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Stayin' Alive in Wartime

By Claude Adams

In the early 90s, while covering the Yugoslav civil war for Christian Science Monitor TV, my crew and I decided to pose for a snapshot with a group of Croatian soldiers near the front line. As you can see from the photo above, we were disturbed by sniper fire overhead just as the photographer snapped the shutter. You might say it was our Robert Capa moment, except we survived.

My producer, Tony Hillman (wearing sunglasses), looks appropriately distressed as he dives for cover. I, on the other hand, have the look of someone about to take the big drop on the Behemoth roller coaster at Canada’s Wonderland. Just this side of wet-your-pants jubilation. I still shudder when I look at this picture, and consider how close we all came to injury or worse. If it had been a mortar instead of a sharpshooter . . . And why the hell am I not terrified?

Posing like an idiot on the front lines of a war is one of the few things Rosie Garthwaite doesn’t warn against in her book How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone (Bloomsbury, 303 pages.) I suppose that’s because it should be so obvious. But reporters are known to forget how perilous their work really is after some time with the troops. So it’s useful to be reminded about the small lapses that can get you killed or mutilated in an absent-minded moment.

Garthwaite is a war-hardened Al Jazeera reporter. She mentions, in her dedication, the “act-first-think-later adventures” that prompted her to write this book. She clearly believes that paying attention to the little things can make all the difference between life and death. Unlike Sayed Hashim, the Afghani army captain, whom she quotes. Sayed subscribes to Koranic wisdom, that “the date for our death is written; we cannot change it.” So don't bother packing penicillin or topographical maps; if Allah decides your time is up, no amount of fussing will help.

If you are skeptical about Islamic fatalism (as I am), here is just a small sample of Garthwaite's less obvious prescriptions for increasing your odds of coming home intact from a war. Or doing the least amount of harm in a disaster zone.

1. When working in the Middle East, try to memorize at least one paragraph from the Koran. It may impress your kidnappers enough to keep you alive until the ransom arrives.
2. In some developing countries, it’s unwise to rent a room higher than the 3rd floor, because old fire engine ladders don't reach beyond that level.
3. Carry a few packs of Marlboros to pass around to the jihadists as they discuss your fate.
4. Always pack a sharp, bendable saw or large penknife, in case you have to amputate a colleague’s limb (or your own.)
5. Carry clean plastic cling wrap to cover burned flesh.
6. If you smoke, you’re more likely to get sick in a cholera zone, because you are constantly bringing your hand to your mouth.
7. Don’t hand out doughnuts to starving kids. They only lead to digestive complications.
8. On the other hand, don’t be squeamish about food in war zones or famine areas. As Dr Carl Hallam explains, maggots from a local fishing tackle shop turn pink and appetizing, like prawns, when you add some beetroot. “Food,” he says, “is fuel.” And bugs are protein. "Yuck" is not a word in the survivalist's lexicon
9. And here's my favorite: If you're a woman in a war zone, wear a bra to bed in case you have to make a run for it.

Many of the things she recommends are arguable, and Garthwaite has the good sense to present both sides of the argument. Some experts, for example, suggest that if you are a hostage, don’t try to escape unless you are certain you can get away.

James Brandon, himself a one-time hostage in Iraq, rejects this idea. “I would rather die in an escape attempt than be slaughtered like a sheep with my final moments immortalized forever on YouTube.”

And then there’s the eternal debate: Should the reporter try to blend in with the locals, or should he/she wear clothing that marks them as an outsider. (My answer: It depends on the country. In Haiti in the turbulent 1990s, foreigners were safe from almost all violence. In the parts of the Congo, on the other hand, if you were foreign-looking you were often a prime target.)

Garthwaite’s book is a handly complement to every reporter’s own personal safety code. For example, in conflict areas, I always found it advisable to keep a thin layer of dust on my vehicle. This makes it easier to spot any signs of tampering with the engine, or the placing of an improvised explosive device.

Also, I like to keep away from gungho bang-bang junkies. Once I was driving through Bosnia with a British freelancer who'd hitched a ride, and we heard the unmistakeable sound of mortars in the distance. “Let’s go,” he said, pointing in the direction of the noise. I dropped him off and went the opposite way, looking for a UN base and some intel about hostile forces in the area. Some may call this timidity: I call it common sense.

I also learned, the hard way, not to put too much faith in even the best body armor. Once, in Serbia, while on patrol with a company of militiamen, I started boasting about my $1500 state-of-the art Kevlar and ceramic-plated vest. One of the militiamen cut me short and asked if I wanted to perform a simple test. He stood the vest up against a sandbag, walked a hundred yards away, and then shot off a round from his NATO-issue sniper rifle. The bullet blew a fist-sized hole throught the Kevlar and the ceramic. “Boom, you are dead!” the militiaman laughed. (I had to be very creative with my expense account for that assignment.)

Western news crews are responsible not only for their own safety, but also for the safety of their local hires. The recent killing of a “fixer” with an American TV news crew in Libya illustrates what happens when rules are not enforced. The Libyan fixer was killed not while accompanying his team around, but rather while driving to the front on a day off with two armed rebels. He broke one of the inflexible rules of war zone security: Never, ever, travel in the same vehicle with armed combatants in a conflict zone, unless you are an embed with special protection. His American employers should have made this rule part of their contract with him.

But rules are broken, and the best-trained professionals have moments of carelessness. Over the years, Tony and I often chuckled when recalling that anxious moment in Croatia. But the laughter carried an undertone of dread. Because we understand the arbitrary nature of what happened. If that sniper had had a clearer shot, if the wind had shifted, if it had been artillery instead of a lone gunman, if a whole lot of other factors had been in conjunction, the image captured by that freakishly-timed click of the shutter could have been an ugly one. So we were careless, but also lucky. Maybe there is something to that fatalism in the Koran. Maybe it was just our day.

What happened to the children?--A collaborative project

Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is overseeing something called the Missing Children Project--a bold attempt to track and record the fate of every indigenous child who passed through the notorious residential school system. It's a kind of census of calamity. What follows is the framework of one story. I'd like to collect many more. If you have personal knowledge of a child who died while attending a residential school, and whose true story has never been fully told, please contact me at, or post a comment to this blog. In so doing, you will be adding to the documentation of a sad chapter in Canada's history.

Jack Lacerte was barely three years old when it happened, but he has a vivid recollection of the day back in 1937 when the two priests knocked on the door of his home in Fraser Lake, B.C. The black-robed clerics wanted to speak to Jack’s dad Philippe, a caretaker at the local residential school.

Two days earlier, on New Year’s Day, four young homesick boys had left the Lajac School without permission. The youngest was seven years old. The eldest, nine. It was dark, and 20-below zero, but they missed their parents so they sneaked out of the school and started walking home, across the lake. By midnight, police later said, all four had frozen to death within a kilometer or two of their destination. But their bodies would lay in the snow for more than 16 hours before police and local townspeople even mounted a search party. (See photo above.) Their names were Andrew Paul (8), John Michel Jack (7), Justa Maurice (8), and Alan Willie (9). A fifth boy, Paul Alex (10) left the school with them that night, but returned on his own.

“Indian Affairs is sending investigators to look into this tragedy,” the priests told Phillip Lacerte, standing in the doorway. “They’ll be asking questions. You knew the boys. We want to make sure you have the story right. We’re here to tell you what we want you to say.”

Jack says his father objected. He told the priests he was raised in a Catholic school in Quebec, that he couldn’t tell a lie. The priests said he had 24 hours to consider his refusal to co-operate. But Philippe was adamant. He couldn’t take part in a cover-up. He realized that what he had to say about the treatment of the children at Lejac would reflect badly on his black-robed superiors. So he took a stand on principle, but it carried a bitter price: That same day, Philippe Lacerte the school terminated his job, and he and his family were thrown out of their home on school property. All records of his employment at the school were erased. Jack Lacerte says his father sank into depression, and became an alcoholic. He died in a work accident in the 1950s.

Meanwhile, the full story of the Indian boys—why they ran away, why it took nearly a day before anybody started to look for them—has never been told: One more grim, shameful and incomplete chapter in the history of Canada’s residential schools.

* * * *

Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission has a profoundly difficult mandate: to bring some kind of emotional closure to the survivors the 130 Indian residential schools. There are approximately 80,000 of these survivors, many of them past the age of 60, and almost all of them carry the psychic (and sometimes physical) scars of their experience. They have received compensation, and counseling, and an apology from the government and the churches.

But the TRC’s most challenging task may involve not the living, but rather the dead. Its Missing Children Project, headed by Ontario historian John Milloy, is seeking to create a comprehensive record of every child who never returned home. What are the numbers, 5000? Or, as some suggest, as many as 50,000? Did they die from TB or malnutrition? Where are the medical records? Did they die while fleeing abuse at the hands of their teachers? Where are they buried? Or if they survived, did they return to their homes, or were they passed on to foster parents?

Why should we concern ourselves with things that happened 70 or 80 years ago? What relevance do events like the Lejac incident have today? Milloy sees his project as a fundamental historical settling-of-accounts. For Canada’s aboriginal peoples, though, it’s much more than statistics. Says native activist Maggie Hodgson: “It is so important to know how we came to this place of collective grief. If we have these figures, then our people can begin to talk about their own holocaust.”

The challenges of the Missing Children’s Project are many: the problem of lost (or destroyed) records, the failing memory of the survivors, the missing graveyards and the unmarked graves, the agonies of the families, like the Lacertes, who were indirect victims of the schools policy. Was this a genocide, as some suggest, or a monumental act of carelessness, as Milloy characterizes it?

Who am I?

A year ago I did a long investigation for Reader’s Digest magazine on the inadequacies of the compensation package that the Canadian government gave to the survivors of the residential schools. I got to know the players, and in my interviews with them, one question kept coming up: What happened to those many thousands of children who didn’t come home? I promised myself that I would try to answer this question, and I got to know people like John Milloy, and Maggie Hodgson. And people like Kevin Annett, a defrocked Anglican minister who claims the schools were part of was a deadly conspiracy. That’s an extreme view, which I don’t subscribe to, but many of Annett’s questions have not yet been satisfactorily answered.

Why should you care?

The residential schools are one of the darkest parts of 20th century Canadian history, and what they produced are at the heart of the country’s aboriginal problem. We’ll never understand the alienation of a million aboriginal Canadians, until we understand that impulses that created and maintained these schools, and what they did to several generations of children, whose deaths live in us all.