Staying safe in hostile environments

One of the risks might be hostile crowds and protests, especially in a volatile environment. Again, knowing the situation ahead of time can keep you safe.

How do you guarantee personal safety in a conflict zone? Simple: don’t go there.

NGOs, corporations managing projects from abroad, journalists and everyone else heading to a place where thing can get dangerous, need to mitigate danger abroad by physically and mentally preparing for it at home. Once over there, you can use what you learned to assess risk, stay away from it when possible, and be cool when life goes sideways.

First of all, get off the couch, get fit, start walking. If you can’t walk, you can’t run. Start small, do your research. Read the news about the region. Figure out what kinds of danger you might face where you’re headed. Research does not mean merely checking out stale travel warnings written by government officials sitting in air-conditioned comfort. Ask people who have already been to the area. You need more than one source, and this cannot be Wikipedia. Check out commercial travel sites, read the local newspaper to get a feel for the politics of the region, and ask around. Know who the bad guys are, and what their uniforms look like. The same goes for the good guys. What is the weather like? The terrain? Become an armchair expert on your region.
In between sit-ups and scorched-earth policy, consider a hostile environment training course, (HET) especially if you’re headed to a region where you can expect gunfire, hostile crowds and protests, the need for evacuation or the possibility of getting kidnapped. HET, usually in both classroom and simulation environments, helps people to assess and reduce risks, respond appropriately to danger, act accordingly, and survive the ordeal as physically and mentally intact as possible.

If the word ‘marauding’ applies to your region, consider HET.
One of the risks might be hostile crowds and protests, especially in a volatile environment. Again, knowing the situation ahead of time can keep you safe.
One of our battleface contributors has lived in Thailand for the last 10 years. He can explain the culture, politics and legal issues of the region in ways that Westerners can grasp. As a witness to the Red Shirt riots in Thailand last year, we asked him for some pointers.

He says: ‘If you’ve found yourself in the middle of a riot, you may not be able to run away immediately, but you can take some measures to protect yourself from harm. If you’re not alone, then the first thing you should do is grip hands or lock elbows with all of the people who are with you. Reassure the people you’re with that you have strength in numbers and that you’ll be fine if you stick together.

“If you’re with a child, hold him or her in your arms so they don’t get trampled. Sticking together with your loved ones should be your first priority – your second should be finding a way out.”
Blending in is key. As he notes: “The last thing you want to do is try to take sides, help out, or stand out. Remain calm and avoid confrontation by keeping your head down. Walk at all times. If you run or move too quickly, you might attract unwanted attention.” He advises holding on, staying calm and easing your way out of danger by moving to the outside of the fracas.

“To do this, stay close to the walls and other barriers, though avoid bottlenecks, or any areas where a lot of people are squeezing through a small space,” he says. He also advises that you consider the time of day, (riots tend to get more violent at night) and the availability of shelter. “Riots most commonly happen outside on the streets, not inside buildings. Just by moving inside a sturdy and controlled building, you can protect yourself from the brunt of a riot. Any building with a basement, or even a sub-basement, can help you hide from a mob. So as soon as possible, move any injured people in and after search for medical help if necessary.”

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But you must think about your shelter. Is it flammable? Is it interesting to looters? There’s no point in escaping angry protestors, only to go up in flames or to be shot for looting by mistake. Thanks to the Internet, kidnapping is on the rise. Potential captors can find out what is in your wallet, who’s in your family, and which political party you support. They follow you on Twitter to get your routine. When they’re ready to act, they will know everything about you. So you need to retaliate. Know something about kidnappers and the business of kidnapping. If you think you may become a target, keep a low profile online. Watch what you, your family and your friends post on Facebook. Disable the GPS. Use proper passwords. Vary your work routine – most people are abducted from their vehicles while driving to and from work. Change your schedule and use different routes. Drive in the centre lane; it is tougher to get run off the road.

If you have kidnap insurance as part of your travel insurance plan, be discreet. Who knows who might overhear you?
Have a bespoke ‘I’m fine’ signal for your people back home, something that is not easy to forge, for example, text the lines of a song, in order or post selfies at pre-arranged but varying times. Come up with a verbal and visual code that shows you’re all right or otherwise in case you are abducted. If you are kidnapped, do not try to escape unless you are confident of your odds. This does not mean you should go meekly. But if freedom isn’t an option, go with self-preservation.

Consider your environment: is it safe for you to run for help? Violence is always a possibility in abductions; it becomes a certainty if you struggle. Your captors have the advantage in every way, starting with the element of surprise. They know a lot more about you than you know about them. So you must assess your situation realistically. If you don’t have a very good chance of escape, do not struggle. Otherwise, you’ll end up kidnapped, bruised and bloody, instead of just kidnapped. Once taken, obey the reasonable demands of your abductors. Avoid politics. Don’t antagonise them. They may be as nervous as you are, and they are the ones who are armed. What do you smell? Replay the journey from your abduction point to where you are now. How many turns did you take? How long was the trip? What did you hear along the way? What do you hear now? What language do you think your captors are speaking?

You will be bored, scared, uncomfortable, bored, in a repetitive cycle, so you should make an effort to stay mentally alert. Bake a cake from scratch in your head. Do some sit- ups. Make a chess set or a deck of cards. Do some push-ups. Don’t get too upset when your kidnappers cheat at poker. You want these people to like you. Get to know them, using the universal topic of family. From the conversations, elicit clues about your whereabouts and why you were kidnapped. You should also aim to keep physically fit. Exercise can provide structure and routine to your day, as well as relieve stress. When the rescue mission arrives, let the smoke clear before running out. If you have been in captivity for a while, you probably look different. If you’ve grown a beard or are wearing ethnic clothing, you may be mistaken for one of the perpetrators, so you need to make sure that everybody has put their guns away, and knows that you are the captive, not the captor. Keep in mind that emergency assistance may not be up to scratch in your region, and take appropriate caution.

No matter where you are headed, if you haven’t done most of the planning before you are on the plane, you are in trouble. This maxim couldn’t be more relevant than in the case of medical or political evacuation: it’s hard to call an air ambulance when you’re in a coma. Most of the time, the cavalry isn’t coming. Discuss evacuation plans with your insurance provider, and figure out the protocol. Being bitten by a snake in Borneo isn’t the time to realise the call centre is closed on Sundays. A freestyle medical evacuation will cost you a fortune. Arranging an exit team at the last minute in the middle of a riot is as improbable as it sounds. Battleface advises taking out conflict zone insurance, hope you never have to use it and be very grateful when you do. The whole point of all this training and planning is to get back to the comfy boredom of the couch. But some people are not so lucky. Some people bring Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) home with them. If you plan to go to a dangerous place, where your safety is at risk, make sure you have some kind of coverage for life after trauma.

Travelling in dangerous places does not have to be a death sentence. Bear in mind that all those days of preparation are for one goal: your safety.

Written for: www.crisis-response.com.