Magazine article The American Prospect

Evasive Maneuvers: Journalists Learn What to Do If They're Captured in Afghanistan-Or Rural Virginia

Magazine article The American Prospect

Evasive Maneuvers: Journalists Learn What to Do If They're Captured in Afghanistan-Or Rural Virginia

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 Taft, 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.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

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 Centurion's training facility. …

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