For those heading to a war zone

2011-09-06 00:00

SOME journalists thrive on adrenaline. They are the ones who write books like How To Avoid Being Killed In A War Zone, by Rosie Garthwaite. I must admit if I had been given this book 20 years ago, when I first started my career, I would have been thrilled. Now I’m somewhat cynical.

Journalists, admittedly, are a different breed altogether. Years ago, my mother dropped me off for registration at the journalism department and eyed the queue of wannabe journalists with some horror.

There was a punk with his mohawk, a goth with black lipstick, and an obviously hungover guy propping up the pillar wearing a hat with a sign that said: “PRESS”. A girl with large breasts wore a white T-shirt and no brassiere.

My mother whispered in my ear that perhaps I should apply to join the public relations department, they were dressed much more appropriately. I stared at them disinterestedly, they looked like wannabe Barbies, all far too cool.

Journalists are supposed to be uncool, they are supposed to seek out danger and they are supposed to cultivate an image of devilish nonchalance. On the whole, it is mostly an image. Fast-forward a few years and those with any sense of survival have managed to escape to upwardly mobile jobs in nicely air-conditioned corporate offices.

The rest of us try to look cool on paltry salaries. Play “spot-the-journo” on television. It’s an easy game. The journalist is usually the one with last year’s haircut and bad dress sense. Our unions are very noble — they rage about press freedom and the Protection of Information Bill. I think we should strike for a clothes allowance and mandatory cars with GPS. Too many times journalists arrive late for an appointment because they got lost or because their cars broke down.

I wish I could say I was a hard-bitten war reporter but I have never been injured in crossfire. I have broken a nail! When I hear gunfire I duck. If I see a runaway truck headed in my direction, I get out of the way. I have always had a healthy sense of self-preservation. I will never be one of those old hacks recounting nail-biting stories at a slimy bar.

I have, however, experienced enough to find some of the advice in the aforementioned book a little impractical. The author is a foreign correspondent based in the Middle East so she probably knows something about what she is talking about, but I have spent most of my life living in Johannesburg, so I have a few skills of my own.

Garthwaite says that if you think you are going to get tear gassed, carry wet cloths around in a bag with you. I say stay the hell away from cops with weapons of mass destruction. If you want to cry, get a boyfriend. Tear gas is not fun. She has a whole section on recognising anti-riot weapons. I also have some advice: if it looks like it can hurt  — it probably will.

She has a section on sex and STDs, advising foreign correspondents not to indulge in sex without protection. Well, I did not know that war correspondents had time for sex between bombs exploding. Also, if you do not know about condoms you deserve to get shot.

She gives advice on what to pack in a first-aid kit. I must admit that I did not know that condoms could be used to carry water and could double as finger gloves when treating septic wounds. She has a section on how to act when taken as a hostage. I would think that anyone reading this would not imagine that this would really happen. Hostages are not really our forte.

I am sure that if you are a South African journalist they will send you back home in exchange for a Kruger Rand or a free weekend at Sun City.

If you think you might be attracted to a war zone in the near future then this book might be useful. My advice: stay away from anything that goes tick tock, tick tock, especially if the person in front of you is staring at your suitcase.

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