Adventures in War Zones and Disaster Areas for Journalists and Relief Workers

Your First Day in a War Zone or Disaster Area

What to Do When You Step Off the Plane

You would think that getting into a war zone or disaster area is the hardest part of your assignment, but really it is quite easy compared to what you face during the first day on the ground.

Just getting from the airport can be a cocktail of extreme stress, fright, and wild uncertainty. And then, you have to find a place for at least the first night and more.

Just those two things can take up the whole day. During this you will also be dealing with severe culture shock and probably severe jet lag.

Of course there are a few people who can avoid all of this because their organizations have established routines for greeting new arrivals and getting them billeted. The most notable is the United Nations which really does a fine job of ensuring that they do not mislay anyone.

A great part of the United Nations' air force is made up of former Soviet aircraft. This Antonov 32 was under charter to the UN in Somalia in 1992

A great part of the United Nations’ air force is made up of former Soviet aircraft. This Antonov 32 was under charter to the UN in Somalia in 1992

The United Nations also tries to give people a day or two to adjust before putting them to work. Most smaller aid organizations don’t have the luxury, especially in a newly exploding disaster area, so expect to be thrown right into the fire if you are with one of them.

If you are a journalist you know that you will have to either file a story on this first day, or do some serious story generation with your home assignment desk before you can sleep.

Count on it.

It is the way of the world.

So, if you are a bang-bang journalist, a shock troop relief worker, or if you work for a small and ill funded organization, then you are going to have to do it all yourself.

Your life in country will be one non-ending river of stress about where you are going and where you are staying.

In every humanitarian disaster I have been in, which is most of them since the late eighties, I have never failed to run into a horde of clamoring guides, taxi drivers, translators, fixers, and touts shortly after getting off the plane.

In a country that has collapsed into Mad Max nonsense the only source of hard currency for

An international aid effort to rebuild East Timor after the Indonesian Army had trashed it came from as far away as Canada. This C-30 Hercules transport is delivering the first Canadian aid following the return of international aid workers in 1999. (Converted from 35mm slide)

An international aid effort to rebuild East Timor after the Indonesian Army had trashed it came from as far away as Canada. This C-30 Hercules transport is delivering the first Canadian aid following the return of international aid workers in 1999. (Converted from 35mm slide)

people is the descending army of journalists and aid workers that always shows up. So, ordinary people will do just about anything to get their hands on any foreigner with real money and they will be as aggressive as they can to get it.

You absolutely must hire yourself some local help. You cannot do it yourself and if you try to you stand a chance of having your throat less body tossed into a ditch.

A local fixer will do everything in his power, (I have never seen a woman fixer) to protect you because you are a source of continuing income.

If you were wise before your departure and sought out people who have been in country before, you should have a name or two of a recommended driver, fixer, translator or whatever.

Good fixers are prized and are handed from correspondent to aid worker, to journalist, with a great deal of seriousness. They are very important to your survival and to any success you might have in country.

So, if you have arranged for a fixer ahead of time you have taken a giant step to a safe assignment.

If you cannot find a fixer ahead of time with a proven reputation you will want to pick someone from the clamoring crowd at the airstrip who has at least a passable facility with English.

This varies quite a bit. During the fall of Yugoslavia and through the chaos of Kosovo, German speakers were quite common and English speakers much less so. The same applied in parts of Afghanistan which have quite a strong connection with Germany. In the capital Kabul I also ran into French speaking Afghans.

But generally it is an English speaking world; fractured, shattered even, wildly ungrammatical, sometimes incomprehensible, but don’t worry about that because the two of you will work out a pretty good communication system within hours.

The translator you find at the airport is probably there with a car. If not then they can arrange for one. (By the way, while female fixers are something I have never seen, it is common to find women translators. Albania was like that to a great degree and so was East Timor.)

But if you have a fixer then all of this will be looked after. Think of the fixer as a powerful executive assistant.

Do not piss him off.

If you suspect him of skimming off some of the money you give him to hire drivers etc., just keep quiet and consider it part of the deal.

And on that subject. Yes, you are going to have to bribe people, but absolutely never try to do it yourself and make a practice of ignoring the whole subject. Let the fixer deal with all that, and again, don’t quibble about the money.

But let’s say you have arrived in country with nothing set up ahead of time.

It is going to take some luck and common sense from here on out. Your priorities are to get from the airport to town. Once there you have to find a secure place to stay, a place with good protection for its guests.

In Afghanistan this meant armed guards, high walls, and secure locks. In Albania it meant a local hotel staff carrying handguns at their waists. In Bosnia it meant finding a local strongman running a hotel. In Somalia it meant hiring a private army. (I am not kidding)

Forget organized taxis with meters. You have to agree on a price before you get into the vehicle. Depending on the nature of the trouble spot you will be asked to pay in either US dollars or Euros. Forget ATM’s and travel checks; cash will be king although a hell of a lot more dangerous than checks because it makes you a target. But you cannot cash checks in a war zone

During taxi rides carry all of your belongings with you and not in the trunk. You don’t want to be dumped at the side of the road and have everything you own driven off at high speed.

If you have no idea where you are going to stay they try phrases such as “Journalist Hotel”, “Hotel International”, “American Hotel” – be careful with that one because America has a rock bottom reputation in many parts of the world these days.

Hotels in war zones, and such like, rarely take credit cards. Most will demand cash paid daily for a room, and you will be charged a lot. A room that might have cost 50 dollars in nicer times can go for 300 easily.

Two more things about hotels. You need to find out if there is a secure and trustworthy safe for some of your cash and a safe lockup either in your room or elsewhere for your equipment.

Only keep part of your cash in the safe. The rest should be taped to various parts of your body that could survive a pat down inspection. Those include the small of your back, the lower abdomen below belt level, center of the chest between the breasts, inside your upper arms, the back of your calves.

Never use a fanny pack. It makes you a target for every passing child with a knife.

There are two more money safety tips I can recommend.

Keep at least one hundred-dollar bill under the insoles of your boots. You can also carry a couple of bills wrapped like ankle bracelets under your socks. These are your emergency cash reserves that you use after you have been robbed of everything else.

Keep a couple of hundred or so readily available in pockets that can be securely closed with Velcro or zippers. This money is your day money that can be got at quickly and easily and it is also your decoy money. If somebody holds you up and demands money this will often satisfy them and they won’t start strip searching you.

Which brings me to equipment. There are a lot of things you can do to protect your cameras, recorders, etc but keep in mind that even a hundred thousand dollar video setup is not worth your life. If somebody with a rusty knife wants your stuff then hand it over without protest.

I’ll be adding to this advice in later articles. If you have any immediate questions then write me through the contact page.