Why write this book?
I wrote it because a lot of my friends spend time in warzones – many of them grew up in places like Beirut and other such cities, and they’ve got all this good advice to give. So I talked to 150 people with experience, either journalists, NGO workers, doctors, soldiers, security guards, even a Somali pirate and an Iraqi bomb maker, to try to get their advice on how to avoid being killed in a war zone. A third of my money is going to Médecins Sans Frontiers because it was such a collective team effort and I really feel like it wasn’t just my book, I wrote it for other people like me.
It’s quite an exciting career path – how did you get on it?
I was 22, I had just left university, and I wanted to be a journalist. I had also been in the army when I was 18, and a lot of my friends were in Iraq, and it sounded very different from the story that was on the news, so I wanted to go and see what the truth was. At that time, there wasn’t an airport that was open, at least one that was non-military, so you had to go in by car. You’d get a car in Jordan and it would take you six hours to get there. You had to drive really fast and generally in a convoy to avoid being attacked. Then I worked for the first English speaking newspaper published in Iraq after the war. I was going to go and work for them for free actually and then I got a job with Reuters and The Times and the BBC, working as their kind of stringer down in Basra. I was there by myself for like seven months after the war.
So this is a survival manual?
You wouldn’t normally read a manual, that’s all very clinical and factual. I read through and I sort of glaze over. This is full of people’s personal stories and from quite famous people, like the head of Al Jazeera networks is in there, all sorts of exciting people.
So what advice are these people giving?
Well, for example in one story there is a girl called Samantha Bolton, she used to be the head of the Médecins Sans Frontières press ad campaigns. She was in Africa one Christmas Day, and they were watching these bombers come over. They were obviously going to come and bomb their place. So she goes running back into her house where she was sharing a room with a girl, and it was 6am. It took them by surprise, and I think the moral of that story is if you’re in a dangerous place, always have everything prepared – have your glasses next to your bed, and a bag filled with all of your stuff ready to go. That’s what this book hopefully will teach you.
You’re a news producer for Al Jazeera English: is this book just for journalists?
I personally like to travel pretty much anywhere. I like dangerous places, places where things are only just calming down or whatever. And so I think this is for any tourist really who might want to go for a walk in Pakistan or northern India. There is advice in there for you.
So why travel to these places if they’re so dangerous?
There was a guy who got killed in Libya, Tim Hetherington, he was unique among journalists for taking us places we’ve never seen. He was one of the bravest journalists you’d ever meet. He showed you things that caused you to question what was going on in the world and what should be done about it. I’m hoping that this book will give people a better understanding of how they might be able to do that. And the reason it’s so important is that if no-one knows what’s going on, no-one does anything about it.
‘How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone: The Essential Survival Guide for Dangerous Places’ is published by Bloomsbury Foundation Publishing.