The murder of four kidnapped engineers in 1998 in Chechnya, killed by their captors after a botched rescue operation by Russian special forces, is a stark reminder of how dangerous some parts of the world can be. Three of the victims were British and had been working on a mobile phone network in the Chechnyan capital, Grozny.
Globalisation, even in the face of civil war, means engineers are increasingly being sent to insecure places. Whether they are working in oilfield exploitation, power generation, telecoms or any of the multitude of infrastructure projects under way around the world, British engineers can find themselves in danger.
Kidnapping is now a big business, especially since the fall of the Soviet Union and the collapse in funding for ‘revolutionary armies’. According to the UK’s Foreign Policy Centre thinktank, the top 10 countries for kidnapping and ransom include Colombia, Mexico, the Philippines, the former Soviet Union and South Africa. Colombia had 3,162 reported cases of kidnapping in 2000. In the 1980s the average was 290, but that was before the Soviet money stopped. The local media estimates that 80 per cent of kidnaps are by the Marxist-Leninist guerilla armies ELN and FARC to raise cash, with $127,000 (£88,000) paid out on average per hostage in 1999.
Alistair Taylor, a Scottish engineer working for US firm Weatherford, discovered this rapidly growing business the hard way. One Friday morning in August 1999 he was driving to work near the town of Yopal, Colombia, when his car was stopped. He never got to the office that day and was not seen for two years. Taylor was released after a reported £2m ransom was paid by his employer.
One engineer hostage who was rescued in a military-style raid was road specialist Tim Selby. He had been working on the renovation of a remote road in the Chittagong Hills of south-east Bangladesh and was taken hostage by tribesmen who have been fighting against the Bangladeshi government over disputed forest for a generation. He admits that his mistake was venturing out without an escort, but, like many expats, he developed a taste for adventure. He went out with two Danish colleagues in February 1999, only to have his car stopped by armed gunmen.
Selby says: ‘It’s amazing how persuasive the sight of an AK-47 can be. First I was trying to work out how to hide my cash. Then I thought, ‘I’ll give them everything.” The three were taken to one of the rebel leaders who explained that they were being held to ransom for in excess of £1m.
‘Right from the start we agreed on a policy of co-operation. The last thing we wanted was to be tied up or gagged. We found if we could laugh we could stave off the tension. It was the same with the kidnappers. We tried to make them laugh because we thought if we could make them like us they would be less likely to pull the trigger. I’m not ashamed to say I was scared senseless most of the time,’ says Selby.
After almost a month in captivity, one evening the three engineers were left alone in a bamboo hut. For about two hours they heard nothing, then there was shouting — ‘It’s the army, you’re OK’ – and shooting outside. A commando raid by Bangladeshi soldiers had scared off his captors and within the hour Selby and his fellow hostages were on a helicopter to meet their families.
Becoming a hostage of Marxist-Leninists or militant tribesmen are extreme examples of what can happen to engineers abroad. But the danger does not have to come from terrorists. Governments in some countries can also be problematic.
For Paul Ross, a former production engineer and veteran of the oil industry, one of his worst experiences came from the Libyan government. In the mid-1980s, the US stand-off with Colonel Gadaffi’s regime made life difficult for foreign workers. For Ross it led to accusations that he was an agent for the US Central Intelligence Agency. ‘There was a lot of tension because of the situation with the US. I managed to get arrested because there was some problem with my papers. I was thrown in jail and they wanted to beat me up but it didn’t quite go that far. They were haranguing me about being a CIA spy.
‘You are totally in the power of these people. One guy made life pretty much hell. Fortunately, local contacts got me out,’ he says.
After spending much of the past 20 years in out-of-the way places, Ross has now swapped the dangers of life in developing countries for the calmer existence of a technical writer. He learned about dealing with other cultures mainly on the job. For example, of the time he spent working for a charity in the former Yugoslavia he says: ‘The thing about employing local people is you have to be very sensitive to the local issues. In Kosovo we were dealing with a divided community.
‘I had eight guys who were a mix of Serb and Albanian and they worked well together but the Serb guys had to go home at 5pm, all together, because it was so dangerous for them. You couldn’t ask them to do overtime unless you wanted to take them home personally.’
There are sources of help, however, on how to deal with the problems of working abroad. Paul Stretton-Stephens is managing director of Open Door Security and Risk, a company that specialises in training people to cope with daily life in insecure places. The service his firm provides includes briefings about a region’s problems, its history and its trouble hotspots.
He says: ‘We will do a complete profile on the individual going abroad: their habits, tastes, if they will go out exploring or gambling. We need to know all about that person and what areas they will be travelling to and through, routes and destination, where they will work, distances and what the job is – the whole story.’
But sometimes Stretton-Stephens has to persuade a company not even to go to a country, let alone take the security courses: ‘We have told people simply not to go somewhere they said they wanted to do business. We recently told a company to put off a trip to the Philippines.
‘The destination dictates the advice we give. If the work is contentious, for example where you have different armed groups, who are opposed to building a dam, they can see you as a being friendly to their enemy.’
Infrastructure projects to rebuild a nation after a disaster or civil war are another avenue that can lead engineers into danger. Tim Haywood is the training manager for Registered Engineers for Disaster Relief (RedR), a charity that provides technical personnel to humanitarian aid agencies worldwide.
He says: ‘There are security procedures, ways to behave in certain situations, and you need to know how to work radios and mobile phones. Our advice to individuals is to think about the threats. Think about the image you put across, try to keep a low profile. Don’t wear flashy clothes, dress down. Make friends with locals up to a point.
When employing them you have to think about the hiring and firing because of potential reprisals.’
For Peter Bowman, a British chemical engineer who currently works in the former Soviet Union, these are rules he lives by. His job has taken him to the likes of Kazakhstan and the Chechnya border during the civil war, and he currently works in Moscow for an oil company that is helping Russia to exploit Siberian oilfields.
He is well aware of the problems that companies and their employees can encounter: ‘The Mafia is still around but they are little bit more sophisticated now and focus on money laundering and property investment. We’ve had fake military men try to con people out of money and others have suffered from petty crime but nothing serious. We have our own security people to transport our engineers around. We also have information packs for new people that list dos and don’ts – like don’t use taxis, and drive with your doors locked.’
But in the event that all the training is not enough and you are taken hostage, Lesley Perman-Kerr, a psychologist and managing partner of Clarity Advisors Group, offers the following advice: ‘Most people have an idea of how to survive, but it’s as much how what you know is applied as simply knowing it. Don’t try to escape. You need to make yourself into a human being in the eyes of your captors.
‘To interact, play cards with them, but only take this to a point. Take food and drink whenever you can even if it is disgusting. Whether you are trying to survive for long or short periods, you just have to keep on going. Never, ever give up.’