Every country is unique, every story different. Sometimes you have weeks to prepare, sometimes just a couple hours before your flight. Over the years I’ve learned a few lessons – some the hard way. Below are just general guidelines. In addition to these, never discount that gut feeling. Whether you’ve got years of experience or are fresh out of school, if it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t:
Fixer: It is the secret weapon of all good foreign correspondents and the name we give a hired local contact who – as the title implies – fixes everything from security and accommodation, to interviews and translation. Often fixers are local journalists themselves. I have been incredibly lucky over the years to have worked with fixers who have not only helped keep me safe but provided invaluable context from a local perspective. Finding the right fixer is essential, especially in countries like Somalia or Pakistan where there have been reports of fixers, translators or drivers selling out reporters to kidnappers. Best way to get advice is by asking other foreign correspondents. Journalism may be a competitive business but not when it comes to foreign reporting in danger zones. I would have been lost over the years if I had not relied on journalists based in the region or who travel there often. It is why when other journalists contact me I always try to return the favour. Journalism karma.
Plan: Think of the worse scenario possible and then plan for that. What will happen if you’re hurt? What happens if you’re kidnapped? Make sure you know how you’ll pay if you need to get evacuated. Discuss a code word that you can use if you’re kidnapped so people at home will know it’s you, and that you’re alive. Get a list of all the numbers you could possibly need (embassy contacts, other journalists, local NGOs) and make sure people at home have them too. Scan your passport and all your documents and email them to yourself and others for safekeeping. If you’re in a country that needs verification of a Yellow Fever vaccination, it is crucial to have this. Without it, you could be blocked from entering or leaving.
Check in: When disaster strikes, time is of the essence so make sure you have a schedule for contacting home. I check in by phone and/or email with my editor (cc-ing my journalist-husband) when I leave each morning, outlining a rough plan for the day. If there’s a risky interview I will check in once it is done. I also contact home once again when back for the night. It may seem a hassle but essential.
Communication: You need to get the stories out, obviously. But what if your phone or Internet connection fails? Bring backups if possible. A satellite phone, a spare phone where you can buy a local SIM card. Make sure you have enough batteries to last you the trip, and then some.
Don’t be paranoid. Don’t be complacent: Ah, easier said than done. Sometimes you get so hyped for a trip once you get there you think, ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad.’ It probably isn’t as bad as you imagined but this is when you let your guard down. That has happened to me both in Somalia and Yemen and each time an incident reminded me of the unpredictability of the places. In Somalia, it was a suicide bombing 500 metres from where we were filming (2011) or when our car was quickly surrounded (2006). In Yemen, it was when I was alone during a protest in February 2011. Had I not met a young Somali American in the crowd who spoke English and Arabic I could have been in trouble when government thugs began firing at us. Together we hid in a restaurant until the shooting ceased. I later learned my new friend had placated the restaurant owner who wanted to throw us out – scared about harbouring a foreign journalist. Thanks to the kindness of the restaurateur and my life-saving new contact we were fine. I always had a translator with me from then on.
Little packing details: Door jam: I learned about this tip in Centurion’s Hostile Environment training for journalists and laughed at the time, but it has proven useful. If I’m nervous about where I’m staying I wedge the door shut from the inside, after locking the door at night. First aid kit: I don’t trust local supplies so I always pack a first aid kit that includes syringes. Sleeping pills: Be careful. I have friends who have gotten addicted. But if you’re going somewhere where you need to be alert when you arrive, you can’t afford jet lag. Drugs: Every prescription you need. Again, you’re no good if you’re in bed or hunched over the toilet. Flashlightor headlamp: You’ll need it at some point. Powerbars, beef jerky, instant coffee and tea: Gotta eat.
Never Forget: You go home. Or, if you’re based overseas, you have the backing of an Embassy and the security blanket of being a foreigner. That means you have a responsibility to those whom you work with or interview. People often put themselves at great risk to help you, which means you have to explain these risks to people and do your best to protect them however you can. I’ll never forget one trip to Mogadishu where a hospital we visited was attacked a couple hours after we left. Mogadishu is unpredictable, of course, but I worried the impetus for attacking was our visit. Sadly, the death of foreign journalists would have garnered more headlines than the murder of five Somali patients and a Ugandan peacekeeper. There wasn’t anything I could have done to prevent that attack and there is no way to know if it was related to our visit. Didn’t matter though, it was a sober reminder.
Michelle Shephard is the Toronto Star’s National Security correspondent and has been covering issues of terrorism, civil rights and foreign policy since the night of 9/11 in New York. Her travels have taken her around the globe including Somalia, Yemen, Pakistan, Djibouti, Syria, and on two dozen occasions to Guantanamo Bay. She is the author of two books, “Decade of Fear: Reporting from Terrorism Grey Zone” (September 2011) and “Guantanamo’s Child” (March 2008). She was also an associate producer on the Oscar-nominated documentary “Under Fire: Journalists in Combat.” In the spring of 2012 Shephard was awarded her third National Newspaper Award, this time for a compelling multimedia series about Somalia. The other team members were videographer Randy Risling and web designer James Ma.