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.