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How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone

How – and why – reporters and aid workers survive in some of the world's most dangerous places.

By Susan Comninos / July 5, 2011

How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone: The Essential Survival Guide for Dangerous Places, by Rosie Garthwaite, Bloomsbury USA, 304 pp.

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English TV journalist Rosie Garthwaite’s strangely giddy, yet gonzo survival guide, How to Avoid Being Killed in a War Zone, has washed up on the shores of the US from Qatar, where she works for Al Jazeera, a news service that broadcasts to a significant portion of the Arab world. Her 293-page book weighs in on everything related to a dangerous field deployment: ranging from how to build a wigwam in extreme weather to cheery warnings against trying to contract food poisoning when on assignment as “a good way of getting rid of that last bit of tummy.” (Really? Smart people do that?)

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As a whole, this odd book cobbles together war memories and advice – the latter, often contradictory – from Garthwaite, her colleagues, and her friends who’ve
represented international news, aid, and peacekeeping organizations like the BBC, Medecins Sans Frontieres, and the UN, in locales like the Sudan, Bosnia, and Iraq. Their varying views on, say, the safety of trying to score contraceptives for affairs begun in the Middle East range from scared (“Asking advice from the wrong doctor could put you in front of a judge, facing the harsh local laws,” says Garthwaite) to sanguine (“If something does go wrong, the morning-after pill is readily available practically everywhere – even up a mountain,” chirps one former female colleague, from the Baghdad Bulletin. “You might get a few odd looks when you ask for it, but don’t let that put you off.”)

Such divergent senses of reality create a schizoid effect for Garthwaite’s readers. In terms of its tone, her book chortles, chugs, chuffs, and cries, at rapidly shifting intervals. Those looking for a consistent perspective on working in a war zone will never find it. This seems to be a metaphor for the nature of combat reporting. So, whom does a book like this serve? Aid workers and reporters preparing to enter the field, and wondering how to care for injured colleagues, and themselves, can glean from it valuable first-aid and sanitation tips. In a pinch, tampons can serve as wound compresses; sand can be used to clean cooking pots and utensils.

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