One afternoon in July, I was travelling with three other people in an SUV through the rugged Welsh countryside. Encountering a construction barricade, we took a detour down a small ravine thick with foliage. This almost immediately proved to be a mistake. Four men wearing balaclavas and carrying machine guns appeared as if from nowhere, pounced on our vehicle and stole our valuables (fortunately, being journalists, we had few); and then our driver, a major-general in the British military, yelled “cut!” and asked us to explain what we had done wrong.
Actually, quite a lot, beginning with leaving the safety of our offices to enrol in a course called ‘surviving hostile regions’.
Our first exercise that day had been an even bigger disaster. Under the assumption he was leading us to a safe house in the badlands of Afghanistan, where we would interview a warlord, we foolishly followed a masked character named Aqbal straight into a minefield. We fared better than Aqbal, who sustained a fatal injury. Left there with one dead guide and night closing in, our team of three had some dire decisions to make. There were other dangers in addition to the landmines: the sound of gunfire was getting closer.
“We should take Aqbal’s gun,”I suggested. Our Canadian team member was aghast.
“If we have a gun we can no longer legally be classed as journalists – we will be combatants,” he said.
To anyone who would argue that cultural stereotypes are entirely baseless, I present the illustrative example of a red-state American whose first instinct in a life-or-death situation is to go for the gun, and a Canadian whose first thought is to debate international law.
But the role play also demonstrates how very differently two parties can assess the same risky situation and how each individual assessment can lead to drastically different risk-mitigation strategies.
For companies considering investing in post-conflict countries, there is no simple path or straightforward solution. The only rule that applies across the board is that it pays to think through every possible outcome, good, bad and ugly.
I went on the course as preparation for a reporting assignment in Iraq, and, as it happens, my five days on the ground in the conflict zone were considerably less stressful than the five days of training in Wales, to say nothing of the tortuous battle to secure an entry visa.
But I guess that is the point of security and risk training: hope the worst never happens, but know what to do in case it does. So, having passed my course, would I have known what to do if in real life I had found myself surrounded by gunfire and landmines with a fatality and a firearm lying nearby? Yes – provided there were no Canadians around to stop me.