Every summer, Europeum organizes EuropaSecura, a nation-wide contest for Czech high school students that focuses on issues of European security and NATO. The aim is to increase students' awareness about EU security policy as well as about the decision-making processes within the European Union - but as the contest is carried out in cooperation with the Ministry for Defense and the Czech Army, the whole enterprise has a somewhat unusual twist. The third and last stage of the contest takes the finalists to a military area in Western Bohemia that until recently was completely cut off from public access for a four-day long political simulation game.
Knowing little more than my co-workers' various anecdotes about kidnappings and shooting practices, I left Prague with a vague sense of apprehension about what was to come. After an approximately 90 minute drive through summer fields and rolling green hills, I was therefore quite surprised to find that our destination had in fact more in common with a romantic hunting lodge than with the barbed wires, barracks and training grounds I usually associate with military facilities. And yet, this is where the Czech army performs many of its exercises and organizes military trainings for diplomats, journalists, and, in our case - high school students. With its small size and long history of foreign occupation, the Czech Republic after all isn't exactly known for its military power. However, the country currently deploys troops in both the NATO missions in Kosovo and Afghanistan and is apparently known for its training capacity.
Whereas the student were housed in large green tents, I was lucky enough to enjoy the luxury of cozy beds, electric heating and hot water bathrooms with the rest of the organizing staff. Surrounding us was nothing but the peaceful forrest scenery and the sounds of nature- except for the occasional military vehicle passing by. A strange juxtaposition.
The first two days were mainly spent with a political simulation in Model United Nations style (see picture above). The students had been divided into groups of three, which each group being assigned a country to represent. Seated in a large circle in the courtyard of our little wooden castle, the negotiations began. The imaginary crisis situation they had to solve was as follows: a conflict had broken out in a (invented) Central Asian country where a separatist region controlled by rebels was aiming at secession. The EU had to decide whether to intervene, and if yes, how - by sending troops, enforcing a weapon embargo or economic sanctions, granting financial or military aid, engaging in peacekeeping or relying on political pressure? Unfortunately for me, the negotiations were all carried out in Czech, which made it difficult for me to follow - however, I was able to intervene as a human rights NGO lobbying for a weapon embargo and more development aid in the negotiating breaks.
But the discussions also left a lot of time for me to wander about the forrest paths, read my book or lazily enjoy the rays of sunlight that would suddenly burst out between the heavy clouds.
On the third day, the more difficult part of the task began. At 4am in the morning, we were woken up by the sound of heavy machine-gun shooting - having never experienced actual shooting before, I felt fear and a sudden pain in my chest although I knew it was all part of the simulation. There is a tremendous difference between watching shooting scenes in films or seeing photos in the news and actually waking up to hear this noise - a noise much louder, much scarier than I could have imagined. At 7.30am, I set out with a group of eight (plus one soldier) for day-long hike through the forrest area, equipped with nothing more than a compass, a GPS and a map. Our task was to pass the checkpoints established by the separatist rebels and to cross into 'enemy territory', while at the same time gathering evidence of human rights violations by the government troops. Three hours later, we were still struggling to locate our first piece of evidence and to reconcile the GPS coordinates with the information on our map. When we finally reached the first checkpoint around 1pm, tired, hungry and dirty, we didn't exactly receive a warm welcome. I had been informed before about the 'checkpoint procedures' and was allowed to stand back with my colleague Sandra (without understanding Czech I was anyways quite immune to the soldiers' insults and shouting). The students were made to lie down in the dirt, searched, most of their belongings and food taken from them. The soldiers did a rather good job at being authentic - although I was told later by one of them that what we experienced was "basically nothing" compared to some of the crisis survival training they have to go through...
Around 4pm, exhausted more by my lack of understanding of the conversation going on than by actual physical exertion, I decided to put an end to my personal military training experience and join the staff at one of the checkpoints near a quiet lake. I was amazed by the students' endurance as the last group stumbled back to camp for dinner only at 1am in the morning - and was up again the next morning, happily coming up from the tents for breakfast.
At the end, the winning teams were decided through a complicated point system that combined their performance in the negotiations with their participation in the hike and in other activities - the prize being a weekend trip to Brussels to visit the important European and NATO institutions. Although a military career is decidedly not my cup of tea, the four days in Brny were an interesting experience nonetheless that showed the tremendous gap between the political and military worlds.