In the summer of 1998, in the middle of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic’s war on ethnic Albanian separatists in Kosovo, my translator and I rounded a hill in our armored car and surprised a group of heavily armed men dressed in camouflage. They rushed our vehicle with their assault rifles trained at our heads. The next thing we felt were cold gun muzzles against the backs of our necks, and gravel forced into our mouths as we were pushed face down on the side of the road.
I DARED TO raise my eyes only when I heard our car being driven away at high speed down the road. I was in a ditch on one side of the dusty track, my translator on the other. We could not communicate, but I knew we were pondering the same question as our one link with the rest of the world — our armored vehicle carrying our equipment and communications — sped off, leaving us in the hands of a dozen men extremely displeased by our presence. Was this the end?
Almost three years later to the day, I found myself in almost the exact situation: face down at the side of a rural road with a gun barrel stuck in my neck. This time, however, it happened near Sutton Scotney, a village with a 400-year-old pub and a conference center 60 miles southwest of London.
I was traveling in car full of journalists that rounded a bend in a dirt road, coming across a group of construction workers apparently filling potholes. Before we could lean out of our windows to ask to pass, shots were fired and armed thugs appeared from a nearby group of trees. They dragged us out of the car and pushed us onto the ground, pulling cloth bags over our heads and blocking everything except a few rays of sunlight.
These unknown mercenaries lined us up single file, marched us into a field and stripped us of our valuables. One terrorist tugged at my wedding ring. When it wouldn’t come off, I felt his mouth envelope my finger. Using his saliva, he slipped it off with ease.
Then there was darkness and silence. And then a lecture. I was taking part in a “hostile environment” training course held for journalists whose work takes them to conflict zones, where they can get caught in the crossfire or become the target of militias, paramilitaries and government forces.
Every year, dozens of journalists are killed and wounded in war zones. In 2000, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported 24 journalists’ deaths in countries from Colombia to Sierra Leone. In many cases, the victims could have done little to survive and were singled out for murder or caught in a hostile situation with no escape.
Every hostile environment has different rules, if any, and what works to get out of a tight spot in Kosovo and Iraq might not apply to Chechnya or Afghanistan. So the point of the course, taught by former British Marines and special forces, is to learn to assess the risk of a situation, and do your best to get out of it.
In a hostage situation, or a detainment, the course taught some helpful hints:
You can tell a lot about the immediate danger of the situation by assessing who your captors are. If they’re a raving bunch of teenagers fueled by the local drug of choice, and they are wielding AK-47 machine guns, worry. If the terrorists are organized and march you quickly away, they may not be your friends but they are most likely professionals with a longer-term plan that involves you staying alive.
Avoid making any movements or saying anything that can be misinterpreted by the captor. A sudden twitch can be met with a backhand or a bullet.
Avoid complaining and do your best to keep your composure. If you disrupt their plan, your captures might not hesitate to leave you behind — and dead.
If a hood is put over your head, breathe through it by putting your mouth on the fabric. This prevents trapping exhaled carbon dioxide in the hood.
Try to gain information from the hostage-takers. But keep your probing at a level that doesn’t challenge your captors, causing them to lose face and you to lose your life.
In such a situation, hostages suffer from a complete collapse of morale. In a matter of seconds, you have gone from traveling down a road with colleagues to a situation of helplessness. Try to rebuild morale by gaining control of the situation. Listen to what is going on around you. If you are with colleagues, make a coughing noise. Chances are somebody will recognize the sound as you, and slowly bring your group together again, even if you can’t see each other.
InsertArt(1124762)‘BANG-BANG’Journalists have an expression for the violence that often goes along with covering conflict zones. We call it “bang-bang,” which is usually used to describe a hairy encounter in the field. But “bang-bang” can be anything from the crack of a rifle to the sound of a mortar whizzing past. And it’s good to know which sound is which and what to do when you hear it or see it.
If a grenade rolls out in front of you, don’t run. The typical grenade fuse is three to five seconds, which only gives you enough time to drop flat on the ground and cover your ears. Keep your feet pointed toward the grenade, so the soles of your shoes catch the impact of the blast. A grenade’s killing power depends on the contour of the ground. Because the shrapnel explodes at an upward angle, you have a chance of surviving near where it detonates.
Another tip when caught in crossfire: Seek shelter. But be careful what cover you seek. Behind a car? Not safe, because most bullets will easily penetrate a car door. A brick wall will do the trick if the weapons being fired are low velocity. But high-powered assault rifles will easily fire through reinforced concrete. Keep moving to try to get out of the crossfire as soon as possible.
‘ADRENALINE IS BROWN’ The five-day course was full of British military slang, like “the color of adrenaline is brown and it’s flowing down your pants.” Squirting copious amounts of theatrical blood, our instructors used an insightful combination of booby traps, role playing and live fire demonstrations to create hostile situations in the English countryside.
Midway through the course, we had a visit by a couple known as “Mr. and Mrs. Semtex,” who talked about mines and booby traps.
So how did I fare up on that hill in Kosovo three years ago? In hindsight, I could have been reassured by the professionalism of my captors, who were Serb paramilitaries in the middle of an ethnic cleansing operation. But if the same thing happened to me today, I’m sure I still wouldn’t be impressed by their organizational skills.
The paramilitaries bundled me and my translator into a second vehicle and drove us to what looked like an abandoned farmhouse. Inside, the place was an arsenal. These elite paramilitaries — who called themselves “Frenkies” — were burning their way through the Kosovo countryside, expelling ethnic Albanians from their homes.
They searched us and our car, and then stood us with our hands over our heads and our faces against a wooden fence. The whole incident took about an hour, but it seemed like a whole day. Our armored car was returned to us by the commander, whose nomme de guerre was Brasil. “Don’t come back here,” he said.
Preston Mendenhall is MSNBC.com’s international editor based in London.