Sunday, May 22, 2011

rosie garthwatie's 'how to avoid being killed in a war zone'

Surviving the Killing Zone
Susannah Tarbush, Saudi Gazette, 22 May 2011

During the current uprisings in the Arab world considerable numbers of journalists have been killed, abducted and tortured. Aid workers and medical personnel are also among those who are putting their lives on the line in areas of conflict.

A book entitled “How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone” by Rosie Garthwaite [pictured below], a Qatar-based producer and reporter for the TV channel Al Jazeera English (AJE) is a comprehensive guide to trying to survive the dangers. The book is published by Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing (BQFP), the joint venture of Bloomsbury Publishing of London and the Qatar Foundation.

The 304-page book resembles a reporter’s notebook with its bright red soft cover, rounded corners and black elasticized band holding the pages shut.

The foreword is by the AJE news presenter Rageh Omaar who has covered over 15 conflicts and 40 countries for the BBC and other broadcasters. The book has two postscripts. One is by Jon Swain, who covered the wars in Vietnam and Cambodia in 1970-75 and was kidnapped for three months in Ethiopia, the other by Al Jazeera director general Wadah Khanfar, who has worked in many war zones.

Rosie Garthwaite writes briskly and cheerfully, with a good smattering of humor. Her adventurous spirit asserted itself when she spent her gap year of 1999 between school and university in the British Army, as an officer. After graduating from Oxford University she set off for Iraq in the period following the 2003 invasion. She worked initially for the Baghdad Bulletin, Iraq’s first post-invasion English-language newspaper, and then spent six months in Basra as a stringer for Reuters. She has been with Al Jazeera since 2005.

Of her time in Basra she writes: “I learnt how to avoid getting killed by my mistakes. There were many. And some very narrow misses. If I’d had something like this book to flick through at night, it might have helped, just a little.”

Garthwaite solicited contributions for her book from journalists and others, including aid workers, filmmakers, doctors, hostage negotiators, and former and serving soldiers. She names 57 contributors; dozens of anonymous voices also had an input. Some of the contributors are Western, others are of Arab, Afghan or other origin. Many work as part of a team when on assignment, and a sense of camaraderie pervades the book.

The book approaches its subject from many angles. Topics include planning, preparing and arriving on a mission; avoiding misunderstandings; and getting around in a dangerous place. Fake checkpoints are a major hazard in certain settings. One sign that a checkpoint may be fake is that even if the guards wear the same uniforms and have the same cars as the real police or army, they often have different weapons.

There is advice on coping with gunfire, bombings and missiles; keeping safe in a crowd, protest or riot; surviving landmines, IEDs and chemical perils; and the correct way to wear a flak jacket. Garthwaite warns against wearing contact lenses rather than glasses when caught in a tear gas or pepper spray onslaught. “The pain of tear gas trapped behind a contact lens is horrendous.”

The first aid and emergency medicine chapter comprises 44 pages of advice, with diagrams. Another chapter is on feeding oneself under fire, with instructions on how to gather food and a food tips section from Chris Helgren, editor-in-charge at the Reuters UK pictures bureau. The book also outlines ways of surviving extreme conditions – such as deserts, mountains, flood zones, and jungles – and dealing with natural disasters.

Garthwaite is keen to explore methods through which those on mission in a war zone can maintain their physical and emotional wellbeing, and she has chapters on “avoiding trouble in sex, love and war” and “staying fit and beating stress.” Dr Carl Hallam of Médecins Sans Frontières says: “Never try to use a dangerous trip as a chance to diet. Eat. You will lose weight anyway.” BBC correspondent Caroline Hawley rates ping pong highly for entertainment and exercise when confined to a small area. “You can work up a surprising sweat if you move around the table enough!”

Kidnapping is a hazard in war zones. Terry Waite gives tips based on his five years as a Beirut hostage in the 1980s. If captors require you to write a message, “introduce into that message a deliberate mistake that only your immediate family might know. This will convey to those outside that you are speaking under duress.”

Journalist James Brandon, who was kidnapped in Basra, says “if you get kidnapped, you must get your kidnappers to empathize with you”. AJE correspondent Jacky Rowland, formerly of the BBC, suggests: “Always carry a photograph of you with your children. Or with someone else’s children. When push comes to shove, if you can connect with your captors or kidnappers on a human level (everyone loves their kids), it might just save your life.”

Some of the hints in the book are low-tech but effective. Chris Cobb-Smith, founder of Chiron resources, which provides specialist security support to news and documentary teams, always carries a simple little wooden wedge. “Just slide it under the door as an additional lock: the harder the door is forced, the more it jams.” He emphasizes that in offices, bureaux and accommodation in high risk areas a “safe room” should be prepared in advance as somewhere to go when evacuation from the building is impossible.

Cobb-Smith was in the news in March when he and two colleagues from the BBC were held by regime forces in Libya and tortured with beatings and mock executions for 21 hours.

One question facing journalists in a war zone is whether or not to try and blend in. Opinions differ. Garthwaite thinks she has more than once been saved by people wanting to protect her because she stood out. “As one of the only blondes in Basra – the only one I ever saw – and a journalist who was listening to their stories, I was apparently dubbed ‘the angel’ by some people in the town. They would bang on the ice-cream parlour window, where I chose to interview all the most dangerous people I met, to let me know if trouble was coming.” But some contributors to the book describe making major efforts to blend in and look like the locals.

Journalist and author Sebastian Junger offers hints on how to avoid being accused of being a spy. “Be careful what you carry in a war zone. Take no detailed maps, no compass and no binoculars. “

Even long experience in war zones and an awareness of all dangers cannot guarantee safety of course. The outstanding British photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington was killed in Misrata, with US photographer Chris Hondros, by pro-Gaddafi forces on 20 April. Hetherington was co-director with Sebastian Junger of the 2010 documentary film “Restrepo” which won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for an Oscar. The film records the year the two men spent with US troops in Afghanistan, for Vanity Fair magazine.

In a piece written in Vanity Fair in memory of Hetherington, Junger recalls: “You and I were always talking about risk because she was the beautiful woman we were both in love with, right? The one who made us feel the most special, the most alive? We were always trying to have one more dance with her without paying the price. All those quiet, huddled conversations we had in Afghanistan: where to walk on the patrols, what to do if the outpost gets overrun, what kind of body armor to wear.

“You were so smart about it, too—so smart about it that I would actually tease you about being scared. Of course you were scared—you were terrified. We both were. We were terrified and we were in love, and in the end, you were the one she chose.”

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