Being Brave in Bekuran

 14th Jul 2017

By Dr. Wolfgang Jamann, CEO/Secretary General of CARE International

Connect with Dr Wolfgang Jamann on Twitter @wjamann

Everyone had just about had enough – it was midnight, we were left in an unknown territory with plenty hostility around us, and now the sky’s floodgates broke open, drenching the entire area. Soaking wet, the hand-held GPS barely visible, we were hoping that batteries would not die, and that we would at least have time to reach a safe haven where we could take a breath. We had been ambushed, chased through deserted army barracks by armed rebels, and had to navigate our way through mined paths – not always with success. And the rains were nothing compared to the thunderstorm pounding us now. No, this definitely did not feel like simulation anymore.

Two white vans stopped next to us and informed us that indeed the exercise had become too dangerous and that we would be brought to our next destination by car. The seven-minute ride was brief relief after which we were left on our own again, trying to prepare for a scary and uncomfortable night in a barrack, where few of us slept at all. This did not bode well for the full field day yet to come…

CARE, like many aid organizations, offers a comprehensive safety and security training course called Hostile Environment Awareness Training (HEAT) for their staff. The simulation exercises are as demanding and stressful as the real-life situations one can face on the ground so they are mandatory for those travelling into high-risk areas. In addition to vital security systems and on-the-ground assessments, personal skills and awareness of risks and dangers provide another dimension of safety, particularly when confronted with dangerous situations. And as we know, there are many.

Wolfgang Jamann (right) during one of the calmer moments at HEAT training

To put things in perspective, every year, 20,000 people are killed by mines worldwide. In 2015, almost 300 aid workers were victims of a major attack, and 109 lost their lives. On the ground, the dangers of traffic accidents surpass any other risks, but our colleagues also have to deal with the threat of tropical diseases, hostile environments and health hazards that come from overwork, mental stress and burn-out. The HEAT training courses aim to address the multiple dimensions of risks, increase awareness and preparedness, and help participants assess the levels of mental and physical stress that they can tolerate. The courses also provide tools for dealing with risks and dangers, through combinations of theory, class-room exercise, and simulation and experience learning. 

With an upcoming field trip to a war-torn zone, I was one of seven participants of different professional levels and experiences, in this course tailor-made for CARE by the Centre for Safety and Development in the Netherlands. And while we thought that here (and neighbouring Germany, where part of the training took place) were safe countries to be, we found that war-torn ‘Bekuran’ brought more hazards than we could really cope with. Yes, everyone was prepared with a grab bag, was in fairly good physical shape, and we were attentive and ready to get dirty, wet and stressed but by the last day, our limits had been severely tested. The sun was up and we kept sustained on an improvised breakfast of cookies and ready-to-eat meals, unaware of the minute by minute challenges of the hot day ahead. Behind every corner lurked something: realistic situations featuring wounded people, unfriendly checkpoints, and too many guns around. The first-aid, in particular, was great to practice, because when was the last time we really got involved in an accident, and how well were we prepared? Good questions – along with the realisation that what we were going through in a week is a longer-lasting reality for many people in different parts of the world.

Now we know how to stop a bleeding wound, calm a disoriented person, and lift a heavy accident victim out of a cellar or out of a crossfire. But no less important, we definitely learned how to work as a team in stressful situations, and discovered hidden talents that surfaced during the course. And we definitely learned about our limitations and how to stay clear of minefields and uncontrollable situations.

‘Being Brave in Bekuran’ was the name of our WhatsApp group; ‘Taking CARE of each other’ could have been another.  

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