This week has found me dressed in kevlar body armour and the famous blue peacekeeper helmet, driving a 4×4 through a minefield, leading a team through checkpoints manned by drunken soldiers, and being ambushed by a rebel militia group. It was all a simulation, of course, but most definitely the most dramatic of my otherwise fairly sedate South Sudan exploits nevertheless.
To contextualise, I have been on the UN SSAFE (Safe and Secure Approaches to Field Environments) training, an exercise whereby some Real Men conspire to somehow make land mines and kidnappings a surprisingly dull topic of study. Three days of acronyms, procedures, powerpoint presentations and the constant refrain of “use your common sense”. Worthwhile, of course, but – 4X4 driving aside – much less exciting than it initially sounds.
Even if the largely classroom-based format left something to be desired, the instructors themselves were most interesting individuals indeed. The gentleman who headed up proceedings was a former Royal Marine called Shiner. Shiner called me Mr Hat and said I reminded him of Joe Strummer. I liked Shiner. His second in command was a stocky Croatian with an exhaustive knowledge of minefields, and some suitably horrific stories to boot. His “when I was a bad guy” intro to one particular piece of counsel had the unsettling ring of truth to it. Anyway, he was now in United Nations and to atone for his sins he had us to practice his pedagogy upon.
There are a few things that have stuck with me. Firstly, don’t trust the movies. If someone throws a grenade at you do not attempt to throw it back: it will not work. Similarly, if you step on a land mine you’ve had it. There is no chance to slide a knife under your shoe to enable you to safely step off the trigger plate, or other such Bourne-style shenanigans. Once you’ve tripped the fuse the first you’ll know about it is when you are ten feet in the air waving goodbye to your leg. Indiscriminate and awful weapons, the most depressing fact of all is that three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council are non-signatories to the anti-land mine Ottawa Treaty. We live in a terrible world.
It is interesting also to observe, however, how that which is self-evidently the best option – or at the very least the least dumb thing to do – in a classroom quickly becomes anything but obvious when put into practice. Of the 20 or so others on the course there were very few I would like to find myself in a genuine security incident with. Indeed, if I were to encounter a potentially violent scenario, in several instances I would probably feel safer with the aggressors than my fellow trainees. Common sense, it transpires, is thin on the ground under pressure.
But even amidst the contingency planning and worst case scenarios it eventually emerged that the most effective method of ensuring your safety is really quite simple, conceptually at least. Here in the humanitarian world we have an especial term for it – acceptance – but in essence the idea boils down to two very common, but infrequently practiced, values: respect and humility.
The idea is that in order to be safe in the area in which you are working you need to have the community on your side, which is best achieved through gaining the trust of those you are living amongst and serving. You will have to balance the very real needs of the communities against their inevitable demands for things beyond the scope or remit of your project, and the hard-nosed realities of budgets and donor priorities, and this will involve saying no. Promising the world when designing a project might feel good at the time, and it may even have been well intentioned, but to promise something and then not deliver can seriously damage your standing. Much better, and much more difficult, to maintain your integrity and be honest throughout.
Acceptance, then, is a long-term strategy that is easy to conceptualise, difficult to implement, and easy to lose. It may sound straightforward, but I expect that in practice it will prove anything but. Common sense, I have heard, is thin on the ground under pressure…