11:00-the train ride from malaga to ronda is stunning. the villages fascinate me the most. the small people walking around, almost as if they play the part in a little girl’s doll house. the rolling valleys and grass plains were a stranger to me before, now we are friends. at the station in ronda, the train slowly comes to a stop. i take a quick glance up, hoping to find someone to take care of me for the week. i see a stranger with a flimsy piece of paper labeled with a sharpie, “CPW.”
The blue eyed man towers over me by several feet, looks at my osprey bag slung over my back and assumes i am the last student. i am. a flood of relief and anxiety washes over me. i follow his shuffling feet to a large group of strangers. we are ushered into multiple cars, not knowing one of the passengers is a renowned photographer that will be our instructor. we start driving and make small talk about the weather. i remain quiet, trying to absorb my surroundings. the hills transition into mountains and more villages start to appear; carved into the side of the cliffs.
my oversized luggage and under-sized self arrive at a light pink house. a large mountain is an imposing back drop for the next week. before we step foot in the barn where we will be staying, we are given directions by a stranger. i know nothing about the man issuing orders. he speaks about fire safety and ponchos. all i can think about is the weight of this pack, something i will regret even more later that week. we are told to go inside this mysterious barn. greeted by army green cots, velcro objects, and something in camouflage.
“well, this is cozy.” i say to myself as i drop my pack onto the concrete floor. i look to reassure i am doing what everyone else is. just as i'm about to turn around, out of the corner of my eye, a short woman is hugging me. i instantly know we would be friends. she is from mexico and has long brown hair with eyes that match. after talking, i found that the name of this mountain woman is named, maria.
after many introductions with the twelve other people crazy enough to take this course, i store my excess luggage and told this will be our last night to shower. everyone seems to be in a state of panic except me. i’m not sure if this is good or bad, but i refuse the final shower to save water for those panicking.
i explore the rest of the property searching for some kind of clue as to what will happen in this next week. although, the bullet proof vests and helmets seems to be enough foreshadowing.
we head to our cots to get ready for the night, and i tuck myself in the depths of my orange sleeping bag. i was hoping for rest, but sounds of snoring swirl in the air. maybe tomorrow i will sleep. we wake up early and begin training on the kit that was given to us the last night. we make our breakfast. mine is cold. maybe tomorrow it will be warm.
our photo instructors include a french man name eric bouvet, with his lanky body and weather worn face that crinkles as he smiles. a quality i admire. he tells me my photos are nothing special and have no order to them. finally, someone that isn’t afraid to burst my bubble. he always has two cameras slung around his neck. he tells me things i can not always understand because of his accent, but i nod in agreement anyway. our other instructor, jb russel, is an american living in paris. he moves gently and has high cheekbones that frame his face. his deep voice is melodic and calm. the stories he tells intrigue me but his voice can send me to sleep. a sweet juxtaposition.
after more orders were given to us, we pack up and make our way to our camp for the night that is just down the hill.
our feet crunch against the rocks of the gravel road. at the bottom of the hill there are multiple shelters set up. i learn that the stranger giving us orders used to serve as a sergeant in the british military, he is no longer a stranger. the sergeant keeps talking about knots and how to set up a proper shelter, my mind wanders to the other people taking this class. why are they here?
the instructor speaks too fast for me and i get some of what he says. it is time for us to make our shelter and i am nervous that me and the mountain woman will be “the women that hold everyone up.” i am determined not to be.
the next four days we are trained in navigation of mine fields, ied (improvised explosive device) routines, cpr, and how to operate as a photojournalist in a war zone.
all of our training is finished and it's time to put it to use. the last three nights we are in simulation constantly. we are informed that there are two groups: the rebels and the government soldiers. our sergeant is no longer someone we can turn to for help and actors start pouring in. my mind is flooding with thoughts of mines and kidnapping and tourniquets and cameras. but i feel ready. let’s find out if i am.
our first scenario is a rebel checkpoint that starts as soon as my mind is falling asleep. we hear spanish whispers and car doors slamming. we are hesitant to go, but do when we are ushered by an instructor. counting myself lucky that my battle partner speaks spanish, we walk up the hill to talk to them. it feels like a dream because my mind is foggy and my limbs feel sluggish. the actors are clothed in guns and camo. for a moment, i am shocked at how real this feels. i force the fear to escape me and keep the camera glass between me and the action. the scene suddenly turns violent and the rebels have the owners of the car on the ground. guns are shoved in their backs and the confusion between the two languages is frustrating the soliders more as time ticks on. it is pitch black and my iso is bumped to the highest setting. i use the light of a flashlight to brighten the photos.
the crowd of journalists is now becoming a familiar scene. you start to question what makes your work different from everyone else. you find yourself crawling in ditches and pushing your limits to get the shot that no one else will. how far do you go? i keep going, this is the time to test myself. just when we start retreating back to our shelters, an explosion from behind us illuminates the peaceful night sky. it has been engrained into us to immediately find cover. i scramble to the ditch off the side of the road and as soon as i secure my safety, i point my camera towards the orange smoke. i know the shot i am looking for, i check my frame as one eye squints through the viewfinder. i have thorns poking through my skin, but the feeling is numbed by the adrenaline pumping through my body. i tell my index finger to wait for the shot, as it impatiently hovers over the focus. i see our commander bend down to help a soldier, his gun is silhouetted, a looming figure in the background. this is it. i snap three pictures and head back to my shelter. a sigh of relief for now. the explosion goes as quickly as it came.
i don't feel lonely out here. i can see the stars this time of night. These are moments I wish I could remember forever. The times where i smell campfire smoke and the salty taste of my sweat from the day. i’m zipped in my sleeping bag wondering when the next gun shot will be set off. And in these moments i find myself holding onto a sweeter time, hoping it will take away the pain of the current one i am living.
i become familiar with the pounding rhythm of my heart anxiously awaiting what will happen next.
the mountain woman is asleep next to me. i lay awake next to her. tucked inside my bivy bag my camera is on and ready to be focused. my body armor and helmet are above my head, so i can prepare for an explosion quickly.
the morning sun rises and the cold air tells me to stay in bed, but the thrill of what is to come motivates me. i throw my vest and helmet on, my body becoming acquainted with the weight. my camera hangs off the side of my hip like an extension of my body. i peek outside the glowing light of our shelter, and see the rebel troops are still at the top of the hill. the day takes on a slow start as mountain woman and i cook our food and delight in a coffee. time to make some friends. we greet the rebels good morning. after a few hours of waiting in the hot sun, we are introduced to a new actor. a red truck pulls up to the group, and a man with a floppy beret on the top of his head instantly commands the attention of each of us. he has an intoxicating energy as he asks our names and makes a personal connection with everyone. this is the commander of the rebel troops. the kind of man that can be your best friend one minute and try to execute you the next. he asks us to come to the grounds where he trains his troops. we learn more about mine fields and watch men shoot against cardboard figures. our afternoon is eerily calm. an ied pierces the air, the sound, a sad familiarity to my ears. we start running, finding an injured soldier at the scene. we are faced with the question of whether to help or take pictures. we leave the rebels to do their job as we do ours. a sudden bolt of energy fizzles through each of us as we slump back to our shelters, awaiting the next attack. the hours seem to drag on and the sun seems to be getting hotter. we have no concept of time and no phone reception. the quiet times are the most telling. i find a couple of soldiers lying on the grass, looking up at the branches of a tree. we take these short moments of time to rest as much as we can. the breeze is calming and i close my eyes.
that night, we are told to evacuate immediately because the government soldiers are going to come into the camp. i know where everything goes in my rucksack and how to pack it efficiently. i have done it in the dark, preparing me for this moment. the group meets together and we do more waiting. all of us on edge. i haven't eaten lunch or dinner. hunger overtakes me and i can feel myself getting irritated. i eat some dry berry biscuits to settle the hunger for now. the sun is beginning to find it's way below the horizon as we begin our descent down the hill. the shrubs crowd us and we can hear cow bells dinging as our group of thirteen is split in two. six of us with the government soldiers and the seven others with the rebel soldiers. my shoulders are straining under the weight of the pack and i am trying to stay quiet. we arrive at our home for the night. i can feel the cold start to wrap around my cheeks. me and my new battle partner, rees, don't talk. we only exchange hand signals and occasional whispers. he is the only one my age here, with his wavy, dark blonde hair just brushing against his shoulders. his movements are shy but he knows more than he lets on.
we set up our shelter with no problem, a race against the dying light. it doesn't take me long to fall asleep as i have learned to take advantage of the rest time i've been given. i reach above my head and tap my body gear just to confirm it is still there. a quick glance is exchanged between us, a glance that speaks louder than any words could. in this environment you have to look out for your partner. making sure their needs are met before yours. i wake up multiple times to check on him during the night.
daylight awakes us, though i have kept one eye open the whole time. i hear the ruffling of the others in their sleeping bags and i force my eyelids to open for our last day. rees and i prepare our breakfast. soon after our shelter's are packed away, the two sergeants are telling us to huddle together. they debrief us about the situation, whispering information about watching our spacing and to remember ‘the shot’ is not worth your life. more soldiers come in and we are assigned one to shadow. the soldier i am told to follow is the blue eyed man from the train station, kev. my heart is thudding so loud i feel as if it could give away my location. we all step into a line, and quietly walk on the edge of a barb wire fence. it is not long before bullets start flying and i have no choice but to find some sort of courage. i start snapping pictures out of nervousness as a smile curves at the corner of my mouth. all of my senses come alive as i look down to see my legs running. i don't know our location, but i follow the line of soldiers, putting my life in their hands. the shooting ends, for now. we start walking through a pathway in between two walls of rock. the mud sticks to the bottom of my shoes and i can feel my feet hesitate to follow the rest of my body. my backpack is struggling to move past the low swinging tree branches and my breath starts getting heavier.
i see a rope swing down in front of my face, kev tugs on it for a quick test and then scrambles up the rock. i follow. i stop at the top to snap a picture. we crawl under a fence into a ditch and are told to leave our backpacks there. my shoulders are thankful for a moment. we get a couple of minutes to rest and then we are off again. i locate my blue eyed solider and we go up out of the ditch. i see his feet kicking up dirt as we run to a tree, taking shelter from the bullets whirling past us. the soldier shoots back and i hide behind his gun. i know that if i move even an inch, my life could end. i stay close and we sprint to the next shelter. my breath quickens to heaving, but my legs seem to be unaware of my exhaustion as they keep moving.
soon, we are walking up a dirt road. i follow kev, i look back to see a line of journalists following behind. bullets start forcing their way through the air and we lunge to left of us against an embankment. we see two men carrying an injured soldier, running away from the enemy. the pain on their faces stops me in my tracks for a moment and i quickly find kev will not wait for me. he starts sprinting across the road, i have one mission and this is to document, so i follow. bad idea. i was a step too far behind and a two bullets hit my left arm leaving a resounding sting. if this was a real war zone, i would be dead. this thought brings a shiver down my spine while the rest of my body keeps moving. the shooting rests as kev and i do in the bushes. it is silent, except for the birds. i can hear their chirping echo off in the distance almost as if they are mocking me. i focus on each sound the birds make, reminding me of the carefree life i currently don't have. kev and i exchange glances for a moment, his gun propped and ready to be fired. we wait, though i am not exactly what for.
my blue eyed soldier shares his water with me, a simple gesture that meant the world. the quiet moment seems to last forever, we hear an ied go off and that is our queue to move in. we round the corner to see the light pink house. more bullets are fired as me and another journalist duck for cover behind the wall. the sun trickles out the corner of my eye and i am thankful it is not raining. i see the rebel's feet and wait for olly to run out, knowing the moment i want to capture. olly runs. click. i leave.
we are informed that one of our troops was injured from an ied down the hill. i can feel the sweat dripping from my forehead into my eyes. the thirteen journalists creep our way slowly to the bottom of the steep hill. slow is fast in this situation. if we walk too close, a sniper could take us all out in one round, the farther apart we are the more the sniper has to adjust his aim. we walk up to the casualty and find that it is my blue eyed soldier. half of us are taking pictures and the other half are applying tourniquets and bandages. i talk to him, asking his age and name to keep him from falling out of consciousness. we lift him onto the stretcher and are told that the helicopter pad is at the top of the hill and we must take him there. the hill before us is discouraging and i can already feel the weight of this man's life on my shoulders. it takes four people total to carry the stretcher.
since there is thirteen of us, we rotate who carries the stretcher. i am still determined not to be the woman who holds everyone up. so i rotate as many times as i can with those who are tired. my adrenaline is still going heavily through me, and i can feel myself wanting to throw up. we conquer one more small hill before we make it to the top and other ied's go off. sending us into a state of panic and throwing ourselves on the casualty to protect him.
the simulation ends and i am met with a feeling of thrill and exhaustion. my clothes are soaked through with sweat, my hands are bleeding, and my camera is covered in dirt. i am reminded that this is all pretend. i am reminded that my fear was just temporary. that i will now go to my cot and have a cup of tea and talk with all my friends about what just happened.
i think i am the only one awake. the snores are reminiscent of the first night as they swirl through the air. i close my eyes knowing that i have not found a passion, but a way of life.