International work has sporadically taken me to areas where poverty and politics—and sometimes conflict or terrorism—keep safety and security top of mind. I am not an inexperienced global traveller; my first real experience in the global south was on Canada World Youth in 1985, several months spent in a rural village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, back when it was called Zaire and under Mobutu’s military dictatorship. Since then I’ve backpacked in South America and Asia, done a degree in international development, and for the last ten years, global work in HIV has sent me on over seventy trips spanning every continent. Most of these travels have been without real incident, under the protection and support of helpful locals. And yet, a few times over the years, brushes with catastrophe have given me a healthy sense of what could have been, glimpses of horrors that others have experienced, some of them at great personal loss. A crowd that might have turned into a mob. Would be assailants thwarted by the coincidental apparition of police. Terrifying seatbeltless bus rides along winding cliff edges, games of chicken as the bus passed pokier vehicles. Being somewhere that was bombed the next day.
These experiences can leave a person with a sense of helpless fatalism: either I’ll die or I won’t but there’s nothing I can do about it. But that’s simply not true. Certainly there is an element of bad luck that can intrude, but there is also a small industry devoted to helping luck along. To feel safer and better prepared, in September 2014, I finally enrolled in a specialized travel security training in rural Sussex, a course geared to aid workers and journalists.
A colleague who had done the course years before mentioned cryptically that there were ‘outdoor activities’, that we might at times be crawling in the mud, and that it was possible I’d be splattered with blood. Then she refused to elaborate for fear it would spoil the element of surprise. The course outline, sent in advance, contained alarming session titles such as ‘Ballistic awareness’, ‘Landmines, UXO and IED’ and most worrying of all, ‘Kidnap for ransom’. “I’m going to learn how to be a hostage!” I declared to my partner, who found this less amusing than I did. I joked, but as the course date approached, my anticipation and nervousness grew in tandem.
On Monday morning, we arrived at the course venue, which, incongruously, was a stately golf club in the serene English countryside. But the setting couldn’t protect us. As the morning’s in-class content was delivered, George the course leader hinted at surprises awaiting us in the woods. He explained that during outdoor field exercises involving costumed actors, if a trainer uttered the phrase ‘no duff’, we would know they were no longer playacting. Why did they have to have a safe word? Was it to signal the end of an exercise, or was it to be used in case the situation got too frightening?
Our wariness and paranoia grew. Course members from Spain blinked, either perplexed by the strange word duff or, perhaps, absorbing the dawning implications. One glanced at her nice leather jacket and stylish high-heeled boots. I doubted anyone had given her the fake blood and mud crawling heads-up.
At lunch, we sat down to a thin half-moon of rice, mirrored by a mess of cubed chicken cooked in onion soup mix. No vegetables, no bread, no salad, no seconds. My English colleagues were mortified. I couldn’t help but wonder if it was to prepare us for conditions of long-term captivity. Afterwards, we piled into Land Rovers armed with walkie-talkies and newly imparted knowledge of radio communication protocols and the phonetic alphabet. I was informed that my call sign was Juliet Mike, a disappointing name, which, when I uttered it, made me sound like an unimaginative Edwardian drag queen.
Down the road, we passed the entrance to a forest bearing a carved wooden sign that read Yew Tree Farm. Downton Abbey fans will recognize the reference to the quaint homestead where Lady Edith hides her illegitimate daughter Marigold with kindly Mr. & Mrs. Drew. But there were no Mr. or Mrs. Drew. Marigold was not frolicking in those woods. Instead, during a walk to a pretend village, gunfire erupted and we had to dive for cover and lie face down on the wet forest floor while we called for help from UN Control. My colleague Kate—or should I say Kilo India—was bitten by a spider. A real one.
The next day, we were stopped at a vehicle checkpoint by angry rebels with AK-47s who swore at us, hauled me out and interrogated me while a colleague was led into detention for having improper credentials. After first aid training back in the classroom, we were brought outside again, where George was found leaking from his arm. Blood spurted intermittently from a surprisingly realistic gunshot wound. He gurgled and more of it spewed from his mouth. When he awoke miraculously, he informed us it was cherry-flavoured. There were more trauma scenarios involving scooping vomit out of people’s mouths (masticated ginger snap biscuits) and a surprise secondary body check in a completely dark room with voice-stifling sirens blazing outside. We emerged into the light to discover our faces and clothing streaked in red.
I thought back to the sweet seventy-something St. John’s Ambulance lady who had given me workplace first aid training in the early 90s. I had an underdeveloped sense of fear in those days, and our office was five minutes from an ambulance. It didn’t help that her scenarios were too dainty; she’d taught me how to tie nice bows of white gauze over my co-worker’s sweatered arm. I sighed, recalling the Royal Life Saving Society courses I took as a teenager, during which I pulled my friend Mikey from the lake on warm July mornings and feigned mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. We were preoccupied not with possible death, but with the prospect of real lip-on-lip action. Mikey always sputtered back to life before the seal could be properly made. There was no vomit or blood. The most difficult scenario, then, involved a swimmer who was told as a joke to make as if a tentacled alien had grafted itself to her face.
St. John’s Ambulance Lady had never had me check my co-worker’s naked torso for protruding bones, or for a gaping chest cavity. My swim instructor had never suggested I press four fingers into Mikey’s groin to stop his bleeding out from a severed lower leg. Nor had anyone mentioned to me how unlikely it was that any person on whom I performed CPR would recover—that is, if there had been any sort of heart or chest-related trauma. “Remember: they’re still dying,” said Terry the first aid instructor, “just more slowly. But you have to keep going until an ambulance arrives, or you’re too tired to continue.” Terrific.
In between gruesome field practice, we’d go back to the golf club, where, puzzlingly, the disaffected staff always appeared surprised that we were still there. We had to ask for cups at our tea breaks, every single time. “Perhaps they don’t know what we’re here for,” I said to Kate, thinking, Surely if they did, they’d be a little nicer, wouldn’t they? A little more solicitous? But then, later, after scooping simulated broken teeth out of a car accident victim’s mouth while she lay trapped in a real upside-down Subaru out at Yew Tree Farm, I thought, Wasn’t that the same dour woman who served us our vegetable-free dinner?
It turned out Course Leader George had done some clever recruitment for his band of ghoulish thespians. “You know that lady whose leg was blown off in the landmine explosion?” said Kate, smiling inappropriately. “That’s George’s mother-in-law!” When we found the golf club bartender lying prostrate on the side of the road with ugly leg and head wounds, I realized that the indifferent staff and bland, nutritionless 1970s cooking was to remain an unsolved mystery.
On Tuesday evening over dessert—yes, blessedly we got dessert—Camilla Carr gave us a talk on how she and her partner Jon James had been held hostage for fourteen months in Chechnya in the 90s. About how she had been raped over a period of months during that captivity, and, more importantly, how they had remained sane and survived to tell their story. The gravity of the course had been mounting, and this was its pinnacle. After her slide show, I wanted nothing more than to go to my room and rock back and forth in a foetal position, but Camilla, who had driven five hours to tell us her horrifying tale, announced cheerfully that she’d be happy to answer any further questions over drinks. So we followed her to the bar. The fellow whom we’d treated at the roadside was once again pouring pints of beer, blank-faced and unhelpful. “Cash only,” he said, refusing to let us charge to our room or even to run up a tab.
When the course was over, my colleague Kate & I travelled onwards to London for meetings, where its vibrant food scene reassured us that—time-warp golf club notwithstanding—England has indeed progressed beyond overcooked lamb chops with mint sauce. The cherry-flavoured blood was washed from our clothing and our index fingers were cleaned free of dried ginger-snap vomit.
In the week that followed, I oscillated between being mildly amused and mildly traumatized. I chuckled about babushka-clad ‘Olga’ from the Eastern-European village, whom I had had to pull into a ditch to evade sniper fire and whom I later met as Julie with a Yorkshire accent. But I also lay awake more than once, turning over all of my decisions, and wondering how my mettle would be tested in real life. How much of my training would I remember, if it came down to it? Whom would I choose if there were ten people wounded in a suicide bombing and only two spots in a helicopter that wouldn’t wait more than a few minutes for me to make up my mind? Could I remain sane for two years or more of captivity? Would I drive on after hitting a child at the side of the road, understanding, now, that there would be a real danger that villagers could turn into a vengeful murderous mob? Or would I get out to help, hoping for the best?
If the mock-situations troubled me more than I had expected make-believe could do, they were more triggering for my colleagues. Three of them had, in fact, previously struck children on foreign roads. The scenario is real and commonplace. Two got out to help and were luckily unharmed. One was in a car whose driver took the decision away from her and drove on. None will ever forget.
A year later, important lessons remain. Preparing for—as in, taking actual precautions and also mentally fortifying oneself—could mean the difference between life and death, or between hope and despair. Calmly assessing a physical trauma and squelching one’s squeamishness could mean the difference between accidentally killing someone and keeping her alive. Cars are both more dangerous and less so than we believed: only their engine block will protect you from gunfire, but it’s comforting to know that they never, ever explode like they do in the movies, even when hit with bullets, or when set ablaze.
I hope these lessons will never be needed, but I’m grateful to have had them, and for a certain confidence that they’ve given me. Not that I think I’m now safe; I know more than ever how real and random some dangers can be. But if something happens to me, abroad or at home, I’ll do everything I’m supposed to do, everything I can, even if everything might not be enough.
Also published in the Humber Literary Review in November 2015.