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War zone safety

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War zone safety

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    This article is a travel topic

War zones or former war zones, often called hostile environments, are not the most obvious places for non-essential travel, but with the right preparation and experience they can provide the intrepid traveller with a unique experience. However, no one should visit a country in this category without seriously considering the risks and how to mitigate them. Tourists can be just a much a target of hostility as any military force. Indeed, tourists could be regarded as a soft target since they do not have the backup of a large organisation. In recent times, tourists have been targeted in Afghanistan, Egypt and Kenya.

A tourist or independent traveller will probably not have the same backup as someone working for an organisation. Usually, those people will have a security team to provide advice and support. Without this, there may be limited backup if things go wrong.

Safety advice

A little research into your chosen destination can turn up a lot of useful advice. Some, such as government issued travel advice can be over cautious, but there are often organisations specialising in safety information for the UN for example. There will be NGO's (Non Governmental Organisations) operating in most of these places.

Training courses

Anyone considering a visit to a country that could be considered a war zone should consider some professional training. Courses are becoming increasingly easy to find. A search of the Internet for 'Hostile environment course' will probably provide the address of a local company. A course will normally cover all the issues discussed here in far greater detail, usually with practical experience. They can be a lot of fun too. A course will normally be from 2-5 days and will involve role play, a lot of first aid and sometimes weapons training. Most NGO staff, journalists, diplomats etc. will have taken these courses.

Mines and UXO

Land mine warning sign, Cambodia
Mine/UXO marking in Croatia

Most places that have seen armed conflict can be affected by mines or UXO (Unexploded Ordnance). Mines fall into two categories: anti-personnel and anti-tank. Anti-personnel mines generally are not designed to kill. Maiming an enemy combatant is more effective than killing since resources are needed to evacuate. Anti-tank mines will not normally be triggered if you stand on one. They are designed to be triggered by a vehicle. One other point, if you step on an anti-personnel mine, it explodes immediately. No click or any other warning like you see in the movies.

The best advice for any of these devices is to stay well clear. There are often warning signs of their presence. This can be as subtle as an untouched field in the midst of heavily farmed area, an abandoned house in a busy district etc. Packing crates for mines or ammunition may be present, where they have been discarded. A convenient path may be disused. Where mines/UXO have been found, the affected area should be marked. Red paint on rocks is a sure sign. Cloth, cans hanging from a fence is another. Dead cattle or a pattern of craters are also possible. The best source of advice may be from local people.

Even if minefields are marked, in time rain and rivers can move devices into other areas. This has been a problem in the Balkans, where death and injury from mines on river banks are common.

When in an area that is known or suspected to be mined, stay on paved road when possible. If not possible, follow car tracks or well-trod foot paths. Should you, despite your best efforts, find yourself in a mined area, STOP. Stay where you are and call for assistance from someone who knows what they are doing. If this is not possible, retrace your exact steps back to safety (this is very dangerous). If you have a long rod (even a pen might work), you may be able to check for mines and escape the area. Insert the rod into the ground at a very shallow angle. Mines will not normally be triggered when they are hit from the side. You need to check an area just big enough for your foot. Keep doing this for every step. It could take a couple of days to get out of the danger area, but you should be alive.

The Halo trust is an organisation that safely disposes of mines and other UXO. People that do this work are extremely brave and deserve considerable respect.

Road blocks

Road blocks are common, not just in war zones. They will usually be hidden round a corner in the road (especially if they are not official). Many road blocks are an opportunity for the people manning them to extort money from passers by. This is the most common situation. There are a few useful rules for dealing with road blocks. First, keep your hands in sight. That way, the no one will think you may have a weapon ready. Look pleased to see the people who have stopped you, even if you feel contempt for them. Be polite. Try to stay in the vehicle. If this is not possible, try to stay together, especially if you or others are female. Keep all doors locked and if possible windows closed.


To avoid the danger of kidnapping it may be wise to look into hiring a professional body guard and a camouflage passport, which is a faux passport "issued" by a non-existent country. Camouflage passports are used to throw off terrorists and abductors, who may be single out a person from a specific nation. Camouflage passports cannot be used for official business, because anyone can purchase these passports with minimal identity verification.

In any kidnapping/abduction, the kidnappers have the least control right at the start. As time passes, their control over the situation increases and the opportunity for the victim to act reduces. Many kidnap attempts are foiled because the intended victim reacts to the attempt in a way that the kidnappers did not expect. If driving a vehicle, reversing away from danger or changing direction may help. Specialist courses are available for drivers.


Being shot at or being in an area where there is shooting is never very pleasant. Fortunately, it is actually quite hard to get shot. Unless some one with a firearm is actually very close, your initial reaction could save your life. It is very hard even for a highly trained soldier to hit a moving target. If you are shot at, move and move fast. If you can, move across the line of fire and not directly away from the shooting. If you are part of a group, scatter in different directions. This will confuse the person with the firearm, long enough to find cover.

Take cover behind a tree, laying on the ground facing the shooter, with your body on the ground away from them. If you choose cover behind a vehicle, behind the engine (usually near the front wheel) is the safest place. If you need to change location, move rapidly, as above.


The chances of being caught up in an explosion are pretty remote. Avoiding high risk locations, such as restaurants or bars frequented by people that could be targets is an option. If you are unlucky enough to be in the area of an explosion, leave as quickly as possible. An increasingly common tactic by terrorists is to trigger a small explosion, followed by a large one to catch crowds and rescuers.


Useful kit

Most people will have an emergency kit, which can be picked up in a hurry. There are no set rules about what to pack, but some ideas are included here.

  • Simple first aid kit
  • Sterile needle set (available as part of a kit from good outdoor shops). Some customs officials will cause problems if they find this sort of thing.
  • Emergency dental kit with needles and anaesthetic
  • Flashlight (torch)
  • Matches or something to start a fire
  • Disinfectant
  • Shoulder-fired surface to air missile (SAM)
  • Medication for pain (avoid Codeine)
  • Medication for diarrhea/sickness
  • Water purification tablets
  • Any other medication required
  • Needle and cotton
  • Disposable gloves

First aid

A full first aid course is beyond the scope of this article. Excellent course are available from many sources. An easy way to get trained is to ask your employer. Usually they will be happy to pay, because it will gain them a qualified first aider, which can be hard to get. Or contact the local Red Cross [1] chapter, which normally offer First Aid/CPR classes.

Pay particular attention to anything about major trauma type injuries. Severe bleeding, loss of limbs etc. Hostile environment courses cover a lot of first aid.

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