How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone

20180703 War zone 01

Rosie Garthwaite’s book sounds like it should be one of those parodies that are all too common nowadays but in fact it is deadly serious and has to be the one example on my bookshelves which legitimately uses the tag “It Could Save Your Life”. Mine is the first edition from 2011 published by Bloomsbury and is still available.

Of course for most people the best way to avoid being killed in a war zone is to make sure you never go to one however the book covers so much more that it becomes a highly entertaining and indeed useful addition to any bookshelf. Split into 15 sections which cover everything from planning, preparing and arriving on your trip through first aid and emergency medicine, keeping fit and surviving kidnapping amongst other things. It is part survival guide and part filled with anecdotes which illustrate the topic being covered. The range of people Rosie has spoken to in compiling the book is huge and covers top war reporters, members of the military, charity workers, a former Somali pirate and, in the case of kidnapping, Terry Waite who was a hostage negotiator in Lebanon for years before being kidnapped and held for hostage himself for almost 5 years.

Some things in the book you hope you will never need, like how to put on a flak jacket correctly, others like some of the tips on keeping safe in a crowd could be useful at any time, as she says

The best advice is to avoid street protests at all costs. Of course, that’s not always possible, sometimes they run into you. And sometimes you might join a small peaceful protest that turns into a riot. You might be in an ambulance waiting to deal with the fallout nearby. You might be involved as a protester when it all goes wrong.

You don’t need to be in a war zone, sometimes the streets of your home city can become surprisingly dangerous.

Anyone who has read books written by war reporters about their lives on the job would enjoy the anecdotes in this volume, Rosie herself works for Al Jazeera and recounts many stories of her journeys for work, mainly in Iraq, and a lot of the other reporters she quotes also work or have worked for that news organisation. There are also a good smattering of BBC, Sky, CNN and various (mainly British) newspaper writers along with people from Médecins Sans Frontières who also tend to be on the front line. It is interesting to read the different opinions of the journalists on how to survive, some like to blend in with the locals others prefer to stand out, there are advantages and disadvantages to both viewpoints. Blend in and you may get closer to the story but risk being mistaken for a spy, stand out and everyone knows who you are so you can get further up the chain of command, but you are also obvious if somebody is looking for a high profile target to attack.

The first aid section is particularly good and at 45 pages also the longest part, it takes you through a basic medical kit to pack if going somewhere where the local medical service may not be the best or if heading into wild country. A lot of this I have packed in the past, put it in a clearly marked container in your pack and make sure other people you are with know it’s there. There is no point carrying sterile medical items if they don’t get used because nobody knew and you can’t tell them for whatever reason at the time. It then has an A to Z of medical issues and what to do until somebody who really knows what they are doing arrives, CPR, recovery positions, slings, tourniquets, treating burns, dislocations, frostbite and sunburn amongst many others. One I really, really hope I don’t ever need is how to deliver a baby but you definitely don’t need to be in a war zone for that one.

I’m not a war correspondent and frankly wouldn’t want their job but I’ve been through armed official and unofficial checkpoints set up on strategic roads in Libya and Lebanon. One of the people who boarded the bus in Lebanon in 1996 with an AK-47 over his shoulder appeared to only be about 14, you just have to keep calm. I’ve also been very aware of being watched to see where I was going in Libya, Syria and Iran amongst other countries, bribed my way into Ceaușescu’s Romania back in 1987 as I didn’t have a visa and also used dollar bills in my passport on several borders where it simply made getting the right paperwork processed faster. I just wish Rosie had written this book 20 years earlier.

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