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Kidnapped! My experience of HEAT security training

Two women assist a car accident victim in a HEAT humanitarian security training simulation

Safer Edge welcomed journalist Anna Leach on a HEAT training and she related her experience in a Guardian article. Read more about her experience below or click here for the link to the Guardian website.

When journalist Anna Leach went on humanitarian security training kidnapping wasn't the only minefield to negotiate

The bumpy Land Rover rolls to a stop as our convoy is surrounded by smoke. Men in camouflage gear shout: "Get out of the car!" I follow orders to lie face down on the stoney ground. There's more shouting and shoving until we're on our knees, hands on our heads. My heart is beating fast and I only think about obeying orders, but will that keep me safe? "If you raise your hand I'll shoot your hand off," shouts one of the men. "If you look up I'll shoot your head off! If you smile I'll shoot your teeth out!" One of our colleagues, a bright-eyed woman in her early 30s is held in front of us, a gun barrel pressing into her head. We're told: "If any of you move, she will be shot!"

Suddenly my vision is white, a bag is over my head and my wrists are fixed together by plastic cable ties. I can't see and I can't move. My other senses are heightened for clues as to what is happening. There's little to go on, I can't hear much. Has everyone gone and left me here? A rough hand grips my arm and pulls me to my feet. I'm marched along, staggering, tripping, until I'm sitting in a car. I hear breathing next to me. Someone behind me shoves my head. We drive. I try to engage awareness in what direction we're travelling but I'm disorientated. After a hard to measure period of time we stop, are pulled out of the car and stagger forward. "On your knees!" The tension intensifies for one, two, three breaths before with a crackle the bag is lifted from my head. I look around at the wide-eyes of my fellow captives and the tense expressions of my captors before their faces soften into smiles, nervous laughter ripples the air and relieved chatter breaks the silence. "That was actually really scary," I say to the person next to me. "I knew it wasn't real, but I felt so vulnerable."

The kidnapping was the culmination of a morning of checkpoints, gunfire, bleeding casualties, a minefield and a traffic accident – all part of the Safer Edge HEAT (hostile environment awareness for humanitarians) training in a beautiful but incongruous Cotswolds setting. The course is for four days and includes first aid in remote environments (including how to treat gunshot wounds and snake bites), situation analysis, security strategies and developing psychological resilience.

Several of the participants admitted that negotiating group dynamics and personalities was as challenging as the first aid and the checkpoints. "The only thing that was a bit difficult was the confusion and lack of communication about what's going on," said Martje van Raamsdonk, a programme officer at Mercy Corps. "I was assisting a casualty and he really needed the hospital as soon as possible, but there were so many things happening at the same time."

Grievances are aired during the debrief, when participants' reactions to the chaos in the scenario are analysed. "I was so angry with you when you kept talking back to the guy at the illegal checkpoint," said one. "You do find it's very easy to get irritated with each other," said another. Terse words were exchanged during the car crash scenario, when two people were trying to treat a casualty with a possible spine injury while under the threat of approaching rebels.

Katy Noble, a programme development and funding officer at Catholic aid agency for England and Wales (Cafod), found the car crash even more intense than the kidnapping. "We had to deal with all the injuries and remember what we'd learned," she said. "I made a mistake and panicked, but then realised it was OK because the casualties are only actors. Hopefully if it happens in real life I won't make that mistake again."

Noble is moving out to Juba, South Sudan, to work in the CAFOD office there. She said she is not as daunted as she was before the training. Does she feel she's putting her life at risk? "The whole reason why we are there is because it's a conflict zone. I know that's what it's going to be like, so I need to be prepared for it."

Van Raamsdonk said the best advice she is taking away from the training is to be prepared. "Find out what previous incidents have happened, the current situation is and the threats are in each area you go to," she said. When asked about the risks of working in hostile environments, she is clear that the value of going to Yemen, Libya or Iraq (where she's worked previously) outweighs the risks. "It's always going to be dangerous of course, but staying home is dangerous as well. It's not that I love to be confronted with these situations, but it happens to be my work and the reasons why you go are more important than the reasons not to go."


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