Preparing for war in a classroom
Through a thicket of brush, we push deeper into the forest. Our small group stops at the edge of a clearing. Mangled twigs lay across what seems like a path to the other side, where wild grass reaches skyward from the tree trunks: a haven. One of our group members, carrying a waist-high branch used during the first part of our exfiltration to check for antipersonnel and land-mine trip wires, kneels and looks at each of us as if to ask, Who’s going first?
We are told there might be a sniper or enemy machine-gun nest overlooking the clearing. We can run as a group. Or we can run one by one, single file, to the other side. I crane my neck, looking for the glint of a sniper’s scope, anything to confirm our looming suspicions of danger. Whatever way we decide to cross, as one or as many, I know to run low and fast, making myself the smallest and most difficult target possible, something I learned in a classroom not long ago.
A few minutes later, as a group, we run. Gunshots rip through the winter morning air. I see a muzzle flash, or maybe I imagined it. Maybe I imagined the bush at the far end of the clearing rippling beneath the blast of a rifle. I can’t be sure. Someone falls in front of me. I jump over him, sliding to safety on the far side of the clearing. Should I go back to get my fallen colleague? No. I’ve learned to avoid turning one fatality into two.
This “live fire” scenario capped the last day of a Hostile Environment and First Aid (HEFAT) training course I completed in 2017, before departing for a reporting trip to Iraq. HEFAT courses are designed to prepare journalists, aid workers, and anyone traveling to conflict zones or hot spots around the world. They are also meant to train journalists and professionals working during pandemics or natural disasters.
In top-tier courses, participants can learn to navigate health epidemics or close-quarters combat (not advised for journalists or aid workers who relinquish their protected status as noncombatants if they brandish a weapon), as well as defensive driving and off-grid survival tactics. Our class was mid-tier, a three-day HEFAT course offered by a private firm, Global Journalist Security (GJS); it cost a couple thousand dollars, which, for most participants, was paid for by employers who required the training before sending staff members abroad. Many who were trained by GJS (which has recently adjusted in-person training based on local mandates and is offering virtual livestreams of their HEFAT courses to participants who can’t attend) are now covering the coronavirus outbreak from countries across the world.
For me the class was paid out of pocket. I was a freelance journalist looking to cover the siege against the Islamic State in Mosul, Iraq, scrambling in the weeks prior to my departure to figure out how best to stay safe in an unfamiliar world. I had no institutional support, no big paper backing my trip or travel expenses. I knew I would be alone, for the most part, save for an editor in Brooklyn who had taken a chance on a story I wanted to write. It was a story that consumed me. Thoughts of getting it wrong, of hurting myself or others, disturbed me for weeks. I wanted to do this right, check every box, complete every risk assessment. So I enrolled, putting the cost of the class on a credit card.
Through the forest, our group navigated more terrain, peppered with smoke grenades (real), more machine-gun fire (blanks), and a high-speed vehicle disembarkation (real vehicles and fake checkpoint guards). Earlier in the day, we were driving around the course and came to a checkpoint. Our vehicle was searched by actors posing as militia members, seeking bribes. One of the militia members pulled a woman from our vehicle, and I scrambled after her. I haggled for her release. The exchange was tense, the man’s voice rising as he stepped close to me while pulling her away. “Aren’t you my friend?” he said, an evil glint in his eye. This was a trap. Never align yourself with hostiles. Rather, the training had taught us to say, “I am not your enemy.”
The course was overseen by the training director of GJS, Paul Burton, a retired British commando who served in the Falkland Islands and in operations in Northern Ireland. One of the chief trainers, Shane Bell, is a former Australian Armed Forces elite commando. Both have the approachability of an axe.
“Don’t be a hero,” Bell said during an exercise in which the group was surrounded by an angry mob. “Stick together and keep moving.” We did, but I always fell behind, trying to grab anyone who had fallen back.
GJS was established by Frank Smyth, a sharp and unassuming former investigative journalist and senior advisor for journalist security at the Committee to Protect Journalists. It offers three- and five-day courses on subjects like trauma first aid, digital surveillance and safety, and hostage-situation preparedness.
At the course’s end, an individual first-aid kit (IFAK), including things like wound-clotting gauze and a tourniquet, was available for purchase for about $90. Those same kits cost up to $300 online, which is an entire article fee for most freelance journalists.
“You’ll be glad to have it, even happier not to use it,” one of the course instructors told me.
After the course, I traveled to Iraq. For two years, I returned to the region and reported from more than a dozen countries, covering elections and spot news. I never once used my IFAK, though it always traveled with me. I did make use of things I learned in the course though, including being extra cautious with my use of the internet in foreign countries, as well as more secure about how I stashed data and contacts on my phone. I also made sure to always have a communications plan (who to call, where to go) set in advance, in case trouble were to arise. These were things I had overlooked initially.
Several organizations geared toward helping freelance journalists operating in difficult places have sprouted up in recent years, thanks in part to grants made available by the 2 Lives Foundation, established by the parents of journalist Steven Sotloff, who was killed while being held by ISIS in Syria; and Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC), a nonprofit founded by Sebastian Junger that provides emergency medical training to freelance conflict journalists. Junger, a longtime conflict journalist and the author, most recently, of Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, founded RISC after his friend and colleague Tim Herrington died while working in Libya. James Foley, who was captured and killed alongside Sotloff, was a RISC graduate.
These groups are a much-needed resource for journalists, but their funding is scarce.
“We can house, equip, and train someone for as little as $1,000, and yet we struggle to raise money,” Junger told me in an email. “We are basically doing what the big news agencies should be doing because they rely on freelancers and barely pay them for their work. It’s unconscionable.”
ABC, NBC, HBO and National Geographic donated multiyear grants to RISC when it launched in February 2012, to help it get off the ground and run a bunch of courses in its first years. Upon completion of a course, which is awarded at no cost to select journalists who apply, each participant receives a complimentary IFAK.
Catalina Martin-Chico completed a recent RISC course before going on assignment. The Paris-based freelance photographer, whose work has appeared in Le Monde, Corriere della Sera and The New York Times, used some of the course’s training during her next assignment in Colombia, where she documented the lives of female former fighters for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, now living in the jungle following a 2017 peace agreement.
“I left my normal phone, and I bought a ‘clean’ local phone,” Martin-Chico told me. “I didn’t enter my contacts, but learned by heart some phone numbers.” She also conducted detailed risk assessments, something she learned in the course, and stayed in touch with contacts who were kept updated on her movement and reporting.
Thousands of journalists have taken the courses, including domestic journalists seeking to better cover increasing riots and civil unrest stateside. One of the most valuable lessons a HEFAT course provides is the network formed after the joint experience of lifesaving training. “We help each other,” Martin-Chico said.
I received a 2 Lives scholarship after returning from three months of reporting while based in Beirut. I wanted a refresher on some of the lessons I’d learned, like how bright red blood meant an arterial bleed and dark red blood meant a vein was punctured, and how to properly carry an injured colleague. I also knew I lacked information in the realm of digital security and needed tips on better protecting my mobile devices.
The course was held at the University of Miami School of Communication, in conjunction with GJS. When I stepped into the classroom, Bell seemed shocked. Maybe he had assumed I was dead. We had not seen each other in more than two years. The last time I saw him, I told him I would be in touch from Mosul but never wrote him. I had not used my IPAK for anything more than a burn or deep cut suffered in the course of daily life. Never in war.
He smiled. We hugged. The training had imparted something more than survival skills, sustaining me through the means of friendship and camaraderie in dark times and darker spaces.