What you need to know working in a conflict zone for the first time

Freelancers have to cover their own backs. This is what you need to know about first time conflict reportage

For those who travel for a story in search of photographic material to feed to an ever expanding mouth of journalists there is much more to consider. And consider what you haven’t.

If like me you endure a terrain of flying bullets, checkpoints and questionable advice in what feels like countries without laws there is no manual. Endless calls to embassies fraught with so called solutions will forward you to dead end answers offering little progress. Chances are, your colleagues remain coy on contacts and protocol leaving you to fend for yourself to advance. But that can be the beauty of it!

If you are reading this you are one of three people, 1.) a journalist 2.) an aid worker or 3.) someone considering number 1 or 2. Your government will not offer you assistance nor will they provide training of any sort. Aside from the FCO you are on your own. But there are some things you can do to get a head start.

Start strong, research where you are going

This should be a given, but sadly, many deliberately fail to observe this step. Firstly, research the country you are visiting, and by that I don’t mean Google it or read a book. Visit the embassy of where you are going, embed yourself within societies of that nation and network with ex pats living in your country. Grasp as much information as you can – names of roads, people, habits to take up and habits to put down. Every little helps, from mannerisms right down to the volume of speech.

Soldiers look back at incoming mortar fire in Iraq – Ty Faruki ©

Show your press card at every checkpoint and identification stop

If you work in hostile environments, stamps from volatile places in your passport can be a hindrance should you wish to travel to other countries. If you are working for the press show your press card at every passport control desk. If you are working for an aid agency obtain a letter of permission or a ID badge to disclose with your passport.

Get the gear you need and be safe with body armour

Buy a bullet proof vest. If you cannot afford one – probe aid/journalist Facebook groups asking to hire or borrow one from a member. It is better to have one and not need it, than to need it and not have one at all. I bought mine through Vestguard new and they will be happy to talk you through the various options available.

If you are publishing stories on a frequent basis or submitting work to newspapers contact the Frontline Freelance Register and apply. If you are not eligible, find a seconder at the Frontline club. These are important groups to remain in as you can build important networks handy for the future.

Medical preparation is imperative

Get your shots (no pun intended) is a important issue many choose to ignore. If you are working within this realm you should be prepared to cough up for costs such as this, especially if you have a family. I have heard a few stories of people visiting areas high in malaria and other mosquito born viruses who haven’t taken the correct precautions only to fall ill later.

Word on the GP street is that most diseases picked up from war torn regions cannot be cured. I myself caught an awful stomach bug in Pakistan, the feeling is not nice especially if it cuts into a large chunk of your exploration time.

The NHS provide many immunisations and their website Fit for travel offers comprehensive, up to date information on the demographics for global disease.

Regular travel insurance is not for irregular jobs

Insurance for newsgatherers in conflict zones is not the same as holidaymakers. Regular travel insurers will not cover the risk of kidnap so it is best to obtain full coverage through specialised companies such as Ellis Cowes who offer packages protecting against such incidents including general medical and repatriation.

Get the right training for the right situation

Admittedly the cost of training for hostile environments is costly though you can apply for grants and funding through the Pullitzer centre for grants available at certain times of the year. The alternative is to learn from someone who has already taken the course or get as much training as you can afford including essential first aid and buy a medical kit for frontline work.

Confirm whether your national identity is catered for through a diplomatic mission

Many war-ravaged countries do not have an embassy. In its’ stead – neighbouring nations will usually act as a substitute. Find out who they are, be prepared to cough up unavoidable phone costs and note their details.

A Somali Soldier surveys Baidoa
A Somali soldier patrols Baidoa – Ty Faruki ©

Be sharp with a fixer

Get yourself some fixers. They can be extortionate. They can act as though you need them more than they need you but the truth is you need them more! Facebook groups can act as a great assessment for who really knows their stuff and in these areas it is better to pay over the odds for someone who can full steam ahead through checkpoints and get necessary permissions to enter the zones you want and of course, get you out of them.

Remove yourself from the world in another part of it

Ditch your smartphone until you return to your accommodation. Hostile groups use social media and have been known to launch attacks using intelligence gathered from these platforms. Don’t be silly or vain, leave the vanity tablet off and buy a nostalgic Nokia for the duration of your assignment.

It can be a complicated and costly time visiting these places but it pays to invest than to go into cardiac arrest. Be smart, be safe.

*This blog will be updated on a regular basis

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