My week with the SAS was unforgettable. Our assignment was to interview the Headman and talk to the villagers in a remote mountain location, somewhere deep in hostile territory. We were suspicious from the off, in spite of our driver Gamal’s insistence that we were safe and there would be no problem. We arrived at the square and tentatively started to set up our camera, then we heard the shout of, “Suicide Bomber”, and a burly camouflage-clad figure dashed down the hill. There was a huge bang, and as we hit the dirt, we were showered with pre-bloodied dismembered rubber arms, legs and assorted hands.Yes, it was scenario day on our Surviving Hostile Regions course.
I had been sent on the course by the BBC – who as a good and responsible employer sends you on the course before you go to any potentially hostile region – Palestine, Libya etc.
But back to the blood and gore… The course lasts five days and takes place in the beautiful Brecon Beacons. Dismiss immediately any images of camping out in the wild, with just the occasional badger to eat, we stayed at a very nice hotel, which served good chicken livers as a starter.
We covered two main areas: personal security and first aid. The first couple of days were heavily classroom based but then we got to go outside and practice what we had learned. The course was run by AKE Security and our trainers were all ex- forces. Jake (personal security) was lean and serious and a dangerous man to know – many, many of his friends have met unfortunate ends. Jock (First Aid) had a nice line in very bad jokes and a stomach-churning album of his favouite wounds and injuries – we always looked forward to that post- breakfast session.
It is a rather bizarre contradiction to go on a course where you learn as much as you possibly can in the hope that you never have to use it.
For the First Aid part, we did all the basics – clearing airwaves, CPR, recovery position, splinting a fracture and then some much more dramatic scenarios – stopping arterial bleeds, a road traffic accident where the victim might have head wounds and my favourite, a sucking chest wound. So let me share this knowedge with you….
If you come across someone who has been unlucky enough to have been shot in the chest, you should see pink, frothy blood and air coming in and out of the wound. You need to close it up and protect lung functon. Look around you for a handy piece of plastic, like a crisp packet, and secure it over the wound on three sides, leaving that bottom bit open so that it can act as a flutter valve. Then find the exit wound and with your second crisp packet, tape it/secure it on all four sides. Then secure that with a bandage/scarf while keeping the front one free so that the flutter valve can work and head as quickly as you can. I feel I deserve a Blue Peter Badge for that!
My other favourite was applying a tourniquet. I don’t know what it was about hands on this course but I had to treat three people who had had theirs blown off in different ways. Repetition is definitely is the key because by the third one, I actually felt that I could do it properly if I had to.
Personal Security was fascinating. Lots of things that you just don’t think about day to day or that run contrary to how I normally act – keep a low profile, don’t wear bright or standout clothes, don’t put information or pictures on the internet and don’t trust anyone
Surprisingly, the biggest threat to your life in hostile regions is not, as you may imagine, bombs or crazed soldiers or minefields, it is Road Traffic Accidents. And according to Jake, the riskiest time is when fighters are retreating down a road – so, it is better to wait till the madness subsides before you hightail it out of somewhere.
The most intimidating part was the kidnapping section. Apparently, there are three types of kidnap which hold different levels of security risk: revenge, political, financial. Of these, you really really want to be kidnapped for cash. If it is revenge your chances of making it out alive are minimal, if it is political, likewise, but if it is financial then you have got some hope.
There was something macabre about discussing how you would react and then watching videos of people who had been kidnapped and some of whom had later been murdered. There was one which showed a man getting his finger cut off which was just brutal in its matter-of-factness. The advice is unsurprising – be submissive, keep as healthy as you can, build a relationship with your kidnappers, and make sure your company carries Kidnap and Ransom insurance before they send you anywhere it might happen.
I finished my week with the SAS with renewed respect for the military of course, but also for all journalists and their suporting security/fixers/drives who put themselves in danger for the sake of reporting from dangerous areas.
Even though we knew that all our scenarios were faked and that we were safely in the Brecon Beacons, my pulse raced when there was an explosion, or I came across someone with a fake wound, or I was pulled out of a car at a false check point. Actually keeping calm in a really dangerous situation? I hope I could but I am not at all sure I would.
The course and a following refresher were particularly needed for Timbuktu. Check out the book here.