by Sarah McClung
I’m not here to give you tips to beat the heat on long summer runs or suggest a hot oil treatment for split ends. “HEAT” here refers to “Hostile Environment Awareness Training.” I had the wonderful opportunity to spend the last three months in Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan, to work as an intern on a maternal and child health program funded by the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID). I worked with a private contractor responsible for the delivery of the program and was thankful for the company’s HEAT presentation at the beginning of the summer, it provided valuable information for anyone pursuing a career in international development. Here are 10 important things you should know about working in a hostile environment:
1. The Go Bag
After September 11th, you may remember discussions of the concept of a “go bag.” It’s a bag you keep close to you, sometimes physically on you, at all times. A go bag consists of essential items that vary depending on your location. In Pakistan, my go bag was my purse, which contained my passport, cash in multiple currencies (Pakistan rupees, AED dirham, and U.S. dollars), a cell phone with a local and international SIMM card, a charger, a lighter or matches, and a bottle of water. This was everything I would need to depart the country on short notice.
2. Avoid Routines
In Pakistan foreigners are targets for kidnapping. To mitigate the risk of kidnapping we were taught to avoid routines. Establishing a routine can be a way of getting settled in a new place but in a city where you can become a target it’s best to avoid developing any set schedule that could make it easier for observers to pick you up when you’re most vulnerable. We made a point of leaving for work at different times and taking different routes, varied the spots we’d visit for lunch, and changed the times we would go grocery shopping, to the mall, and even to the gym.
3. Know the Safety Spots
We have all heard the safety instructions before take-off on an airplane but rarely give them deep consideration. This summer I had to consider my exit strategy anytime I entered a new building or room to be prepared to respond to intrusion, attack, or natural disaster. I slept on the first floor of a two-story house and the “safe-room” (bullet proof/fireproof/shatterproof glass) was on the second floor, the bedroom of the only permanent international staff member. This meant I needed to memorize the steps to take in the event of a home intrusion: the quickest way to get to the safe room and where to go if it was inaccessible. Fortunately, I never had to make this trip, but I did have to recall natural disaster guidance when an earthquake woke us up around 3 am. I had just watched a horror movie, The Babadook, and when rumbling furniture woke me up I thought for sure the monster had come to get me. Despite my confusion I did manage to remember earthquake safety protocol and run outside rather than upstairs.
4. Be Aware of Surveillance Activities
Our project maintained a policy of absolute transparency, and individuals were encouraged to behave as though they were under surveillance at all times. It’s easy to think “well, I have nothing to hide, I’m not doing anything wrong,” but one must also consider how the most innocent activities might appear to others. In Pakistan, the government is known for heavy surveillance, especially of the activities of foreigners, and it was best not to engage in any activity, however innocent, that may seem suspicious and send the wrong message.
5. Learn to Navigate Intelligently
Do you know how to use a compass? I definitely did not before I visited Pakistan. It is important to learn the basics of navigation in a new setting: i.e., how to locate yourself on a map, the location of reference points, and at the very least how to use the Google Maps app. You want to be able to get yourself home or somewhere safe should you find yourself stranded alone.
6. Master All Technology
If your Security Advisor gives you some sort of tracker or installs a specific app on your phone, learning how to use it properly is a must. The last thing you want is to have to fill in endless fields of contact information in an app you haven’t used yet when you need it to work. On a work trip to Afghanistan I was given a “Pocket Buddy,” a personal tracker, and forgot to charge it regularly. After a few days the tracker died and the security team had to initiate the missing staff member process. They were unimpressed to discover that I just had an “oops” moment.
7. Acknowledge the Reality of Kidnap/Hostage Situations
Are you prepared to go into an environment where you are at risk of kidnap? Do you know what to do if you are kidnapped? The answer to the first question is something you should explore on your own, and I took my time with it before committing to travel. The second question is one you should be able to answer affirmatively. There are entire courses on how to manage these situations and I just got a quick overview, but here are some of the main principles:
- Thwart the abduction if possible; if you see it coming do everything you can to avoid it!
- If it is unavoidable, be observant and make mental notes of your captors and surroundings.
- Put your captors at ease, try to remain calm and cooperate. Accidents and violence are more likely when people become nervous and angry.
- Try to communicate with other captives if there are any.
- Keep track of time and patterns.
- Only attempt to escape if the most obvious exit presents itself. Attempting to escape can sometimes be more dangerous than just waiting to be rescued.
- In a rescue situation try not to interfere with the operation—just stay out of the way and follow the rescuer’s instructions.
8. Conflict Management and Situational Awareness
I was sort of surprised to receive coaching on verbal communication, but in unfamiliar settings, especially where multiple languages are spoken, conversations can turn into arguments and sometimes escalate to risky situations. This portion of the training involved verbal communication, expressing yourself clearly and calmly, avoiding misunderstandings and how to manage situations that escalate. For example, using words such as “we,” “us,” and “our” might be used in a discussion with the potential to lead to finger pointing and defensiveness.
9. Blending In
In Pakistan, women dress more conservatively due to traditions and religious beliefs. Though Islamabad is a modern city I found it easier to wear traditional salwar kameez every day—the tunic-like top with matching trousers—for socially-acceptable coverage. Dressing similarly to locals in your new setting can be about more than cultural sensitivity but minimizing security risk, as well. On a day trip to Peshawar, the capital city of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and a less secure city than Islamabad (the site of the Taliban school attacked in December 2014), I was told I’d need to wear hijab—to cover my head completely. I realized it was not only a sign of respect during Ramadam (Ramzan in Urdu), but also to look inconspicuous from the car window while riding around the city.
10. Adhere to All Security Protocols At All Times
On the same day trip to Peshawar, I thought our Security Advisor was joking when he told me to text him every 30 minutes until I was back in Islamabad. Sometimes security protocol interfered with our day-to-day lives (i.e., prohibiting weekend plans, requiring us to work from home, restricting parts of the city, etc.) but I appreciated that the Security Advisor was an expert and not intentionally making life more complicated. In any setting requiring more safety precautions than usual it’s best to comply and not push back.
I had a wonderful time in Pakistan and hope to return. I thankfully did not have to utilize any of the more intense security measures. I expect that most of what I learned in the HEAT course is relevant in any new city, and I appreciated that it was never about scaring participants but rather situational awareness and risk management.
Sarah McClung is a first-year FPAN student who enjoys running to trap music and forcing vegetables on friends and family.