‘I just witnessed an abduction in Thailand’

It’s 1am dead of night deep in the jungle at Pak Chong Military Camp in remote Thailand.

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A rude awakening from gunfire nearby the bunker I’m staying in.

 

Then in a cloud of shouting and gunfire… an abduction. But it’s not what it looks like.

 

Shaun Filer and his colleagues are security and military experts working across the globe to prevent kidnap and ransom situations. It’s just one part of intense hostile environment training they’ve designed to equip journalists, aid workers, and those travelling to high-risk destinations with the skills to stay alive.

 

“Nothing can prepare you for that situation,” says Filer. “We try to make it somewhat intense just to make some of the decision points, take away some of the learnings from the course so people are focusing on what are they supposed to do next, what should they be communicating, how should they be acting.”

 

There were up to 35,000 kidnappings for ransom globally in 2012. That’s not counting the estimated 70 per cent of kidnappings that go unreported.

 

So far in 2013… 92 journalists and media crew have been killed on the frontline and 96 aid workers have lost their lives while working to save others

 

That makes hostile environment training even more important to survival. And if participants expect to sit in a cosy conference room and discuss tactics – they should think again.

 

“I am trembling with fear,” says one participant in the program. “I was genuinely scared and it was not nice having a bag over my head and being kidnapped is full on.”

 

Kidnappings are never fun and Filer’s training program is designed to help keep people alive – not to make them feel safe.

 

“We have 20 people from literally all corners of the globe here attending, this course, and they’ll be going through a series of challenging exercises and when I say challenge I mean quite challenging exercises from out here in the jungle into urban terrain,” says Ken one of the trainers. “We keep them out for seven days and we do test them quite rigorously.”

 

There’s no exact formula for working out if you will be kidnapped but Filer says usually there is a financial motive.

 

“Kidnappings can happen anywhere but there are trouble spots or hotspots and you see trends,” says Filer. “There’s a lot of places where it is a business and people make money.”

 

“It’s all about money…”

 

More than 90% of kidnappings are resolved with a payment.

 

In the past 3 years, G8 countries paid $70 million US dollars in ransoms – an average of $2.5 million per victim.

 

Australia paid around $5 million dollars in ransoms. Much of which ends up in the hands of terrorist groups.

 

Australian journalist Nigel Brennan was kidnapped in Somalia and held captive for 462 days. Since his escape he’s been working with Shaun, Ken and veteran Foreign Correspondent Peter Cave on designing these courses so they’re as ‘real-life’ as possible.

 

“I fell to the ground and was kicked and punched and dragged through the mosque and out into a courtyard and believed within the next 60 seconds I was about to take a bullet to the head,” Brennan told ABC’s 7:30 report in 2008. “It was like an out of body experience watching myself being dragged to my death.”

 

Most of the participants here are experiencing this training for the first time. Many could be deployed to warzones or high-risk situations at any time.

 

The need for the training is real, and as Cave says, sometimes you don’t know what will happen.

 

“Probably the scariest personal incident was in the 1987 coup in Fuji when along with the BBC correspondent Red Harrison I was arrested by the army, I was taken to the basement of a hotel,” says Peter Cave. “I was put up against a wall. The soldiers basically discussed whether they were going to shoot us or not, and I can remember standing up against that wall thinking if they start shooting, will I have enough strength to throw myself against the cinder block wall beside me and possibly burst through it and runaway. It was that desperate.”

 

Over the seven day program participants are subjects to hardcore training, from weapons, to dealing with dead bodies on the job, getting out of civil unrest and riots, a 101 in identifying explosives and landmines, evasive driving techniques to get you through militia roadblocks or checkpoints, and how to cross-risky borders safely.

 

Participants are also given comprehensive first aid and medical training.

 

“The way we’ve perceived safety and security when you travelling into international locations or really remote locations is, is kind of a game of one per cents,” says Filler. “If you make good decisions that’s one per cent more safe, if you make bad decisions that’s one per cent less safe.”

 

“The reason I do this is to help people…. to make people safer, and to probably avoid making some of the mistakes that we have.”

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