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27 January 2003updated 24 Sep 2015 12:16pm

Tortured and beaten in Wales

Christina Lamb, training for war, is confronted by too much blood too soon after breakfast

By Christina Lamb

It was the moment all war correspondents secretly dread. I was driving down a muddy track with four colleagues, one British, two Norwegian and a Swede, when a shot rang out. Four men in army fatigues and balaclavas jumped out and drunkenly blocked our way, pointing sub-machine guns at the car and forcing us out. “F***ing Americans!” they shouted as they threw us to the ground, then stripped us of our wallets and watches. When one of my colleagues protested, they kicked him to the side and shot him.

All part of the normal hazards of reporting a war, you might think – except that this ambush happened in south Wales. The gun-waving guerrillas were local youth from a drama school in Hereford and our editors were paying £1,800 a head for us to spend a week in the hands of former SAS commandos, to be trained in surviving “hostile environments”.

“One dead, one raped, three shitting themselves,” barked the man from the SAS. “You didn’t handle that very well, did you?” We shook our heads shamefacedly. Lotta from Sweden was in charge of education at her newspaper, Dan the documentary-maker was only a few years out of university, and the Norwegians were usually based in Oslo. But in my 16th year on the road as a foreign correspondent, I had no such excuse.

The long run-up to the war in Iraq has given foreign correspondents much too much time to think about how we earn our living, particularly for those with serious doubts about the wisdom of Gulf War: the sequel. It has also left foreign editors with no excuse not to prepare their staff. This is not always for altruistic reasons – there is the not insignificant matter of war insurance and reduced premiums for those who have taken a course.

Until recently, war reporting was something learnt on the job. But just as the war on terror is a new kind of war for the armed forces, so is reporting it. Suddenly, the front line can be anywhere and just being western can make you a target, as the murder of Daniel Pearl horribly illustrated.

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Who better to train journalists for war zones than the SAS? The first to spot the gap in the market was Andy Kain, founder of AKE. Kain’s 11 years in the SAS included the Pebble Island raid during the Falklands, but he decided to give up active service after fathering two daughters. Following his lead, many former members of the SAS and SBS have jumped on the bandwagon and journalists from all over the world are pouring into Britain to be ambushed, abducted and generally kicked around. From Wiltshire to Herefordshire, they are paying good money to stand in showers and be gassed, ford icy rivers in chemical weapons suits and be bundled into the boots of cars and kidnapped.

Simply looking at the daunting schedule was enough to make me yearn for a nine-to-five job in a local bookshop. I wasn’t sure I really wanted to know what all these firearms could do to me, and as for 8am Tuesday, “Controlling Bleeding”, that seemed far too near breakfast. Much of the course was first aid, taught by a bouncy Malaysian woman called Harpal who introduced herself alarmingly, saying: “I love blood”, and showing a series of gory pictures. But by the end of the week, she had us bandaging and splinting compound fractures and knowing what to do if someone jumps out of a burning building in front of us or steps on a landmine.

The SAS vocabulary was at times quaint, using words such as “partisans” for the enemy, and at times alarming – for example, the expression “soft targets”. “That’s you,” explained Andy.

Almost all of us on the course were heading for the Gulf and there was a palpable sense of unease. “What can Saddam do to us if we’re in Kurdistan?” asked an American photographer nervously. A Canadian TV reporter told of a colleague whose editor was sending her to Qatar, from where she would move into Iraq. First, she was sent on the course: after day one, she called and said she did not want to be a foreign correspondent after all.

It is not clear what effect this might have on the people of Wales. Locals are now warned of the exercises after a couple out walking their dog witnessed an ambush and called 999, resulting in lots of arrests and red faces. Andy argues it provides an outlet for the anger and boredom of local youth. But if, in years to come, Wales becomes a hotbed of gun-waving partisans, remember, you read it here first.

Christina Lamb is a foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times. She was named Foreign Correspondent of the Year in the What the Papers Say Awards for 2002

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