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.


thorsten 31 May 2008 at 04:19  

oh man - that sounds like hell! Congratulations on surviving that ordeal...

btw: why do the aggressors have Russian-sounding names? I think a name like "George W. Shrub" could also have worked ;-)

Rhodé 23 June 2008 at 16:56  

This is really amazing writing Barbara... I was extremely captured by this.


Anonymous 3 December 2010 at 01:34  

Пропущено изрядно запятых, но для интересность сообщения это казаться не повлияло

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