Media: Is that a camera or an anti-tank weapon?

If you're going to cover a war you need survival training, not journalism school. To that end, Tristana Moore learns what to do when kidnapped, and how to save lives with a Tampax
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The Independent Culture
They say that since Bosnia, journalists have been seen as legitimate targets on the battlefield. Some soldiers even regard it as sport to shoot at them. Thankfully, news organisations like ITN do not send out their producers or reporters to a war-zone untrained. They make use of courses, such as the ones that are run by Centurion Risk Assessment Services, where the instructors are all ex-Royal Marines. A look at their CVs shows that they've been to some of the most dangerous countries in the world, including Cambodia and Algeria.

The aim of the course is to teach journalists about the risks they face during assignments. I was sent to Hampshire by ITN, for a one-week "Hostile Environment Course". The training centre was a stately home called Heckfield Place, near the village of Hartley Wintney. Arriving at the local train station, I was picked up by a Centurion representative and taken to the manor house. Driving through the imposing gates, and along the winding path, "Muzza" filled me in on a few details. I was one of 15 journalists attending the course, and the only woman.

The week was to focus on first aid, weapons training and mine-spotting. It all seemed as straightforward as an IT course. Until one morning, we were driving along in a jeep and the play-acting suddenly ended.

"All of you out, now!"

We were physically thrown out of the vehicle and on to the ground. We'd been ambushed. I heard gunfire and panicked. Our attackers were armed with assault rifles. Someone put a hood over my head and we were told to march in a line. We were then hurled on to the muddy grass.

The instructors analysed our response. I had tried to take off my hood to escape and was promptly shot dead. This is not an assignment for wimps. Whether you're a woman or a man, you'll be treated just the same by your assailants. During captivity, the key strategy is to control the initial shock.

We were set some challenging tasks. We had to look out for land mines, trip wires, booby traps and any other "hostile" objects.

"The aim is to see things before you get blown up," says Steve, a former Marine. We were shown a video, including clips from various wars around the world - body parts strewn across roads and blood everywhere. The song, "Another One Bites The Dust", ran in the background. Weapons and mines kill. It is a stark, albeit obvious message. War is not something that is to be treated lightly.

The next day, it's wet again. Hostile weather is entirely appropriate to the course. On the agenda today: how to run for cover when you're being shot at. And did you know that a sniper can kill you at a range of three kilometres? There's also a chance to handle an AK-47 and an SA-80 rifle, the latter used by the British forces.

"Now, this is nice," says our instructor as he picks up a rocket launcher. "If you're filming a guy firing one of these and you're standing behind him, you're dead meat." I tried to lift it, but it was too heavy.

More warnings, then a few lessons in first aid. How to treat someone with a leg injury. Don't be put off by the "red stuff", just find the pressure-point, press down on it and wrap a bandage around the wound. And if you need to make an improvised stretcher, here's how to do it. You can either team up with someone else and hold your arms together to make a seat for the casualty, or wrap a big blanket over two sticks.

Advice followed on hot and cold weather injuries, how to navigate, and what to pack in your emergency kit. We were also told that if you carry a couple of Tampax, you could save someone's life, as they can be used to treat an open wound. As for body armour, wear your bullet-proof vest even if it weighs a ton. One more comforting thought: don't forget that your cameraman could be mistaken for a soldier, as the camera looks like an anti-tank weapon at a distance.

During your time off, three-course meals are laid on, and there is a bar, where the instructors take it in turns to tell stories of when they were in the Falklands or the swampy jungles of Borneo. We talk about the "crack and thump", and how to guess the distance of a person who is firing a weapon at you. Anyone who didn't have the energy to chat, could choose from a selection of action films starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.

By the end of the day, I was exhausted. In the comfort of my en-suite room, I felt miles away from any war-zone, but I had vivid dreams of mines exploding, amputated limbs and gun-fire ricocheting outside.

Five days later, it's time for the final assessment. We're divided into two teams and driven out to the nearby woods. This time there is no ambush, but a series of scenarios designed to test our initiative. We fail dismally on the first one.

We come across two casualties in a minefield under attack by hostile forces. We decide to treat the victims on site, rather than evacuate them. "A complete balls-up," we are told later, as the casualties would have died by now. We return to base, feeling slightly downbeat. We receive a certificate, and the instructors wish us good luck. The next intake of journalists has already arrived.