War zones or former recent war zones, often called hostile environments, are unsuited to visits by tourists. However, many people must travel to these areas as part of their job, besides soldiers and other professional or declared combatants.
It is very unusual for non-combatants, other than those who live in the area and cannot or will not leave, to be wandering around war zones. Even if you have no hostile intentions, your very presence may result in heated reactions; among other things, you may be mistaken for a spy. Tourists can be just as 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 armed guards and are unknown in the area. If identified as a tourist you could also be regarded as a potential target for kidnapping to raise funds.
A tourist or independent traveler will probably not have the same backup as someone working for an organization. Usually, those people will have a security team to provide advice and support. Without this, there may be limited backup if things go wrong. National governments are often unable to provide any assistance to their citizens who are travelling in war zones, and many have a policy of not paying ransoms for citizens who are kidnapped.
In general, national governments strongly advise against visiting war zones for any reason, and only send diplomats and other official representatives into these areas when they are accompanied by security teams or are located in a well protected area. Other organizations also provide safety information to groups such as Non Governmental Organisations and Humanitarian Aid Groups that work in war zones.
Examples of sources of information include:
- British Foreign & Commonwealth Office provides travel advice
- International NGO Safety Organisation exists to provide information and assistance to enable safer circumstances for NGOs
- US State Department provides travel advice, warnings and country information.
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs - Smartraveller provides travel advice for countries and events, travel tips and safety information
Wikipedia also has a list of ongoing conflicts, though it should not be assumed to be entirely up to date or accurate.
Anyone considering a visit to a country that could be considered a war zone should consider some professional training. Such 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, et al. will have taken these courses.
- Pilgrims Group offer training in the UK.
- Athena Security & Intelligence Consultants (ASIC) offer training both in the UK and globally. They are experts in the delivery of Kidnap Avoidance and Hostage Survival training as well as offering a variety of other training specialisations.
- OnPoint Tactical. located in the US. Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape training for civilians and military alike.
- Zone Tours [dead link] conduct regular hostile environment/anti-kidnap training for travelers visiting high risk regions of the world.
Books and magazines dealing with wilderness survival are common, but publications dealing with war zones are few.
- Robert Young Pelton's The World's Most Dangerous Places is a thousand-page-plus book that provides advice, contacts, and country by country information. His web site features a forum, Black Flag Cafe, for updates and contacts.
- There is also the BBC TV series Holidays in the Danger Zone.
Land mines and unexploded ordnance
Most places that have seen armed conflict can be affected by mines or unexploded ordnance (UXO).
In some cases, these may remain dangerous for decades after the conflict ends — for example, China has had some deaths in the 21st century from left over World War II munitions. After a few years heavily populated or heavily visited areas will generally have been cleaned up, but out-of-the-way places may remain dangerous.
Mines fall into two categories: anti-personnel and anti-tank. Anti-personnel mines are not generally 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. Be aware that if you step on an anti-personnel mine, it explodes immediately. No click or any other warning like you see in the movies. Be aware that there are several different types of anti-personnel mines: One type is dug into the ground and triggered when someone steps on them; another is attached to a tree or a similar structure and is equipped with a tripping wire.
The best advice for any of these devices is to stay well clear. There are sometimes warning signs of their presence. This can be as subtle as an untouched field in the midst of heavily farmed area or an abandoned house in a busy district. 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 may be marked. Red paint on rocks is a sure sign. Pieces of cloth or 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 and humanitarian aid organisations such as the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees or the United Nations group that is tasked to the area.
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 roads 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, 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 hours, even days to get out of the danger area, but you should be alive. It's a bad idea to use pens or other short objects for this; remember that mines are designed to inflict injury on body parts near them!
Travel insurance generally does not cover you for travel to war zones. People who go to war zones as part of their work are usually covered by special insurance with very high premiums, the cost of which is usually borne by the employer.
Road blocks/ checkpoints
Road blocks or checkpoints are common, not just in war zones. They will usually be hidden round a corner in the road (especially if they are not official). Road blocks are most commonly an opportunity for the people manning them to extort money or items from passers by. There is some useful advice for dealing with road blocks. First, keep your hands in sight at all times. That way, no one will think you may have a weapon ready. Move slowly and with ease and avoid any sudden movements so as not to upset a nervous armed individual. 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 in your group are female. Keep all doors locked and if possible windows closed. Keep any cameras hidden. Learn basic local language at least so that you can have at least a basic idea of what is being said or asked of or about you.
Do not photograph any military checkpoints, personnel, roadblocks or facilities. Also do not photograph sensitive areas like bridges, border checkpoints, communications facilities and airports. When in doubt, ask for permission beforehand. In many nations it is an offense to photograph these items - the military may suspect you are gathering information for hostile forces to use in an attack.
There are techniques that can reduce the risk of kidnapping or abduction. Perhaps the most important are avoiding risky areas and having professional bodyguards or a security team. Should the worst occur and you are taken captive, there are things you can and should be doing in order to maximise the chances of safe repatriation and to minimise unnecessary harm befalling you or other captives. Specialist training in kidnap avoidance and hostage survival is available and should be sought by those intending to operate in high risk areas - or even those personnel whose personal or corporate profile renders them at an increased risk of kidnap.
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 is reduced. 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.
Note that many governments have a policy of not paying ransoms to kidnappers. However, they seek to free their citizens who are taken hostage by working with the government of the country they are being held in and providing consular support to the family and employers of hostages. Due to the great dangers involved, government agencies only undertake raids which attempt to free hostages as a last resort and usually only in very specific circumstances; these operations often lead to the hostages being killed or wounded. As an example of the support governments provide to the victims of kidnapping, see the advice published by the Australian Government here.
Be sure someone from outside the country knows your agenda at all times and have regularly scheduled check-in times so that if you go missing an alarm can be raised shortly thereafter.
Some travellers carry 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 looking to 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.
If you are unfamiliar with firearms and what they can do, get training before you enter a hostile environment. As an unarmed civilian, your best bet is to avoid active conflict areas.
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 and seek cover. If you are part of a group, scatter in different directions. This may confuse the person with the firearm long enough to find cover. Pay attention to what direction the shots are coming from and going to if possible so that you know where to seek cover safely. Remember to breathe and try to remain calm.
Most importantly when taking fire as an unarmed civilian, remember one of Murphy's Laws of Combat: Anything you do can get you killed, including nothing.
Do not take cover behind vehicles. Pistol bullets easily pass through both doors of a car; rifle bullets can pass through a vehicle lengthwise; grenades, mortars and cannon shells can destroy most vehicles altogether. Stopped or disabled vehicles are "bullet magnets" that draw fire. The best protection provided by a car or truck is its ability to move away at high speed. If forced to take cover behind a vehicle or inside one, put the engine block between yourself and the shooter - it rarely gets penetrated by small arms fire.
Walls, trees, and structures provide concealment, but may not provide cover. The 7.62mm round used by the AK-47, a common assault rifle in war zones, can pass through a concrete block. The less powerful 9mm pistol round can go through a dozen layers of sheetrock.
One rule of thumb is the 'three-second rule' which states if you need to move to another place of cover, it should not be more than a three second sprint away. A good phrase to remember (if possible) is: 'I'm up, He's seen me, I'm down.' Basically, you are up out of cover and moving (fast), you assume the shooter has seen you and is taking aim, and then you are back down behind suitable defensive cover before he can fire. The saying that "Three on a match is bad luck" originated during World War I from this sort of thinking.
Note, however, that applying this rule in some situations is almost certain to get you killed. If the enemy knows where you are and is waiting for you to move, or if he is just covering a particular area and is ready to shoot anyone who appears there, then he can fire accurately in well under a second. Also, if he has an automatic weapon (as most military or guerrilla fighters do), then he need not take time to aim; he can just spray bullets in your general direction and hope one of them hits.
The chances of being caught up in an explosion will depend upon your location. Avoiding high-risk locations, such as restaurants or bars frequented by people who could be targets, is an option. If you are unlucky enough to be in the area of an explosion, leave as quickly as possible. This is because a common tactic is to trigger one explosion followed by another to catch crowds and rescuers.
A bullet-resistant vest (sometimes called bulletproof vests or body armour) might save your life in some circumstances, but there are problems. No vest can protect body parts that it does not cover. Vests that are reasonably light and comfortable will stop most pistol bullets and some shrapnel, but nothing heavier. Not all bullet-resistant vests will stop a knife; if knives are a threat, then you need to choose one that will or use two vests.
Armour strong enough to stop most rifle bullets exists, but it is heavy, bulky, uncomfortable, and conspicuous. No form of body armour will stop a heavy round such as .50 caliber.
A few vendors, such as Miguel Caballero or Spycatcher, are now offering clothing that looks fairly normal, even stylish, but is actually bullet-resistant. This may be a good option because it is less conspicuous and easier to wear all the time. They are expensive – ranging from a few hundred to several thousand dollars for each garment – but if your life is at risk and you can get the funds, it is obviously worth it. If an employer wants to send you to a war zone, ask them to pay for this.
In some areas, some travelers go armed; for example civilian contractors in Iraq are sometimes advised to carry weapons. The best response to such advice is, obviously, not to go there! If you must go, traveling with armed guards is generally a better alternative than arming yourself.
For most travelers, carrying a weapon will increase the risks rather than reducing them. If you carry a weapon, you are not a civilian. You will be seen as a spy or soldier, and treated as such by armed groups.
A full first aid course is beyond the scope of this article.
Remember if you need to use first aid that the first step is to stay calm and then get to safety and then apply first aid.
Basic first aid, as taught by a local Red Cross will show you how to treat minor injuries and perform CPR. These and similar courses are often inexpensive or free.
Hostile environment, combat medic, or "defensive medical" courses focus on control of bleeding, shock, airway management, and trauma care. They usually include training in the use of tourniquets, H-bandages, nasal airways, and hemostatic agents like QuikClot or CELOX.