Written late October 2009
It could be any town. Small, a little quaint, quiet with an air of discernable tension that is nonetheless not quantifiable into any particular threat.
Our team makes its way cautiously down the gravel street between buildings, many of them deserted. We’re in a cease-fire zone between two warring factions, a country split north and south by the economic and political domination of one minority by another. We’ve heard reports of ethnic cleansing. In the distance, we hear occasional peals of artillery fire landing in what is supposed to be a demilitarized zone.
We’re an assessment team meeting with our local counterpart in the town, here to find out what the refugees camped here require. We’re crossing an open plaza at one end of the town. Ahead, our contact is standing outside our local office, dressed in our NGO’s livery, easily identifiable among a small crowd of locals. He calls us over with a friendly wave.
To the left, a hundred yards away, an impromptu market has sprung up, a crowd of townsfolk milling around beneath a ragged banner that reads Duty Free.
The small knot of companions standing outside the office greet us with enthusiasm. They know we are here to help. We shake hands and try to introduce ourselves, but we don’t speak their language, and they speak little English. But smiles cross language boundaries. We are caught up in the moment.
A blast thumps across the marketplace, pressing itself against the ears. There is no warning. It is followed only by chaos.
My teammates have thrown themselves to the ground. I am crouched in a doorway. White smoke is billowing from behind the market. Where there were milling traders I can now see bodies lying ragdoll on the ground, others hunched over them screaming. There are shouts of concern and confusion from among the assessment team. People are scattering, scampering away from the direction of the explosion.
I hang back for an instant, torn.
The office manager seizes my arm. His face is desperate.
“Please, you must help my people!” he cries, pointing to the figures crouched and prone in the courtyard. His companions are making similar pleas, grabbing at team-mates as they scuttle for better cover.
I’m a Wilderness First Responder- probably the most highly-trained first-aider with current access to the attack site. I might be able to help the wounded. Still I hesitate. If this was a terrorist bombing, then the area may still not be safe. I look to the manager, still begging me, trying to pull me into the plaza.
“Get them to move the injured to safety!” I yell, pointing at the survivors huddled over the bodies, trying to signal them to bring their wounded to where I remain crouched against the shelter of the building.
It’s an established terror tactic to place a secondary explosive device near the site of a first to detonate when rescuers arrive on the scene. I don’t want to become a casualty myself.
The manager doesn’t seem to understand. He is still tugging at my arm, crying for help. Nobody in the plaza is doing anything, just calling out. I yell my instructions again to be heard over the plethora of voices. There are people shouting all around me. Most of the assessment team have scattered to the far end of the street and out of sight behind walls.
I know what I should do. I should run to shelter with the rest of the team.
Something- emotion, pride, the desire to help- makes me hesitate.
I look over. Andrew- a colleague of mine, an Australian, and the only other qualified first-aider on the team- has a young local woman hanging off his arm, begging him to help. Our eyes meet.
“Come on,” he says briskly.
He takes a step and I fall in beside him, and together we dash out into the plaza to the people on the ground.
Andrew rushes to the first prone figure. I reach the second. People are wailing, crouched down, calling out for help. I kneel down. The figure before me shows no signs of life. My adrenaline is ramped.
“Get them out of here!” I yell. “Tell them to pick up the bodies and move them to safety, now!”
Something tells me time is of the essence.
Across the chaos, I meet Andrew’s gaze. I’m gesturing with an outstretched arm back to where we’ve just come from. He understands what I’m saying. He knows the same risks I do.
But we’re too late.
A second explosion punches the air, followed almost instantly by a third even as we throw ourselves back to the ground. Behind us, smoke billows from the twisted remains of a car at the edge of the marketplace none of us had noticed.
Andrew and I are dead.
A whistle blows, and the simulation is over.
We’re in the middle of a two-day exercise to train NGO workers how to handle security threats while working in conflict zones. The context of the conflict has been given to us in daily briefings. The bodies on the ground are dummies, hurled through the air by actors out of sight when the first blast went off. The bomb-blasts are theatrical pyrotechnic charges detonated remotely by a soldier with a remote control. The wrecked car- which we genuinely failed to notice- is a permanent fixture on the edge of the little cobbled plaza. The town in which we find ourselves has not been lived in for forty years, its buildings used for training security personnel in urban combat.
Andrew and I stand up and exchange sheepish grins and nod to the ‘civilians’- security personnel playing roles for the scenario. We know they caught us out with this one. Later, Andrew describes with an amused gleam in his eye the sight of me, leaning over the ‘injured’ dummy, an arm outstretched as, midway through shouting instructions to move the wounded, the charge went off behind me, frozen in a moment in his mind.
Two dozen colleagues and I are on a week-long training course on security. Its focus is to help team leaders manage life-threatening emergency situations, how to protect their teams, and how not to become casualties themselves. It climaxes in two days of practical scenarios on this training site, using professional security personnel simulating a variety of potential threat situations including hijackings, grenade attacks, cross-fire and landmines.
The security staff play their roles well. The shouting and swearing are loud. The threats are delivered with malice. The guns are real, the grenades are small flash-bangs, the shots fired are blanks. The aim is to make the simulations as realistic as possible to prepare staff physically, mentally and emotionally for the sorts of events none of us wants to see happen, but which sadly have happened to a number of us and our colleagues at various times in our careers as aid workers.
Participants on the course have come from locations such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Darfur and Afghanistan. Between us, most of the major war-zones of the last fifteen years are comprehensively covered, from Rwanda in 1994 to Iraq in 2004 and to Sri Lanka and Pakistan in just the last few months.
‘War Stories’ here take on a new meaning. Among the twenty-odd staff, there are tales of carjackings, abductions, incoming artillery fire, negotiating for the release of hostages, grenade attacks, illegal detentions, crossfire incidents, terrorist bombings, assassinations and, tragically, the death or wounding of friends and colleagues in violent incidents.
The places aid workers go make these risks a little more real than for many. In the last couple of weeks, a UN office in Islamabad was struck by a suicide bomber, and just a couple of days ago a Red Cross worker was kidnapped in Darfur.
I don’t want to dramatize the industry. Most aid workers will fulfill their career without any significant security incidents- especially if they learn to take precautionary steps. Some of us get unlucky and experience violent events. A tiny minority- just over two hundred last year out of the tens of thousands of aid workers worldwide- are wounded or killed.
Training exercises like the one Andrew and I have just participated in are valuable tools in helping identify and manage threats, and to respond appropriately if the threats should realise themselves. They also allow us to make mistakes in a safe environment and learn from them- something we don’t have the luxury for when the real thing happens.
In the scenario of the market bombing, we both knew the chances of a secondary explosive device waiting for us once we ran out to help the wounded. The intensity of emotion that accompanied the sight of the wounded and the cries for help from local townsfolk was enough to override our instincts- good instincts- and make us put ourselves in harm’s way. It was a good lesson to learn.
I hope never to be faced with the horror of a real bombing (though I know enough people who have been for me to take it seriously), but if I do, I now have a frame of reference to help me make my decisions in the heat of the moment. It’s why we run these exercises. Out in the field, they save lives.