War zone safety
|WARNING: No one should visit a region in this category without seriously considering the risks and how to mitigate them. For the vast majority of travellers, including all tourists, these areas should be avoided at all costs. Other travellers should also consider avoiding them. |
This article is for those who absolutely have to go, or who get caught somewhere when a conflict erupts suddenly.
War zones or former war zones, often called hostile environments, are distinctly dangerous. It is highly unusual for anyone other than professionals sent with a specific mission, or locals who cannot or will not leave, to be wandering around war zones.
Some people must travel to these areas as part of their job; these include soldiers, reporters, diplomats, military or security contractors, and often people employed by various governments, international agencies and NGOs to provide relief from some of the ravages of war, to deal with refugee problems, or to rebuild after a war. Usually, those people will have had special training and the organization will provide extensive support — almost always a professional security team and heavily-secured buildings, often armored vehicles and/or armed guards for any required travel. They may also be partly protected by diplomatic immunity, by press credentials, or by some symbol like a Red Cross or the blue helmets of UN peacekeepers.
Going into such an area for tourism is a spectacularly bad idea since you may not have the training and will certainly not have the backup or protections that the professionals do. Even a tourist with no hostile intentions may provoke heated reactions; among other things, you may be taken for a spy. Tourists can be just as much a target of hostility as any military force. Indeed, tourists are a soft target, much easier to attack than the professionals. Some may be specifically targeted because of their home country, religion or ethnic group.
In some areas, such as Afghanistan and the southern Philippines, tourists are prime targets for kidnapping. Many national governments have a policy of not paying ransoms for citizens who are kidnapped. Even if your government, employer or family is willing to pay a ransom, some of the kidnappers would rather have a beheading video that helps publicise their cause than just get some money.
Diplomatic missions are often unable to provide any assistance to their citizens who are travelling in war zones. If your country has military forces in the area or is supporting one side in the conflict, those groups are very unlikely to think their mission includes protecting tourists but the other side is almost certain to consider you hostile.
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.
Sources of information and travel advisories include:
- Australian Department of Foreign Affairs - Smartraveller provides travel advice for countries and events, travel tips and safety information
- Canadian federal government's Travel and Tourism website includes travel advice and advisories for travel to foreign countries
- 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.
Wikipedia also has a list of ongoing conflicts, though it should not be assumed to be entirely up to date or accurate.
If you are a dual citizen, it is likely wise to carry only one of your passports for some travel. For example, if you have both Israeli and Russian passports, you might be safer identifying as a Russian in some countries. However, to visit countries that have sanctions against Russia, you might need to use the Israeli passport. Of course in most places you could use either, and there may be places where neither is a desirable choice; for example, many Afghans detest both Russians and Israelis.
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. It is debatable whether these are worthwhile; they may fool a rather dumb attacker, but not one who searches you and finds the real passport, or who knows enough to realise the issuer is bogus, or who checks the visa stamps and notices the passport lacks one for the country you are in. In those cases all the bogus passport does is make the attacker angry.
Anyone planning a visit to a country that could be considered a war zone should get 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.
- War Zone Tours conduct regular hostile environment/anti-kidnap training for travelers visiting high risk regions of the world.
- The UN has courses that are required for all staff it sends to such areas.
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, unexploded ordnance 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, and bombs from the same conflict are still discovered (and dangerous) in both Germany and the UK. In fact older devices are sometimes more dangerous than new ones because the explosives - or the trigger - break down over time.
There are still places off-limits due to mines in many parts of the world, including some where the conflict ended decades ago. After a few years heavily populated or heavily visited areas will generally have been cleaned up, but out-of-the-way places may still be dangerous.
Mines fall into two categories: anti-personnel and anti-tank.
- The commonest type of anti-personnel mine; is dug into the ground and triggered when someone steps on it. Another type is attached to a tree or a wall and is equipped with a tripping wire; these are more likely to take out several people. If you trigger an anti-personnel mine, it explodes immediately; there is no click or any other warning like you see in the movies. These mines are not generally designed to kill; maiming an enemy combatant is more effective than killing since resources are needed to evacuate and treat the wounded.
- Anti-tank mines will not normally be triggered if you step on one; they are designed to be triggered by a vehicle. They are considerably more powerful than anti-personnel mines, capable of stopping a tank or completely destroying a truck. There are often anti-personnel measures as well, to make clearing the mines more difficult.
Although booby traps may not involve explosives, given by their purpose and secrecy, they can also be considered as another kind of mines.
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 a 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!
The UN Mine Action Service (UNMAS) publishes a mobile app, available free on Google Play. It is mainly aimed at aid workers but contains several useful tips on mine/UXO safety and a user can even claim a certificate in ERW/IED awareness if they pass the in-app tests.
Both UNMAS and groups such as the HALO Trust and Mag International sometimes recruit volunteers or paid staff to help eliminate land mines in various regions. Generally such work does not start until the shooting and bombing has ended, but it is not without risk.
There is an International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the Ottawa Convention of 1999 banning anti-personnel mines now has over 150 nations as signatories. However that convention does not cover anti-tank mines and some of the most important nations, including the USA, Russia and China, have not signed it. Neither North Korea nor South Korea has signed; both consider mines essential for defense against the other, and the area along their border has large numbers of both anti-personnel and anti-tank mines.
Most mines contain metal and are thus relatively easy to detect; those that don't are outlawed by another treaty, due to the long-lasting risk they pose because it is virtually impossible to make sure a former minefield has been totally cleared of them. Again, though, not all nations have signed, and not all deployed mines conform to such standard.
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 and 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 sometimes 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. Move slowly; do not make 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. Keep calm. A flustered, panicked individual is more cause for suspicion than an easy-going one. 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 even in peacetime — the military may suspect you are gathering information for hostile forces to use in an attack.
Kidnapping and abduction
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.
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. Remember the basic fact that any gun is a weapon designed to kill.
Apart from combat scenarios, shots may also be fired as a way to express celebration or other emotions by locals, a common practice in conflict areas like the Middle East and Balkans. Stray bullets kill, and your best option is to seek firm cover, as falling stray bullets can penetrate weak covers like tile roofs.
Unlike movie and TV sound effects, real-life gun sounds vary. Pistols and silenced guns may sound like exploded balloons, while the sound of rifles and shotguns is more similar to the commonly known "bang" sound.
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 doing 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. Even when your vehicle is bulletproof, the bulletproof windshield may be penetrated if two or more bullets hit the same spot.
Walls, trees, and structures provide concealment but not cover. The 7.62 mm round used by the AK-47, a common assault rifle in war zones, can pass through a concrete block. The less powerful 9 mm pistol round can go through a dozen layers of sheetrock. The 12.7 and 14.7 mm rounds used by heavy machine guns and anti-material snipers can penetrate almost everything, including all kinds of bulletproof vests and helmets.
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 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.
If you or someone else was shot, instead of taking out the bullet (leave that to be done at the hospital), your top priority is to stop the bleeding as soon as possible, while securing the casualty's airway. A quick bandage and fixation of wound before sending to hospital/arranging for medical evacuation should be followed, to prevent further bleeding and accidental injury due to bone fracture. Learn to use a tourniquet for wounds in the limbs.
In war zones, it is not uncommon for belligerents obtaining air superiority to conduct airstrikes and missile strikes against enemy targets.
With the widespread availability of mass-market drones and 3D printers, irregular forces such as terrorists or insurgents have taken to producing their own drones in the 2010s and 2020s. While some of them are only used for reconnaissance, there are also those that are armed with explosives or air to surface missiles which take advantage of the usually weaker armour on the upper side of military vehicles.
Military drones are characterized by the loud buzzing noise that they make, like that of a bee or a lawnmower. You may also see the aircraft circling overhead.
- lie down and drop something on a road (it looks like you are laying an improvised explosive device);
- point at the aircraft.
These actions may result in the aircraft opening fire at you. Just pretend that you haven't noticed the drone.
Stay away from anything and anyone you suspect will be targeted, be it Taliban fighters in Afghanistan, Shi'ah militiaman in Iraq, in which you risk being caught in the blast radius of the aircraft's weapons.
If your destination still retains some governance or civil defense abilities, wailing air raid sirens may be used to warn upcoming airstrikes. In such situations (see also Explosions below):
- Grab the bag filled with necessities like durable food and clothes you prepared, and take it along.
- Take cover in a shelter. As long as they aren't too shallow, metro/subway stations are generally good air raid shelters. They've been used from London in 1940 to Kyiv in 2022.
- If there is no nearby shelter, head for a building, and place yourself as far as you can from windows, or other nearby fragile objects.
- If no building is nearby, lie down on your belly and put your hands on your head.
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 a preventive option.
If there is some distance between you and the explosion site, you will see the explosion before the shock wave and explosion sound arrives at your location. Make good use of time to duck and cover immediately.
During an explosion:
- If you are in a building:
- Duck and take cover under a sturdy table or desk. Close your eyes, cover your ears and open your mouth to minimize blast injuries.
- After the explosion, leave quickly, watching for obviously weakened floors and stairways. Stay low if there is smoke.
- Check for fire and other hazards.
- If you are trapped in debris, use a flashlight, whistle or tap on pipes to signal your location to rescuers. Also refer to tips at Earthquake safety.
- Shout only as a last resort to avoid inhaling dangerous dust.
- Once you are out, do not stand in front of windows, glass doors or other potentially hazardous areas.
- Cover your nose and mouth with anything you have on hand.
- Leave as quickly as possible, as a common tactic is to trigger one explosion followed by another to catch crowds and rescuers.
Although belligerents tend to be cautious when using chemical, biological, radiological or nuclear weapons, they are still powerful weapons that may be unleashed. The civil war in Syria, for example, had multiple instances where chemical weapons were used on the civilian population.
There is no defense against a nuclear weapon if you are within the blast radius. This can be only a few hundred meters for a "tactical nuke" such as might be fired from an artillery piece, but dozens of km for a large bomb detonated as an air burst to spread the effects most widely. The intense radiant heat, the gamma rays, or the neutrons for some bombs can also kill.
If you are further away, your main worry is radioactive fallout.
All nuclear weapons produce fallout — radioactive dust that is blown high in the air and comes down over a wide area — and "dirty bombs" are specifically designed to maximize fallout; for example a hydrogen bomb can be wrapped with a layer of U238 to give more fallout. It is also possible to build a device that uses conventional explosives to spread radioactive material; this may appeal to some actors because it needs less technology and resources, but the effect is neither as severe or as widespread as fallout from a nuclear bomb.
The best way to deal with fallout is to leave any area where it is likely, that is anywhere downwind of a nuclear blast.
If that is not possible, go to a fallout shelter if you can. Failing that, the following measures will help:
- Cover your nose and mouth with a cloth to reduce the risk of breathing in radioactive dust or smoke.
- Don’t touch objects or fragments scattered by the explosion.
- Quickly go into a building where walls and windows are intact to shield yourself from radiation.
- Shut all windows and outside doors. Turn off fans and heating and air conditioning systems that bring in air from outside.
- If walls and windows of the building are broken, go to an interior room and do not leave. If the building has been heavily damaged, quickly go into another building where walls and windows are not broken.
- Once inside, take off your outer layer of clothing and seal it in a plastic bag, if available. If not, use whatever that can hold the clothing and can be closed and removed. Removing outer clothes can get rid of most radioactive dust.
- Put the plastic bag where others will not touch it. If possible, isolate the plastic bag with bulky items.
- Shower or wash with soap and water to remove any remaining dust.
- If possible, tune to local radio or news for more instructions. You should also prepare for evacuating from the affected region.
Chemical and biological weapons
Although some chemical weapons have distinct smells (such as an especially strong bleach smell for chlorine), some (including Sarin and VX) can be odorless and colorless. Maintain your situational awareness, and if you find something wrong with your sense or surroundings, trust your instinct.
In a chemical or biological weapon attack:
- Avoid any obvious plume or vapor cloud.
- If chemical/biological weapon is released indoors (such as the case of the 1995 Tokyo Subway Sarin attack), leave the site as soon as possible and evacuate to higher or windward locations.
- Evacuate from the site and into an intact building in order to shelter-in-place.
- Lock doors, close windows, air vents and other openings.
- Turn off fans, air conditioning, and forced air heating systems.
- Go into a room with as few windows as possible.
- Seal all windows, doors, and air vents with plastic sheeting and duct tape.
- Improvise with what is on hand to seal gaps to create a barrier from any contamination.
- Remove outer clothing and place it in a sealed plastic bag.
- Shower or wash with soap and water. Flush eyes with water if they are irritated.
- Put on clean clothes.
- If possible, seek medical attention even if no symptoms develop.
- Watch TV, listen to the radio, or check the Internet if available. You should also prepare for evacuating from the affected region.
When transporting necessary equipment for your tour in war zones, you should comply with all customs and importation/exportation regulations — while your destination can be lawless, your departure place is usually not. For example, there have been cases where war correspondents are arrested by customs for arms trafficking after they bring PPEs like bulletproof vests and helmets without proper procedures.
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, and 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. Also, a vest cannot reduce the energy of a bullet, only spread it across more of your body. Getting hit is likely to feel about like being kicked by a horse; a huge bruise and perhaps a few broken ribs is certainly a lot better than having your heart pierced, but it is still definitely not good.
Vests that are reasonably light and comfortable will stop nearly all pistol bullets and shrapnel, but nothing heavier. In particular, vests with the common level IIIa rating will not stop shots from assault rifles. Armour strong enough to stop most rifle bullets exists, but it is heavy, bulky, uncomfortable, and conspicuous. Cloth alone cannot provide that level of protection; steel or ceramic plates are needed as well. No form of body armour can protect against a heavy machine gun or sniper round such as .50 calibre; some will prevent the bullet penetrating, but the trauma will still be lethal.
Vendors such as Miguel Caballero, Wonder Hoodie, Bulletproof Zone, Bullet Blocker, and Thyk Skynn offer 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. Bullet-resistant backpacks, briefcases, laptop cases and shoulder bags are also available; these are also inconspicuous and they may handle heavier rounds than clothing since it is relatively easy to include armour plates in their design. Both the garments and the bags are expensive – ranging from a few hundred to well over a thousand dollars per item – 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, tell them they should pay for this.
A pair of boots with steel in the soles, as used by construction workers, may somewhat reduce the damage if you step on a land mine but will not even come close to giving complete protection. However, they will protect against broken glass, sharp-edged rubble, and some types of booby traps.
In some areas, some travellers go armed; for example civilian contractors in Iraq are sometimes advised to carry weapons. However, for most travellers, carrying a weapon will increase the risks rather than reducing them.
For one thing, if you are not well-trained in its use, any weapon is hazardous. Also, even if you are an expert, it may be useless if you are outnumbered or outgunned. Against several guys with AK47s, for example, reaching for a pistol is suicidal and even wearing one likely increases your chance of being shot.
Perhaps most important, 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. The Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners of war applies only to people who are in uniform or at least wearing some marker visible at a distance — such as an armband or a distinctive hat. The US routinely treats prisoners at Guantánamo Bay in ways that would be illegal if the Geneva Convention applied. Anyone going armed in a war zone while wearing unmarked civilian clothing is taking a huge risk; nothing in international law forbids the other side from simply executing a captured spy.
Traveling with armed guards is generally a better alternative than arming yourself.
A 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, such as what is taught by a local Red Cross in the USA or Canada, 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.
LMS Defense provides combat medical training in the USA.
- Business travel; visitors typically do not come for pleasure
- Corruption and bribery; the degeneration of local governance is a catalyst for corruption
- Crime; the collapse of legal institution, and the shortage of resources, might motivate crime
- Next-to-impossible destinations; to a certain extent similar to war zones
- Stay healthy; destruction of health infrastructure can make curable diseases deadly: the ongoing cholera outbreak in Yemen is a prime example of this