our mobile phones. Leaving class to the toilet whenever we felt like it, and to make things worse without asking. We also occasionally mixed up our trainers' ranks and grades. There's a lot of room for improvement for us as journalists to understand the military. But I guess, the learning process is a two way street. I loved the little video they showed us about media training at the Bundeswehr: journalists don't follow orders, you have to present them arguments.

No seriously, it's been an amazing week of training. If you're reading this and have done a similar hostile environments course, I'd love to know what your experience was like.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Hands up, head down, sore knees

Day 4 - Hostage scenario

The security situation is rapidly deteriorating in Rhönland. UNDOFOR has just recently arrested Iwan Ivanovitsch, the head of the paramilitary group NAFROS. Both sides to the conflict are said to have committed war crimes, including civilian massacres and rapes. We find ourselves sitting in a bus on our way to Karsbach where a press conference by UNHCR and the South Rhönland Defense Force is scheduled for this morning.

A few kilometers out of the base our bus is redirected through a forest on a dirt track. This could be due to the risks of landmines in the area, says my colleague sitting next to me. But he's hardly had time to say that when two armed men suddenly jump out in front of our bus.

It's no mucking around with guys waving rocket propelled grenades at the vehicle. We're all hit the floor of the bus. More masked rebels storm the bus yelling and branding AK-47s. "Hands up, heads down, close your eyes and shut up!"

Everything happens within a matter of seconds and the bus is moving again. A bit further down the track we make another stop - more armed militia get on board. There's a frenzy of activity. I attempt to look up, but a strong hand pushes my head down. One by one we're being blindfolded and separated. One of my colleagues is taken off the bus, and then we're off again. Then one of the hostage takers sits next to me. My arms hurt, my head too, and my captor constantly forces me to put the head down.

After a good half hour drive, we're taken off the bus. Balkan music is blarring: where are we? I feel grass under my feet. I have the impression we're close to a forest. "Down on your knees! Arms up! Head down and shut the fuck up!"

Why haven't I done more upper body muscle building lately? Everything hurts. I'm trying to keep track of time, but it's useless...

"Get up!"

Two guards take me a few hundred meters to a table where I'm being checked for weapons. Watch, armband, mobile phone and notebook - everything goes. I'm handcuffed very tightly behind my back. Ouch.

Now I'm in a dark room, sitting in the corner, waiting. The music is unbearably loud. It's no longer Balkan beats, but pure pain - a colleague will later tell me that it was a Pakistani song entitled Qawali.

It's difficult to know how many people are in the room. I estimate one colleague to my left and another four to five on my right. I would like to shout out, who else is here? But I'm too scared. So, I just cough, and a few coughs come back as an answer. It's still difficult to make out how many we are in the room.

"On your knees!"

This is really the worst position of all. I'm trying to breathe calmly. In and out, in and out. I'm thinking of my yoga teacher back in Cologne. I can do that. U-Jei, I'm doing this every Monday at my Yoga class. Though I guess not handcuffed and being yelled at and exposed to noise torture. Try spending 15 minutes on your knees, I can tell you it's PAINFUL.

Suddenly I feel I'm going to faint. I sway forward and backward but I can't control my body any longer and panic starts to grip me. I'm close to tears but a voice whispers into my ear: "are you alright?"

Gosh Barb, this is only an exercise; calm down, breathe, relax, you're going to be fine.

"Arse on your heels!"

This feels comparatively sooooo much better.

How long are we going to sit here? There are constant steps in and out, I'm not sure what's happening to my colleagues. But suddenly it's my turn: "Get up!" - I'm escorted out. Grass, tarmac, roughly 600 meters. I'm entering a building, right, left, the room feels nice and cool, I can smell incense. Keep calm, this is crucial now. "On your knees!"

My interrogation starts. Okbar, some sort of militia leader from North Rhönland is in charge and sets out his rules: answers should be short and precise, clear and loud, always ending with SIR!

"Yes, Sir!"

"What's your name?"

"Barbara Gruber........"

"BaRbaRa", he rolls the Rs in typical Balkan fashion.

"Do you want to cooperate?"

"Yes, I want to cooperate, Sir!" This wins me points and I get to sit down on a chair.

But not for long, I commit the mistake of asking if they can take my blindfold off - and am back down on my knees.

"Are you married?" uhhh, we're getting personal now...


Do you have a boyfriend?

What's his name?

How can I reach him?

What are you doing in Rhönland?

What do you think of the situation in Rhönland?

Why were you seen carrying weapons yesterday?

What do you think of the South Rhönland Defense Force?

Phhhewww, I know what's coming now...

I answer: "I don't think anything, I haven't spoken to them, or done any interviews. Actually we were even briefly detained at one of their checkpoints yesterday".

And that's where the problem starts. I was forced to take a photograph yesterday with Mr Wujew, the guy in charge of the checkpoint.

My blindfold is taken off, I'm blinded by a very bright light. I'm in a small room, kneeling in front of an old metal table, the bright light is positioned half a meter away from my head.

Okbar throws a photograph on the table: "Is that your friend?"

"No, it's not my friend", but any discussion seems pointless, Okbar doesn't give me the chance to explain...

"Now you're going to read this into the camera."

He hands me a document admitting to having committed war crimes, accusing the United Nations and the South Rhönland Defense Forces of all sorts of violent acts. I read, stumbling over the words, looking at the camera, wondering what the hell I'm doing.

"Sign!" I sign.

"Now, is that the Truth?"

"No..." oh god, I'm thinking are we now going to start all over again? But Okbar is visibly annoyed with me.

"Get her out!".

I'm back on my knees in the original detention room. The blaring music now seems even louder and is seriously getting on my nerves. I'm looking forward to the few seconds of silence every so often, when our hostage takers have to turn the cassette. I'm back to my Yoga breathing exercises. I'm starting to faint in and out, maybe I should try to sleep? But then I risk falling over...

"Get up!" and here is me thinking the worse part is over... The captors take me out again.

"On your knees!"

"Your colleague doesn't want to sign the document, so we're now going to shoot you in the knee!"

Great, now I'm thinking who is stupid enough not to sign this silly document which doesn't have any validity whatsoever.

The captors repeat the question to my colleague:

"Will you sign?"

"No," he says and before I know it, BANG! I'm shot and out of the exercise. Lots of things are going through my head: I should have defended myself better, talked my colleague to reason, how unreal is that? And then I'm thinking what can you expect from a tabloid journalist... I guess I have the right to be a little bit mean, no?

If you've been to a hostage training like this did you end up having a miserable end like me? Even though it's a training scenario, I think it's really interesting to see how colleagues react.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Legal & illegal check points

Today was an action packed day.

After learning what to do when you've just lost a limb from stepping on a mine, we were exposed to various forms of ordnance - including sitting in a bunker when a five kilogram bomb is detonated a mere 15 meters from you. I can tell you it's full on.

The blast is so powerful, you have to keep your mouth open to compensate the pressure. Now this was "just" five kilos. A suicide car bomb would most likely have far more explosives. I don't even want to begin to imagine what that means.

On the road to Karsbach for another attempt to meet and interview Rhönland civilians, we're confronted with an illegal check point. We thought it would be a great idea to carry some local currency and had fabricated some Rhönland dollar notes. But as it turned out this proved to be a disastrous idea. The local war lord was highly offended when our team leader presented our money.

"Are you taking the piss?" Not a good start to the negotiations.

The next check point was legal. We were temporarily detained and I was forced to take a picture with the head of the check point- a certain Mr Wujew, with his arms around me. I suspected that this would mean trouble for us down the line.

After a short detention we were allowed to move on, but only managed to drive a few metres when a suicide car exploded just at the entrance of the check point. Now, it was all about applying the first aid knowledge we had acquired in the morning.

In this carnage we had to deal with the full spectrum of injuries from acute shock, serious head injuries and a pretty disgusting amputated arm. Now, you might be wondering why there're not more pictures to show. Well firstly I was flat out doing first aid and throughout the course we were under strict instructions not to photograph anything during the entire week.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Mines & Maps

Bravo 1: not much to report. Except maybe that the popular leader of the RGLR Iwan Watzlaw was killed by the warlord Ivan Ivanowitsch from NAFROS. The situation in Rhönland remains calm though.

Lesson learned from our mine awareness debriefing today: if you step onto a mine, you have basically no chance. So, your best bet is to stick to the roads, as mines are rarely visible.

The map and compass session was more useful than expected - I can now find North and South with the help of my watch or even with the stars, though I'm still wondering whether it's wiser to invest in a compass or a GPS.

Took an illegal dip in the camp's open air pool. It only officially opens at the end of this week, but it was simply too tempting. The man in charge told us the pool's chemistry is not right yet and we might well suffer from bad diarrhea tomorrow. As long as I don't have that problem during the hostage taking, I guess I'm fine...

Monday, 26 May 2008

Snipers, grenades and booby-traps

06:00 wake up call.

06:30 breakfast with a few hundred recruits.

07:30 I fetch my helmet, a splinter jacket and hearing protection.

After a theory lesson, we're quickly assigned into teams: Alpha 1, Alpha 2, Bravo 1 and Bravo 2 and hit the road heading to Bonnland, a village in the Area of Separation. Our mission: exploring the village and gathering information. But as soon as we've approached the first villager and are about to strike up a conversation, sniper shots ring out.

For a split second I'm paralyzed: where did the shot come from? It's coming from the right. Where do I find protection? My three colleagues are already lying flat on the tarmac, I have the impression it takes ages until my body decides to move. The villagers now are nowhere to be seen.

We move on. A few hundred meters down, we turn right into a large square. We're a group of four, so we've divided the tasks: looking ahead, right, left and back. Suddenly a bright blue grenade lands right in front of our feet. I jump back two meters and find safety behind the corner of a house. In the real world it's difficult to say if I would have had enough time to actually jump these two meters - or whether I would only have survived throwing myself on the floor. What do you do when a grenade lands at your feet? My first thought was running away, but the best thing we're told to do is hit the ground to be less exposed - head facing down, arms over the head, mouth slightly open to cope with the pressure. Hmmmm.

Down at the other end of the square half a dozen young boys are playing football. The ball comes flying down my side, I kick and start talking to Mark, 18 years old. I can't say I'm really relaxed or even remotely listening to what the boy is telling me... I'm just waiting for the next explosion. And BANG I'm on the floor again, waiting to see what happens next. Silence. Then screams, "he's injured, he's injured... you have to come and help!!". Four boys are trying to push me over to the left. I'm torn, is it another trap? Should I help? And even if I wanted, I would have no clue what to do. The villagers are yelling and screaming for help, my colleagues are holding back, the situation is chaotic. We're all paralyzed.

And BANG another explosion goes off.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

UNDOFOR - United Nations Disengagement Observer Force Rhönland

We're supposedly in Rhönland a country where ethnic and religious minorities have been increasingly suppressed over the past few years. The economic gap between the rich industrialized South and the predominantly agricultural North is growing and exacerbating ethnic tensions. North Rhönland is seeking independence... sounds awfully familiar, doesn't it?

Three months ago the government of Rhönland was overthrown by extremists which lead to protests and violent clashes. North Rhönland declared independence and was soon invaded by South Rhönland. Paramilitary groups and the official troops of North Rhönland are now fighting the Southern invaders. That's just the very beginning of our scenario... like in the real world, it gets more complicated.

Of course what's a real crisis region without the UN? There's UN SC Resolution 1203 calling for an end to the violence and for democratic elections. A failed UN embargo. Only the recent threat of military sanctions got the warring factions to the negotiating table. They agreed to a truce and an AOS - Area of Separation - a buffer zone patrolled by UN observers and Peacekeepers. UNDOFOR we understand has been deployed for the past 10 days. And the International Police Task Force (IPTF) is in charge of restructuring, training and controlling Rhönland's police force. You're still with me?

I guess I'm at this stage mainly concerned about who will be shooting at me tomorrow... Here's the intelligence I've gathered:

SDF: the South Rhönland Defence Force - red crosses, red flags;

RGLR: the Regular Guard for the Liberation of Rhönland - green crosses, yellow flags, olive green uniforms;

NAFROS: the National Front of Southern Rhönland - one of several paramilitary groups in the South

RAFN: the Revolutionary Armed Forces of North Rhönland - one of several paramilitary groups in the North

Other players include numerous other armed paramilitary groups, bandits and village militias.

Our task as journalists is to report about the activities of UNDOFOR and the military observers, and about the humanitarian situation in Rhönland. We're accredited with the UN and both sides of the conflict. We have freedom of movement across the whole country, including the AOS. Great! But what do you do if the whole country is mined?

You have arrived in a crisis region

"Saaleck Bundeswehr Kaserne" in Bavaria:

A friend of mine drops me off at the gates of the base, he has a big grin on his face - I guess he wonders: "how on earth will she cope for an entire week here?".... I was expecting high security, but the officer at the gate just asks: "You're one of the journalists?" I nod and he waves me through.

No ID checks, nothing. I make my way to the registration office in the VN-AusbZ Bw building, stand in line with half a dozen young soldiers, neat uniforms - red berets. I feel a bit out of place. Everything seems highly organized, abbreviations obviously rule here.

Now, it's my turn to check in: Journalist? Name? Date of birth? The officer is friendly but doesn't waste a word. He hands me my keys, a map and some documents - point 1: "You have arrived in a crisis region".

Welcome to five days of hostile environment training!

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