By: Jim Moscou
“This course won’t save your life,” says Dave Smith flatly, with a deadpan coolness. Smith is brandishing an AK-47 assault rifle, and behind him rests a 5.56 mm light machine gun and a mass of land and anti-personnel mines. He gestures with his rifle to the small arsenal on the wood-paneled floor, saying, “You’re never going to take away all the risk. Our aim here is to even the odds.”
It’s 9:00 a.m. Monday, Feb. 11, and I’m sitting in a small conference room in a tranquil rural inn in the Welsh countryside, three hours outside London. Smith’s comment opens a five-day media training course like few in the world: It’s designed to help reporters survive assignments in hostile environments.
For the past decade, European news agencies, unlike their American counterparts, have been sending their foreign correspondents to courses located in the United Kingdom, the vast majority run by either AKE Ltd. or Centurion Risk Assessment Services Ltd., which both are staffed by combat veterans. Smith, 42, who brings to mind Russell Crowe’s character in Proof of Life, spent 22 years with the Special Air Service (SAS), an equivalent to the U.S. Delta Force. The companies have trained an estimated 2,000 journalists worldwide — but few from American newspapers.
In this Welsh village, I am joined by a dozen other journalists from Canadian and Norwegian news agencies and a leading U.S. cable news network, plus an American-born reporter for the Financial Times. A third of them are women. Nearly all have experience in dangerous regions. The Swedes have two TV cameramen here. Since one of their colleagues was killed in November in Afghanistan, no Swedish TV journalist gets an assignment today in a hostile country without getting hostile-environment training. A similar standard applies to the British Broadcasting Corp.
In fact, throughout the five-day training, it’s clear the Europeans generally have a deeper commitment to this training than American newspaper publishers. U.S. papers are sending reporters abroad with a noted lack of mentoring and increased dangers of kidnapping and other threats. No wonder AKE is in the process of opening an office in Washington.
But I am not here to ponder the state of the industry. I am anxious to learn. Within hours, I discover that a cinder-block wall may protect me from a single gunshot, but will disintegrate in seconds before machine-gun fire. I learn if your car runs over a land mine, and you’re alive, don’t get out. (Land mines typically are ringed by anti-personnel mines.) Instead, climb over the car and retrace your steps in the tire tracks. Then there’s my flak-jacket awakening: Most bought for reporters are nearly useless since they won’t stop the 7.62 mm bullets fired by an AK-47, the most popular assault rifle in the world.
One more subtle tip. “Always carry fags,” Smith tells us, using the English slang for cigarettes. “Let’s face it, the whole world smokes.” What better way to defuse a tense situation at, say, a rebel checkpoint than offering a smoke? I won’t leave home without my Marlboros from now on.
But it’s the combat aid that is the gem of the training. “First aid is the assumption that there’s a second aid soon to come,” says Paul Brown, an SAS vet who was once a head medic for his unit. “Instead, we’re going to teach you as if nobody is going to come.”
By Wednesday evening, everyone’s learning curve has gone vertical. Still, I find Charles Clover, 33, the Financial Times guy, practicing his Pashtun vocabulary with homemade flashcards. Clover is leaving in seven days for a six-month assignment in Kabul, Afghanistan. A veteran reporter, he went to Afghanistan several times before Sept. 11. “I’ve been in situations before that, when I think about them now, I wonder what could have happened,” he says. He hadn’t planned to take a flak jacket this time. Now he will — and it will be one that can stop a 7.62 mm bullet.
AKE doesn’t cut the students loose after training. Both Smith and Brown offer their cell-phone numbers and make it clear they should be called if we run into trouble, need medical advice, or want to gather intelligence in a region we know little about.
On Friday, we awaken to one more lecture from Smith: kidnapping. The abduction of The Wall Street Journal‘s Daniel Pearl was on everyone’s mind. As Smith wraps up, we hear an explosion just outside the conference room. We are told our “colleagues” (AKE-hired actors) have not returned from an assignment, and we’re ordered to walk down a muddy, barren road, only to find dazed, bloodied reporters. It appears their overturned car has “detonated” a land mine. Another explosion goes off nearby. Splints are awkwardly affixed; an agitated rifle-toting “guerrilla” soothed. Evacuation — all in 30 minutes. It should have taken us five, they say.
Last night, I wondered: “If I had to, could I respond at all?” Today, I’m thinking: “How do I cut my response time?”
Contact info for AKE can be found at http://www.ake.co.uk. Centurion’s site is at http://www.centurion-riskservices.co.uk. The Rory Peck Trust provides funding for free-lancers for these courses: Its site is at http://rorypecktrust.org.