Finding Purpose: Those Who Get Kidnapped Together

Posted: June 11, 2012 in journalism

All I can hear is the pounding of my heart. I can’t see a thing.

A black cloth bag is pulled over my head. I hear gunshots.  Men wearing Army fatigues and ski masks pull me out of a van screaming, “On the ground. Now! Don’t move!”  After just a few minutes of silence, the bag begins to feel hot. I can’t get a cool breath of air. Someone takes off my watch and goes through my pocket for my cell phone. I’m either being robbed or taken hostage – or both. Now the bag is taken off my head. The whole ordeal only took only a few minutes. It felt like an hour.

It was just a drill.

Near Strasburg, Virginia

Welcome to Centurion’s Hostile Environment and Emergency First Aid Training Course near the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. I’m here with a dozen journalists from Associated Press, Al Jazeera (English Language  Channel) and relief workers from non-governmental organizations like mine, World Vision (an international Christian relief and development organization.

The setting is pastoral, a farm near Strasburg, Virginia, near Washington, D.C. But the curriculum is exhaustive, comprehensive and sobering.

The five-day course is designed to prepare journalists and relief workers who may find themselves in hostile environments to fully understand the risks associated with their jobs and to prepare for those risks in realistic scenarios.

For example – you come upon a screaming gunshot victim. How do you respond? Centurion experts told us to determine whether danger still exists at the scene, whether the victim is responsive, identify and stop catastrophic bleeding, check the airway, the breathing and then circulation.

Juan Mayou
Al Jazeera Photographer

We worked on how to treat a wound, a burn or an amputation, spending hours on CPR, how to respond to tear gas, how to negotiate a roadside checkpoint. We even got a primer on how to spot a landmine.

Scott Heidler
Al Jazeera – English

I used to be a full-time journalist, meeting a deadline for more than 25 years covering mountain climbers at Base Camp in the Himalayas and WTO anarchists in the streets of Seattle. In 2005, I found a new purpose by accepting a job to develop stories for World Vision.

Same reporting skills – different purpose. It’s how this blog came to be known as the “Re-Purposed Journalist.”

By the time the five-day course was over, I made some new friends. Nothing bonds twelve people like having a black bag pulled over your head and being forced to the ground. The subject line on our group e-mail says it all:

“Those who get kidnapped together – stick together.”

from left – John Yeager (World Vision), Nahedah Zayed (Al Jazeera), Juan Mayou (Al Jazeera) Holly Frew (World Vision)

But something else happened. Sure they were just drills but I now have confidence in my ability to respond to an emergency. The week also renewed my bond to journalists. If you’re a journalist reading this – just know that I appreciate you a little more today. And maybe I miss doing what you do just a little more too.

That hostage scenario was supposed to me feel what the “shock of capture” was like. Though I couldn’t see – it gave me insight into just how dangerous and unpredictable journalism can be, whether you’re “re-purposed” or not.


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