Teaching safety with angry mobs, bullets and minefields

News Stories, 14 July 2010

© UNHCR/N.Shimazaki
UNHCR humanitarian trainer John Campbell explains the dangers of landmines in an eCentre workshop.Training organized by the UNHCR eCentre in Tokyo prepares humanitarian workers for the challenges of operating in dangerous environments.

TOKYO, Japan, July 14 (UNHCR) The shooting you are about to see is real. Bullets are deadly and your actions under fire can make the difference between life and death. These are the messages that a group of 32 humanitarian workers hear as they prepare to go down range to witness a live-fire demonstration in a workshop organized by the Tokyo-based UNHCR eCentre.

This is not a typical classroom environment. In a fast-paced week of training, there are few lectures and even fewer pauses for rest. Days begin at half-past six in the morning with a radio communications check, and end late in the evening with Global Positioning System (GPS) practice. Field exercises organized at a Thai army base expose the participants to tense checkpoints, hostile crowds, minefields, and the effects of real bullets.

"We are trying to simulate real life in a benign environment, to give humanitarian workers a chance to practise and learn for themselves what are the right procedures," says Hani Abu Taleb, a humanitarian trainer for the Regional Centre for Emergency Training in International Humanitarian Response, or eCentre.

Established by UNHCR in 2000 with the help of the Japanese government, the eCentre aims to train humanitarian workers in the Asia-Pacific region how to respond to emergencies. This includes realistic field exercises that prepare them for working in insecure environments. As Abu Taleb says, "no matter how much you read about it, experiencing it is a totally different story."

Nobody knows this better than Sabirullah Memlawal, a chief administrator for Japan International Volunteer Centre (JVC), an NGO working in Afghanistan. Memlawal attended an eCentre emergency management workshop last October and a few weeks later found his emergency skills put to the test when he was caught in a road ambush near Jalalabad in eastern Afghanistan.

"As our vehicle was passing a convoy of fuel tankers the Taliban opened fire using rocket propelled grenades and other heavy weapons," recalls Memlawal.

Fortunately he and those with him kept their composure and responded quickly. "We used the security tips we learned in the workshop," he continues. "I said that everybody should get on the ground and don't move. When the shooting stopped we moved to a safe area. Then I contacted my office." Memlawal's swift actions allowed everyone in his team to return home safely.

Since its founding in 2000, the eCentre has trained more than 2,700 NGO workers, government officials, UN staff and other emergency responders from throughout the Asia-Pacific region and beyond. In June this year, UNHCR and Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs marked the eCentre's 10th anniversary by jointly hosting a symposium in Tokyo on further strengthening regional preparedness.

On hand were senior officials, including Sadako Ogata, president of the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) and a former UN High Commissioner for Refugees. "Over the past ten years, the eCentre has contributed to strengthening the capacity of international organizations, government agencies and NGOs in the Asia-Pacific region to prepare for and respond to humanitarian emergencies," she said.

Japan's Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada, in a prepared speech read in his absence, added: "It is no exaggeration to say that the eCentre's efforts have enhanced Japan's capacity for humanitarian action."

What advice does Memlawal have for other aid workers facing the risk of incidents like the one he survived? "From my experience, humanitarian workers should first try to avoid such situations by showing their neutrality," he says. "But if something happens to them they have to know the proper security techniques. Everybody working in these sorts of environments should receive basic training."

The UNHCR eCentre is supported by Japan's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japan International Cooperation Agency and the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID).

By Michael Dell'Amico in Tokyo, Japan