How do you dress for an abduction?
That was the question on my mind as I prepared for my first day of kidnapping school -- or, as it is officially known, Centurion Risk Assessment Services' Hostile Environment and First Aid Course, a weekend-long training program designed to prepare foreign correspondents and aid workers for the worst. I had been told to wear old, comfortable clothes and eventually settled on a black top and Lululemon yoga pants. If they were good enough for a downward-facing dog, they would probably work in a hostage situation.
On an unseasonably cool Saturday morning in August, I signed some indemnity forms and boarded a van with nine other journalists and our course trainer Taff, a muscular, tanned Welshman in black flip-flops. As we rode toward the rural training ground in Woodstock, Virginia, we talked about the different kinds of assailants who target journalists. "Which is better -- a thug or a trained assassin?" I asked. "Either way, what are you supposed to do?"
"Run," an NBC producer said.
"Cry," Taff said.
A moment later, there was an explosion outside the van, and three commandos in olive-green ski masks, carrying assault rifles, appeared in the woods. One of the men pulled open the van door, and the NBC producer jumped out. I hesitated, wondering if I should bring my notebook, but then the commando grabbed my hair, pulled me from the van, and shoved me into the dirt. I knew that the people who ran the program were going to stage an abduction, but I did not think that it would happen so soon -- or that it was going to hurt. The commando grabbed my hair again, put a black hood over my head, and pulled the drawstring shut. It was then I began to wish I had made other weekend plans.
I was starfished on the ground, and the hood was so tight that I felt like I was going to suffocate. I remembered Taff's advice -- "cry" -- and I certainly wanted to. I fidgeted, tugging at the hood so I could breathe, until I felt a sharp blow against the back of my knee as if I had gotten hit with a rifle butt. I wanted to adjust my yoga pants, but if I moved, I knew I'd be smacked again. I was torn between vanity and self-preservation. Others were apparently feeling the same way; a business editor confessed afterward that she lay there wondering, "How does this make my butt look?"
We were left in the dirt for a while -- it was probably less than five minutes, but it felt like hours. Cicadas clicked in the trees and leaves rustled, but otherwise all was silent. I wondered how I could be so terrified when it was all staged.
In real life, in settings far more inhospitable than rural Virginia, more than 700 journalists have been murdered since 1992, the year that the Committee to Protect Journalists started keeping track of their deaths. More than half were killed by pistols and small arms; others were strangled, beaten, or perished in equally dismal ways. A macabre tally was thumbtacked to the classroom wall in Cen-turion's training facility.
After we were released from captivity, we were introduced to our three instructors. "Even though they're big and ugly, they are approachable," Taff assured us.
Indeed, they were balding, barrel-chested men who carried knives -- and they were friendly, too. One was a trained sniper with a Long John Silver?style gold ring in his left ear, and he and the others gave us lessons in "Ballistics" and "Mines & Booby Traps." They also splattered us with pig blood during first-aid demonstrations, which must freak out the vegan aid workers who go through the program.
I enrolled in the course because I am planning a trip to Moscow as a fellow with Johns Hopkins University's International Reporting Project, and someone had kindly left a copy of a Committee to Protect Journalists report, "Anatomy of Injustice: The Unsolved Killings of Journalists in Russia," on my desk. Violence against journalists is a serious business, and the kidnappings and murders have had a significant impact on news-gathering around the world.
The mandate of Centurion, a 14-year-old company based in Newquay, England, is to prepare journalists for the worst. My fellow kidnapping school students and I talked about the places where each of us was going: Pakistan, Kenya, Rwanda, Bangladesh, Russia. "I don't want to be in a situation where Bill Clinton gets me out," said Julia Lyon of The Salt Lake Tribune, referring to the recent release of American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling from a North Korean prison. It was an aspiration that we all shared.
"Your best defense is right here," Taff said as he tapped his forehead. "You've got a sixth sense. We don't tend to use it in the Western world. We've got technology instead." For those of us reluctant to rely on mere intuition, he also gave practical advice: Stay in hotels that do not have underground parking garages (where car bombs can be placed). Bring along a doorstop and jam it under the door in your room. And never argue with checkpoint guards.
On the last day, we walked through the forest and learned how to recognize improvised explosive devices, which could, as one of the instructors told us, "really spoil your day." A reporter walked into a trip wire, and we all hit the dirt -- or, in my case, a bramble of thorns. If we had been walking at dawn and droplets of dew had formed on the razor-thin wire, then we might have seen it; otherwise, it was invisible.
The most important lesson from kidnapping school was that even the smartest journalists get into trouble. And there is nothing noble about being fired upon "by a drugged-up, 13-year-old with an AK," as Taff put it. I am by nature a trusting person, but the course has taught me to suppress that. So I will tell colleagues where I am going, be suspicious of desk clerks who might sell information about me to thugs, and fight like hell if someone grabs me. And if I ever find myself held at gunpoint, I'll resist the urge to hike up my pants.