Three Essential Tools for Survival:Experience of a Journalist Inside Afghan Prison

Discussion in 'International Politics' started by joe81, Sep 25, 2010.

  1. joe81

    joe81 Regular Member

    Apr 24, 2010
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    Successive waves of heat and dust rose off the desert floor and slowed our movement to a brisk walk. We had neither eaten nor slept for days and our kit was modest – a few warm undergarments and a blanket apiece.

    Quiet prevailed during the day and we studied our charts in the scant shadows of sage brush and scrub trees. A narrow escape was made in the early morning when our pursuers swarmed the valley below, shouting over megaphones in Russian and firing vehicle-mounted DShKs into the hills around us.

    We waited. Night came and we slipped down into the valley, working our way to an abandoned bunker. I don’t recall sleeping, but we must have drifted off – because next came the deafening roar of AK-47 fire within the confines of the concrete bunker.

    No longer were we evaders – we had stepped over into that hazy twilight zone of captivity. We were separated and, in spite of the beatings and interrogations which dragged long into the night, we were never really worried. We knew this was only an exercise. SERE school ended a day and a half later.

    SERE training meets the modern battlefield
    Survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. This is no simple shopping list. This is a complex order of priorities that are based on the successes – and failures – of others who have gone before us. They have theoretical value for all service men and women who demonstrate a ‘high risk of capture’ by the enemy.

    Times do change, however, and the wars we find ourselves embroiled in presently are critically different from the Korean conflict and the Vietnam War, (the cornerstones of SERE doctrine). The experience of SERE should not be minimised. Indeed, it has served me well and encourages very personal considerations of crisis management and survival strategy. My experiences in modern conflict have led me to reorganise this survival strategy, and I have focused on three areas I think are vital to evasion and captivity: organisational identity, strategic fluidity, and personal reconciliation.

    I have only planned a resistance/captivity strategy on two occasions.

    This was during my time as a journalist in Afghanistan. On the first occasion, I had nearly 24 hours to consider my plan of action before going alone into a hostile situation. The second occasion occurred much more quickly – over the course of about 15 minutes - and was the same situation for which I had previously planned. Having found myself in the middle of it, I was forced to make several quick adjustments as things were rapidly progressing in a direction I could not have foreseen. All good plans are just that, I suppose, and not much more.

    The third influence on this discussion comes from outside my own experiences. They are those of my friend, Anthony Malone, who has been incarcerated for over 2 years in Poli Charki prison in Afghanistan.

    The first step: Nailing down identity
    Organisation and identity are first stage considerations that are and should be adjustable up until the actual point of capture and initial interrogation. We were always instructed to only disclose name, rank, service number, and date of birth. These things are set in stone under the guidelines of the third Geneva Convention, which specifically addresses conduct and treatment of prisoners of war.

    They are, however, not always practical or, more importantly, conducive to survival. Before each potential capture scenario (as a journalist, I treated every venture outside my Kabul hotel room as such a scenario), one must decide who one is and who one represents. Taliban captors, for example, may not recognise the various and sundry coalition uniforms in the field, especially after having been sanitised of rank, rate, and unit badges. Likewise, many journalists, aid workers, and private security have taken to wearing military kit of various origins.

    Unlike previous conflicts, corporate identity is not always clear. This is a tremendous advantage to those facing capture. Depending on my audience and location, I often presented myself as Canadian (before the days Canada has heavily involved in ISAF operations), or Swedish (at that time also a non-combatant), or even Turkish (and thus sharing the same religion as my potential aggressors).

    If my identity appeared consistent with my behaviour, as well as non-threatening, my profile in my aggressors’ eyes was much diminished. Hesitation on their behalf buys time. It also introduces uncertainty in their assessment of you as a high value target.

    This, I feel, is where Anthony was caught out. At the time of his capture, he was travelling in a fairly new and conspicuous armoured vehicle with an entourage of armed security. His role as a private security operator could have been assumed from miles away, thus reducing his opportunity to either resist or escape.

    Oftentimes, our organisational identity strategies can buy us time and room for manoeuvre. Perhaps these moments can only be measured in seconds – seconds it takes your potential captor to evaluate you and the threat you may or may not represent. They are, however, seconds which can save your life. They may provide you the opportunity to continue to talk and confuse your aggressor or, if you are armed, they provide you the option of escalating first.

    The second step: It's time to chop and change
    If evasion fails, capture must be approached with a clear but fluid strategy. The first 24 to 48 hours are crucial, but only in the sense that, as a fresh captive, you are at your peak strength and mental alertness; and, this is the moment during which you must establish your worth.

    In 2007, I was a freelance journalist and was not insured against kidnapping or wrongful death. I realised, however, that this could not always be played as a trump card. While non-affiliation is useful to a point, once captured, you are, in a way, charged with some measure of guilt. It doesn’t matter on what grounds or by whom, the authority of the captor is final and expressed in terms reinforced by the threat of violence.

    Your identity is locked in at this point and one must decide how to stay alive, but also how to begin negotiating. I always carried a printed copy of one of my press articles that included my picture and name in the byline. This, more than a passport (not always advisable to carry), established my identity and my corporate worth.

    In this respect, Anthony was fortunate. He was accused of outstanding debt by his captors and, in Afghan society, debtors remain incarcerated until they or their family clear that debt (though technically this statute has been overturned under new Afghan law). In Anthony’s case, this created an opportunity to take stock – as the corrupt legal system took time to put charges in motion (after 2 years, a physical charge sheet has yet to be produced).

    At this stage, strategy begs re-evaluation. It must remain fluid and, I think in Anthony’s case, I would have agreed to immediate press coverage. Instead, when granted a line of communication to the outside world, Anthony declined press attention, as he felt himself innocent and wanted to work his grievances through the system.

    Crisis management may be employed against a situation lasting only seconds. It may need to be employed in long term situations, as well. One’s strategy while in captivity must remain fluid and it must leverage the identity and organisation established at the outset.

    The third step: Make your peace
    The third stage hopefully arrives shortly following the resolution of the strategic stage outlined above. In Anthony’s case, he will be forced to wait, though it would appear some aspects of the resolution stage have already begun. Feelings of guilt in captivity are debilitating. They can sabotage efforts to cope with confinement, estrangement, and the attempt by captors to dehumanise prisoners.

    Guilt resolution and personal forgiveness are key elements to getting past the trauma of being taken captive – they defend against depression and psychological isolation. We watched as Anthony’s letters changed over the years, both in tone and in subject. We watched as the drama of his life unfolded on paper – of how he lamented past mistakes, both personal and professional.

    In some cases, he did ask forgiveness of others and it seemed that this was a crucial step in getting on with the business of resisting and fighting for his own release. As I said, he chose to pursue the bureaucratic/legal route, which I feel may have prolonged his captivity. Once a strategy is chosen, however, if it affords the possibility of release, it must be prosecuted, and prosecuted aggressively.

    News of Anthony’s case and his personal struggle continue to filter through to his friends and family in the UK, thanks largely to the diligence of a mutual friend and fellow journalist. Neither of us wants to speak prematurely of his release, but we often find ourselves musing about how Anthony will be once he is released from captivity.

    His values and moral compass have suffered immeasurable damage, his psychological stability seems dramatically weakened and he is physically unwell. Anthony’s entire world has shifted to rest firmly upon his perception of his own guilt and innocence. He will likely view these things from a very personal and possibly guilt-driven perspective.

    They have likewise become the focal point of his life. Anthony will need to seek reconciliation with his immediate family and his friends. He will need to seek reconciliation with himself if he is to move past any feelings of personal wrong doing, as well as feelings of anger and resentment he may have to others immediately responsible for his condition: the Home Office, the British Embassy, members of the press, and, of course, his captors.

    This is a little-talked about aspect of survival because it occurs post facto and away from public eyes. Nevertheless it is well documented among POWs of the Vietnam War and requires an equally deliberate strategy if the captive cum freeman is to return to any kind of meaningful life. We worry that Anthony may well be beyond such reconciliation. It seems clear to me that that process must be started while still in captivity, in order to focus one’s energy on release.

    Taking on the body politic
    During my SERE phase in the military, it seemed implied that a combatant POW need not, nor should not, be concerned with bringing about his own release. Escape certainly was an option, but it was taken for granted that your government would represent your interests and lobby for your release.

    I feel strongly that these distinctions don’t exist in modern warfare.

    I have watched the British government largely ignore Anthony’s case, and his status as a British Army veteran effectively counts for naught. The modern captive can, and should, persistently lobby and leverage for his own release. As outlined above, press contacts are one avenue, but other advocacy routes are equally, if not more, effective. These include Lawyers Without Borders, Fair Trials Abroad, the Red Cross, and various NGOs dedicated to keeping the lines of communication open with captives, as well as advocating for their release.

    The final day of my SERE phase ended with a meal, a debrief, and an undisturbed night’s rest. I re-experienced that euphoria of reaching safety once I returned from Afghanistan, some five years later.

    Anthony’s internment has extended well beyond the limits of my own experiences, and my imagination. He is, of course, no longer a combatant, though it could be argued that his role as a private security contractor changes things. The British Home Office and Embassy, for example, employ contractors like Anthony and often put them in harms way in combat theatres like Afghanistan (according to the Home Office press office, their casualty count is not for public consumption).

    The point is, politics complicates what is an otherwise clear set of priorities: survival, evasion, resistance, and escape. I add my caveats to this strategy because, as we often say in the industry, these guidelines are literally written in blood. By heeding the successes and mistakes of others, we could, ourselves, avoid the trials and tribulations of those like Anthony Malone.

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