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Survival training with the UN's ICT specialists

The United Nations' IT staff are often the first group into a war-zone or natural disaster area, so knowing how to survive in hostile environments is vital
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1 of 18 Andrew Donoghue/ZDNET

The last-minute call to take part could have made us think twice — but then, you don't get asked to take part in a UN ICT survival training exercise every week, so short notice or no short notice, ZDNet.co.uk was in.

IT is integral to any relief project as, without the two-way radios, portable satellite terminals, and GPS receivers the technical specialists set-up, it is almost impossible for the rest of the aid agency personnel to communicate with each other and the people they are there to help. 

Vodafone Group Foundation, the charitable wing of the telecoms provider, and the UN Foundation have had a relationship since October 2005, when the mobile-phone giant donated $20m (£10m) over five years to the UN charity. In February this year, the organisations announced a further partnership with the World Food Programme (WFP) to develop an ICT training programme for humanitarian relief organisations across the board. It was part of this two-week training course that ZDNet.co.uk was invited to take part in, with the promise of an action-packed couple of days in Pisa, Italy, watching UN IT workers get put through their paces, physically and mentally.

Things got off to a bad start, although one that was curiously in keeping with the disaster planning theme of the trip, when BAA decided to evacuate Gatwick's South Terminal in the middle of the afternoon. We were slightly disappointed to learn that the UN's influence doesn't extend to airport fire-alarm tests and this wasn't part of the training programme, but at the very least it was in keeping with the theme of the trip.

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2 of 18 Andrew Donoghue/ZDNET

The WFP Emergency Preparedness and Response Management Training sounds like a mouthful and well it should, as it aims to prepare would-be IT managers for life in the field in some of the world's most dangerous conflict zones and disaster areas.

ICT specialists, along with the security teams, form the first wave of most aid agencies disaster-response groups. A UN IT manager in the field faces not only the technical challenges that a counterpart in any business would have to deal with, but also responsibility for the safety of up to a dozen colleagues, not to mention a budget of millions of dollars.

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The first day of training we witnessed was in fact day 10 for 20 participants who hailed from a range of humanitarian agencies, including the WFP, UNHCR and Unicef.

Simulated shootings, ambushes, negotiating minefields and kidnapping were all on the menu for the days ahead. Participants left the comfort of Pisa's Scuola Superiore Sant'Anna university — which specialises in humanitarian training courses and is home to the classroom elements of the course — for a military base that is home to the Italian Airborn Brigade 'Folgore'. A quick transfer from mini-buses to heavy-duty military trucks got the adrenalin pumping and the team wound its way into the interior of the forested training camp.

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Anyone thinking of swapping a comfortable job in a corporate IT department for a role in an UN ICT team could learn a thing or two from Torbjorn Soderberg. Part of the WFP's Fast Information Technology and Telecommunications Emergency and Support Team (Fittest), Soderberg's specialist team is deployed with little notice wherever a communications network is required.

A former production engineer for Ericsson, based in Sweden, Soderberg found himself seconded to the handset manufacturer's emergency response arm, Ericsson Response, which works with UN agencies to provide communications expertise in crisis areas. From there, he eventually joined the WFP ICT team and has worked on projects in Sri Lanka (following the tsunami), Syria, Afghanistan and South Africa.

"I spent 11 years at Ericsson so it was good to have a change of environment," he says.

This new environment included seeing his landlord executed outside his window while serving in a project in the Middle East, and also receiving frantic calls to turn around a convoy headed to the UN building in Beirut in 2006, which was attacked by around 2,000 protestors. There are risks, Soderberg admits, but for him the rewards outweigh them.

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Exercise number one was all about what not to do; specifically, what not to do when it comes to mines and unexploded ordinance ('Uxo' in military parlance).

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After showing off some of the nastier bombs, mortars and grenades the participants may encounter in a conflict zone, the Folgore officer in charge, Renato Daretti, had one motto he was obviously keen to hammer home: "If you didn't drop it, don't pick it up."

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Next, an amusing bit of pantomime performed by the paratroopers, in which they exaggerated some stereotypical Italian male traits of shouting for no reason and getting over excited to demonstrate how not to behave in a minefield. One of the troopers, too busy yacking to his colleagues to look where he was going, hopped off the back of a 4x4 and blundered into a mock booby-trap, complete with a firework-sized explosion.

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Unlike the overacting paratroopers, who proceeded to play at blowing themselves to bits trying to retrieve their fallen comrade, participants were told that the only option in this scenario would be to leave the dead or injured where they lie. The area should be clearly marked to stop anyone else from blundering in, but that is all that can be done until backup arrives in the form of mine specialists.

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After watching the troops negotiate the mined area, the trainees had the chance to try it out for themselves, and pick their way through a forest trail littered with more firework-sized booby traps and deactivated grenades.

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After negotiating the booby traps, participants were able to handle some of the devices up close — including the devices used to fire them.

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In the wrong hands, a bazooka poses as much danger to the individual wielding it as it does to any potential target — again, if it's not yours, don't touch it.

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Ambush is a very real threat for workers in conflict zones, with road-side bombs and armed attack a particularly acute danger. Many of the trainees have been deployed or will be deployed to UN operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and Sudan, and have to know how to react if their vehicles come under fire.

Usually the driver is the first victim in an vehicle ambush, as the attacker's main aim is to stop the convoy in an area they have designated — also known as the killing zone. The best tactic if your vehicle comes under attack is to keep driving no matter what. The dead and wounded, and any damage to the vehicle, can be assessed later, but if the enemy wants you to stop somewhere, your best bet for survival is to be anywhere else but there.

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If the vehicle is so damaged it is no longer capable of moving, the advice is to get away from the truck or car as fast as possible: vehicles are bullet magnets and offer no real protection, the paratroopers warned. As to whether it's best to move across open ground in a group or alone, there are downsides to both — but if you plan on moving from cover to cover individually, each person has to take a different route or the attackers will quickly work out where the next person is likely to pop out from.

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As before, the paratroopers demonstrated a mock ambush, before the trainees took their turn getting their hands — and knees — dirty. A group of three of four participants were told to walk through a fake town and, after finding themselves under fire from paint bullets, find a way back to their starting point using all the cover available.

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As well as blanks, the troops were firing paint bullets from their automatic weapons.

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They might not be the real thing, but paint bullets still hurt, and the troops were under orders to punish any trainee who hadn't found adequate cover. Common sense dictates that if you can see your attacker from cover, they can also see you, meaning the cover is no good, the trainees were warned.

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Full face masks and hoods were provided, which offered some protection but also cut down visibility and weren't very comfortable in the midday Italian sun.

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A truck might look like a solid place to hide but, unless it's armour plated, a vehicle offers practically no resistance to real automatic fire. The best options are wooden or concrete buildings – preferably the thick-walled variety. Thin walls don't stop bullets; they deform them and change their trajectory, making it practically impossible to predict their behaviour.

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