Page last updated at 08:56 GMT, Thursday, 16 April 2009 09:56 UK

Technology in the line of fire

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News


Jason Palmer dodges bullets with aid agency technicians on a hostile environments course

You might not think that training in sniper avoidance or mine detection is particularly suited to your average telecoms engineer.

But when natural disasters strike and wipe out communications infrastructure, or when humanitarian crises strike in war-torn areas that may never have had such infrastructure, technology plays a pivotal role that rarely makes it on to the world stage as media coverage begins.

It is expertise with information and communications technologies (ICT) that permit aid agencies to communicate with their staff and each other.

So, I find myself training with a number of ICT experts and members of the Folgore Parachute Brigade on an Italian military base.

ICT experts are often the first "boots on the ground" after a disaster - and increasingly, aid agency workers are directly targeted. Attacks on the UN offices in Baghdad in 2003 and Algiers in 2007 stand as the starkest reminders that the rules of engagement are shifting.

The two-week training is part of a three-year programme, organised by the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) and funded with more than $6m (£4m) from the Vodafone Foundation/United Nations Foundation Technology Partnership.

Groups of around 20 participants are trained here and they in turn go home and train their colleagues; the aim is to get 500 people trained before the close of the partnership.

Mines warning sign
Minefields are not likely to be marked out where these participants go

Give it up

A kind of obstacle course has been set up for us by our army trainers; small teams are given a jeep with a driver, a map, a two-way radio, and checkpoints to visit in a course around the base. We set off.

Our first encounter is with a couple of machine-gun wielding cadets who appear to know our driver and strike up a chat. Soon they have taken our radio and made a good try at taking the map.

One of them says to me: "Nice watch."

"Guys? What do I do here?," I ask my teammates. No one even turns around to give an answer; three voices in unison: "Give it to him."

As we drive away, I'm told making eye contact, engaging in any way, is ill-advised. Compliance - handing over watches or just about anything else - is the only sensible option.

This is when it first occurs to me what little power these experts can exert in these situations, and what aggression they may face, as they go about a fundamentally humanitarian job.

Though some of them have backgrounds in, for example, peacekeeping forces, some are simply tech wizards with a desire to help out in emergencies - and their work is done best when it is done before the media even arrive.

Straight on

We move on to sniper training, and special forces expert Renato Daretti runs some army cadets through a demonstration of what not to do when a convoy is attacked by snipers.

Renato shoots down all the perceived wisdom from films: bullets don't blow up cars, action is very stop-start, and it's not really best to run zig-zag when you're under fire.

Snipers in Florence
Strategy: escape in several short runs, in a straight line toward cover

"Unless you're a rugby player, zig-zagging is a waste of energy and will be difficult," he says.

The sage advice that "if you can't see the sniper, the sniper can't see you" is repeated over and over.

In fact, much of what we're hearing could be called simple good sense. But we're being told what we would think if the situation were real; it's common sense but takes into account that when the bullets are flying, confusion and raw fear will play a strong role.


I pile on the bus with the other trainees toward dinner. The tech-y proclivities of the group are revealed as a shiny new model of GPS receiver is passed around to admire.

The camaraderie that has built up among the participants in the preceding two weeks is evident.

Gianluca Bruni, a head at WFP's Emergency Preparedness and Response Branch tells me this is another side benefit of the course: when they see each other again, putting this training to use in the field, they'll already have a rapport.

What I know that they do not is that we are about to be kidnapped, en masse. They, on the other hand, have already had classroom training on what to do in kidnapping scenarios.

There is an element of surprise to the kidnapping, and the World Food Programme has asked that I not describe in detail what happened once we were kidnapped.

What I can say is that much of it, even though I knew it was an exercise, was frightening - most of all because we didn't know what was next.

"Midtonia" map (WFP)
Classroom exercises included planning a deployment in fictional "Midtonia"

I hear from next to me one of my fellow captives call "stop stop stop" - the not-very-coded code word that he had had enough.

The exercise was designed to mimic the progression of events in a kidnapping scenario: at first, when the kidnappers themselves are at their most nervous and rushed, there is the most frenetic activity and aggression.

Eventually things calmed down as we reached a place the kidnappers considered secure.

As the lone journalist of the crowd I was taken to the interrogation room and asked by the kidnappers for the name of a contact at the BBC who would trump up some cash for my life.

"I've got a friend, yes, but no one with any power," I say.

"Give us the name of your friend," I'm told by an interrogator I can't see. "He'll worry about finding someone powerful."


WFP's Gianluca Bruni on how to stay alive when kidnapped

We were all exhausted by the time we were "rescued" in a gunfight. But the debriefing afterwards with our erstwhile captors about how we felt and what we should have done took close to two hours.

The kidnapping had clearly gotten under everyone's skin.

And it should - as we tucked into the cold pizza that was left out for us upon our release, I remembered hearing at the beginning of the training:

"You should leave here with everything you might need in your emotional toolkit."

BBC video producer Andrew Webb contributed the video for this piece.

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