Day 3: The Devil Rode Prado - Security training before heading to a conflict area

The much-anticipated first field day is here. We start at 7:00 with having to hand in our homework; then a 30-minute exam that would require twice that time to complete; and we’re on our way.

Of Bridges and Breaches:
As we will keep being reminded: communication is given all the importance needed in this course. We have to call in, check our radios, note anything that is noticeable and communicate it to our colleagues even during the 40-minute ride to the training center. We are 3 SUVs in the convoy and our chief instructor (and tormentor) is riding a silver Prado not too far behind us—he is a moving “Alpha Tango Base” that will continuously haunt us today and, I am sure, tomorrow.

Did I mention that communication was important and we had a diverse group?
Our Dominican companera: “Breeeach in front of us”
“did she say breach? There’s no breach in our convoy!”
“no, she meant bridge…there was a bridge back there”

Unsafe at any Speed:
As soon as we reach the field training site and get off the SUVs we get a rude introduction of how things will be for the next two days. A siren sounds (imagine a flock of cackling ducks) meaning we all have exactly eight seconds to take cover…we’ll be getting better at that, but on this first time, we all get flat on the ground; the correct answer would have been to go back to the armed vehicles and lie low…as this is the safest spot around.

A quick briefing and the caravan has to go to various spots within the training facility with lots of mock check points (sorry Charlie Papa’s) manned by angry role players mock minefields, ambushes, and other real-life recreations of risks in hostile environments.

Know your Mission Statement:
Now here’s a thought: maybe our next Divisional retreat should be organized in a security awareness training facility…not only for team building. We take turns at being convoy commander (CC or Charlie Charlie) deputy CC all through the day. This means that at every stop (after we recover from the last fright) the CC will give a briefing. These usually start with a restating of our mission (“to reach a refugee camp in site so-and-so and undertake a monitoring of on-going activities and assessment of needs inside the camp”). At the first mock check point, we are rudely stopped and thrown to the ground, and immediately individually asked what we are doing in the area. I hear a variety of statements…some being quite far from the agreed objective…reminds me of some interesting discussions around meeting tables back in Rome and the importance of getting to a simple statement of our common objective.

Why do we do this?
The lunch break is an opportunity through relaxed conversation, to conduct a non-scientific survey of the motivation of my co-trainees and how they’ll be using the skills learned. Here’s a sample of responses:

  • “I will be flying planes for the World Food Program (WFP) into hostile areas and this training is a requirement”;
  • “I am the Assistant to a UNDP Manager who’ll be moving to the hostile area;
    “I’ll be joining a UNHCR site for a year—I cannot think of doing anything else in life. Anything that resembles a 9-to-5 job would be lethal…give me risk and truly helping the most vulnerable any day”;
  • “I need to know what some of my colleagues will be going through in case we do decide to design development projects in this area”;
  • “This is the third time I take this training: if you spend a whole year without going to the hostile area…and I haven’t been there yet…then you need to retake the training to stay current”;

That’s a group of very dedicated professionals with a sense of purpose—and from the way everyone has been coming together—a group I would have no problem counting on for increased safety while we do our humanitarian and development work.

At the end of the day, I tally the incidents that we went through over the day and come up with the following approximation: 2 minefields; 10 IED explosions; 1 gunmen attack; 6 concealed explosive devices in and under our vehicles…of which we only discover 1 after thorough examination; 1 explosion leading to (mock) injuries that needs attention under heavy gunfire…and of course 1 angry checkpoint.

Back in my hotel room I think of all of the events of the day of course—but also to Ericka: all this action will make me lose weight and might just compensate for the fact that I haven’t been juicing and following my liquid diet for more than 2 weeks now.