Monday 8th December 2008
Hello again people!
So much to talk about!
With only a week to go before I head home, there’s a lot to do! I have an exam on Friday, and we have to arrange to pay our final rent and bills, which is proving to be very confusing!
Also, last week I went on a really amazing Security training course run by the French Army that was really fun, but also exhausting.
We went off on Monday night, 6 of us from my class, plus 4 french journalists and another french student. We were told some basic background information about “Valbonia” the made-up country we were visiting, which was in the middle of a complex political emergency (Catholics vs Protestants, militia, guerilla warfare etc). We arrived on base (at the UNHCR headquarters) quite late after sitting for an hour and a half at the first checkpoint, and we were set up in an army tent inside a warehouse.
It was FREEZING cold and it snowed on the Wednesday, but aside from that it was really fun!
The first night there was some shelling and gunfire in the distance, but nothing too worrying. On Tuesday we had some 4×4 training, and had to drive the big old land rovers around a course, going up and down really steep tracks and learning how to steer when the car starts to slide etc. Then we were told to go and do an assessment of the refugee situation, but on route we got stopped by militia at a checkpoint, where they discovered grenades in our car. We figured they had planted them, but weren’t sure as no-one had actually checked the car for grenades before we left the camp (Rule number one! Always check your cars thoroughly!).
After each little excursion we had a de-briefing to discuss what had happened and how we could have handled things.
Later that day we had to send some people to negotiate with “Commander Vladimir”, leader of the militia forces, for humanitarian access, and ended up getting two of our guys kidnapped, but they were released shortly afterwards.
That night some armed gunmen came into our tent and kidnapped a couple of guys, so we had to stay up huddled round the little heater negotiating with the kidnappers, UNHCR, the French army and the French ambassador (all of whom would conveniently not answer the radio every time we came under attack!). We also had to use all the military call signs and things to communicate, so there was a lot of “Mike Victor, Mike Victor for Uniform November, Over” etc.
Eventually the hostages were released around 3am, and the shelling stopped.
The next day there were several more checkpoints, and at one of them we all got kidnapped and blindfolded and “tortured” – well, not really, as the French army have very strict rules about what they are and aren’t allowed to do to us! We also had to meet with the behavioural psychologist afterwards to discuss our feelings and make sure we hadn’t been traumatised!
Most of the “torture” involved digging holes blindfolded and running about, but some people were forced to drink a lot of water or made to “shoot” their friends.
Then we were evacuated, and had to prepare an evacuation plan, but on the road out a mine exploded, so we had to wait for the experts to come, and they showed us how to safely exit a car in a minefield etc. Then they trained us on how to recognise mines and markers for mines.
That night there was a major attack, and they kept us up all night throwing grenades at our tent and setting off the car alarms (they only used blank bullets obviously, and the grenades are practice ones the army use, they’re plastic, but they still blow up with a huge flash and a bang! We noticed several holes in our warehouse roof the next morning!)
They also at one point came right into the tent and started shooting at us – we were all huddled at the back behind our camp-beds, and Marnie provided some atmosphere by screaming her head off whenever anyone came in!
After a night of barely any sleep we awoke to the last day of training, including another evacuation, where once again we were all kidnapped and led off into the woods blindfolded. After a while we realised they had all gone, and removed our blindfolds to find ourselves in the middle of a minefield with a map and a compass, so we had to navigate our way out.
Last but not least we had some weapons training, not because any of us will ever use guns and grenades, but to help us recognise the different kinds of weapons and what kind of damage they will do (e.g. which ones have a range of 25m or 400m, how far away you have to be to be safe, which bullets will go through Kevlar or concrete etc).
After that we met the French troop (or regiment?) who had been doing the simulations with us – we hadn’t really seen them much, as they’d been mostly dressed as guerilla militia and we’d been blindfolded for a lot of it!
They were really sweet, and gave us each a little pin from their regiment as a momento. The boys were VERY impressed with the gorgeous blonde soldier, and all swore they were going to join the French army immediately!
Anyway, it was all really fun and exciting, and I learnt a lot, especially what “MAINS SUR LA TETE!!!!” means, although it was very cold!
After that I had a great weekend, as my lovely friend Bee came over on Friday to visit me, and we went with my cousin to see Tracy Chapman – a huge treat, and she was incredibly good!
After a very late night Bee headed off home on Saturday, and I was invited around to my hot neighbour A’s house to have dinner with his parents! It was all a bit strange until I realised he had invited quite a few people, not just me!
However, there was a odd vibe, and his dad (after several glasses of wine) kept commenting on how much I clearly want babies while his mother kept reminding me that ALL of her children are single at the moment!
It was fun, but I’m now knackered after such a busy week and weekend, and have to start revising for my last exam on Friday.
I hope you’re all well and happy, and I’ll be seeing some of you over the holidays before I go off to Liverpool for part 2 of the course!
I’ve also attached a copy of the newsletter I’m still writing for the orphanage in Nepal, as we’ve had some really great news I wanted to share with all of you! Anyone who would like to continue receiving our newsletter please let me know and I’ll add you to our monthly email list.
that’s about it for now,
tons of love
“I swear that’s not my grenade!” Maya