This page contains general travel advice acquired over dozens of countries and a decade of travel.
Country Research and Reliable Guides:
The best way to survive a dangerous situation is by not getting into that situation in the first place. Conflict zones can be relatively safely traveled as long as one avoids higher risk situations in what is over all a dangerous country. The only way to do this is through extensive research and having great guides. Local guides are your best friend when it comes to surviving (and enjoying) a conflict zone. Example: Before traveling to Afghanistan I determined than Helmand and Kandahar provinces had too much Taliban activity. I also recognized most of the threats in Kabul were against predictable targets. That knowledge alone prevented me from travel to those areas, and being near those targets. On Christmas morning of 2017 I was sleeping in my safe house in Kabul when a bomb went off 5 minutes from my position. As predicted, it was against the Afghan Intelligence services. Knowing what regions and specific targets to avoid being around in a specific country is important. The local guides are important because they will have more up to date information than you. I was in Balkh Province in northern Afghanistan and planning on crossing the Uzbek border the next day. My guides got word that the Taliban had blocked the road and that part of the trip didn’t happen. Had I attempted to take a bus or private car I would have been stopped and kidnapped. This is why the local guides are so important.
Stand out or blend in?
There are two ways to survive in a conflict zone. The first way is to have superior firepower and be recognized as a target that your potential captors or kills do not want to engage. The second is to blend in and not be recognized as a target. Unless you are in the military, a contractor or under the protection of a very powerful warlord it is best to attempt the second option.
Vehicles: Don’t take a 80K armored vehicle where no one drives them. In Kabul I had an armored land cruiser because it doesn’t stand out there, it would stand out in Balkh, so I took a beat up taxi. In Tunisia and Egypt I did the same thing.
Body Armor: In general this screams “I’m important, kidnap me”. If you are a member of the press and have a military escort then by all means wear rifle plates and a helmet as well. If you are simply a traveler you are more likely to be kidnapped, targeted and killed wearing the armor. The only exception is soft body armor, but given that most threats are going to be an IED, Vest, or 7.62 NATO there is really no point in wearing soft body armor in a conflict zone.
Companions: One American with three Afghans is an anomaly, 8 Americans is a target. Believe it or not there actually are white skinned and blue eyed Afghans, so you won’t be immediately noticed. This also applies in Zimbabwe and other parts of former colonized Africa. One of the biggest mistakes you can make in a conflict zone is traveling with a large amount of people with the mistaken belief that you are being safe. You’re not, you’re making yourself into a noticeable target.
Learn some of the language:
It is important to prepare for the worst case scenarios in a conflict zone. One of those worst cases is getting separated from your vehicle and your guide. This can happen much easier than you think. Important phrases are “help, hotel, police, car, taxi, food, water, etc”. Imagine that you are lost and need to get back to safety. Those are the phrases you HAVE to know. However, if you can have a polite conversation in the local language the locals will love you. This holds true in every country.
Filming and Photography:
In the US and Western countries we are used to being able to film who and what we want at any given time. It doesn’t work that way in the rest of the world. In Muslim majority countries you need to avoid taking pictures of the women unless you are specifically told that you can. Taking pictures of military installations, government buildings or vehicles is also a one way trip to being questioned or detained.
The advice of “leave your passport in the hotel safe” is great advice for your holiday in France or your beach vacation to Brazil. It does not hold water in a conflict zone. I’ve come across roadblocks in Afghanistan, Tunisia, Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania. Each time I was told to get out of the vehicle and my passport was demanded. Each time I was told by my driver that I would have been at least hassled if not arrested for not having it. It’s also possible in a conflict zone that you might get separated from your hotel and not be able to go back. You HAVE to have your passport with you. You’re not 12, you can hold onto a passport without losing it.
Eating and Drinking:
If you don’t want to eat and drink the local food you need to stay at home. If you want to avoid the toilet for the duration of your vacation you also need to pay attention. Unless told otherwise you need to obviously NOT drink the local water or eat the local ice. Anything that at some point was washed in water is something you need to avoid eating. The old British rule of the tropics was peel it, cook it, boil it or forget it. If you follow those rules you will probably be safe. The most common way people get sick is by eating ice and forgetting it was made from dirty water, the second most common way if by eating vegetables washed in dirty water. That being said, even the most experienced traveler can get sick. It isn’t always your fault and it seems to be totally random. I ate dog, tarantulas, raw kangaroo and a dozen other weird things in Cambodia, but never became ill. I watched what I ate in Indonesia and ended up sick. The other common way people get sick is by letting the water in the shower get into their mouth. Avoid that.
First…..Tourniquet. You MUST have one. It doesn’t have to be fancy, and it can even be a belt or scarf, but you must have something on you that can be used to stop blood flow. Period.
Second…. you need to accept that medical care in third world countries is going to be substandard. Unless you have a medical emergency you need to avoid going to the hospital. You are more likely to get sick in the hospital than if you had not gone. Trip Insurance is very important. It will cover giant hospital bills, and medical evacuation.
Most places that would be considered a “conflict zone” require a visa. Do yourself a favor and get it in advance when it is required. Most countries either don’t let you get at at the border or make it almost impossible to do so. Don’t be intimidated by the visa process. Using a courier makes it easier, just make sure you fill out everything complete detail.
Where to stay when you’re in a conflict zone or third world country? It depends. This is an area where specific country research is of vital importance. If I was to stay in DRC, Tunisia, or Egypt I would stay in a Western hotel. Hotels in those countries are not particularly known for being attacked, seeing as the threat is not as organized and does not typically target westerners. If I was staying in Libya, Somalia, Afghanistan or Yemen I would be sure to avoid a hotel. A private guest house would be more secure. Local guides can help you make this decision, but watching the news is the most important. Look back 2 years and see how many hotel attacks have happened in those countries.
Although most bombings are against specific targets the runner up is any crowded area. Avoiding demonstrations, riots, and heavily crowded areas is generally a good idea. No one wants to waste a bomb on an area with 5 people buying rice. As a photographer or journalist you might need to go into those crowded areas. Exercise caution. Even if a bomb does not detonate you can be killed simply by being run over. A stampede occurred in Mecca recently and dozens were killed. If this happens attempt to get behind a solid object, such as a street lamp, car, etc.