Ex-Pat Living: How Do You Survive Life In A War Zone?

Ex-Pat Living: Map of Syria And Her Neighbors, A Concern for Life in a War ZoneSyria.
The word on everyone’s lips.

The New York Times Online this week noted, “The Syrian conflict has been growing in intensity and scope for more than two years, with the United Nations estimating more than 100,000 dead and millions displaced.”

As expats, most of us would have evacuated Syria by now. For some however, the question is, what do you do if you can’t leave- if, for example, you’re working on a peaceable mission or an NGO/PVO dedicated to alleviating suffering for displaced populations? Will you stay till the 11th hour? And then, when urged to finally leave, make hasty plans to relocate out of harm’s way?

Most of us know ex-pats who have been in situations that are less than ideal… the catcher on our Baku softball team spent his wedding night  avoiding rebel gunfire in Timbuktu  under his bed with his new bride instead of in it;  our pitcher, visiting his wife’s family in Haiti, knew things were bad when her brother picked them up at the airport with a gun and then used evasive driving techniques to get home without being followed. They stayed in a safe-house for the entire visit.

There are other times, however, when we have no warning, like September 11th, 2001. Your whole world is thrown into chaos; lives are forever changed. One minute you’re on your way to a dinner party, and the next, you’re scrambling to take cover, not knowing from what or where.

I experienced that twice during my time in Baku, Azerbaijan.

Going in, I knew that Azerbaijan and Armenia were still at war, though in 1994, some months before I landed in Baku, an uneasy cease-fire had been brokered. I had instructions on areas to avoid, I had been advised to use extra caution in conversations, don’t be seen as a “soft target”- use security measures to make myself a “hard target” or one not easily taken, threatened or put in danger.

When I arrived people I knew showed me around and took good care of me (even if I did feel like somebody’s “wedding general” at many of the places I was taken). I moved among and conversed easily with local acquaintances. So easily, in fact, that when the presidential election of 1998 took place, I was shocked to find myself in the middle of a protest that literally rocked the taxi I was in. Baku had always been a place I felt comfortable walking on my own, but this day I was fearful for my taxi driver in addition to myself. I didn’t know if the mob beating on the taxi, rocking it violently back and forth, was “just” agitated, protesting generally over the election practices or if there was something in the local news about America that made me a target.

It’s every expat’s worst nightmare- not knowing whether you are actually in danger or just collateral damage, caught in a local rage. So, as an expat, how do you survive in a War Zone? What mindset must you maintain? How can you settle in, when you’re always on edge?

Ex-pat Living: Survival Resources- Overseas Security Advisory Organization (www.osac.gov)

Overseas Security Advisory Organization (www.osac.gov)

For me, as an American, I appreciated the resource of the Overseas Security Advisory Council (OSAC), a support group created in 1985 to promote security cooperation between American private sector interests worldwide and the U.S. Department of State. Other countries operate a little differently, but many have similar support groups for their citizens working abroad. The OSAC online newsletter is a free but useful resource for news and information.

The briefings the OSAC gave at its meetings were invaluable, knowing that every piece of information gives you another option in an emergency. It helped me keep my head in that taxi that day, and I believe being in control also kept my driver from doing something he believed necessary to protect his honor but may also have gotten him seriously hurt. Instead he stayed cool and navigated his way through the mob without hurting anyone outside in the path of the car, nor either of us inside the car.

We were shaking when we got free (indeed, that mob scene in the recent Ben Affleck film, “ARGO” brought on involuntary shaking as I watched- and re-lived – that experience again). Once on our way, my trip to the RamStore market didn’t seem quite so important. We found a place to stop for tea instead. My driver smoked half a pack of cigarettes during our stop… I may have contemplated taking up smoking for a moment.

In November, 2000 when a 7.0 earthquake hit the Apsheron Peninsula, upon which Baku is located, there was mass panic and wailing in the streets as people fled their homes into the darkness beyond. I was unhurt, thankfully, so using our crisis training, I flipped off the electrical breakers and went about helping others who weren’t as fortunate. We quickly discovered that cell phone systems get overwhelmed early in a crisis. That very week the OSAC group began researching radio options for locating our expat family if and when a next crisis should occur.

It was fortuitous that we started working on a back-up plan. Even if it wasn’t fully implemented yet, the fact that we had been awakened to the possibility of a large-scale crisis allowed us to be better prepared when the next one actually shocked us beyond belief.

The Power of Community in a Crisis

It would be less than a year after the earthquake that the world was again rocked to its core by the events of 9/11/2001.

In Azerbaijan, the time is a full workday ahead of New York City. By 9:00am, on September 11th, 2001, I was already on my way after work to an AmCham business social event at the Ambassador’s residence- again in a taxi- when I began to get frantic calls on my cell phone as the news was making it to CNN and the Armed Forces News network. “Are you watching the news?” Dave yelled into the phone. “No, I’m on my way to the Ambassador’s. Why?” Sounding even more alarmed, Dave responded, “America’s being bombed!” … Wait… What??

We were always conscious of such possibilities in the Caucasus, with potential for violence from every direction,  but never in my wildest imaginings would I have thought that statement would be uttered in seriousness about my home, America.

As the news came over the wires in fits and starts, reactions varied by position, rank, nationality and family situation. The Ambassador and his wife were concerned but calm, going into crisis mode as per protocol. The Marine Guard unit secured the premises as they had been trained to do- the metal gates clanged shut, no one went in or went out. Azerbaijani dignitaries were whisked away; the Prime Minister and Cabinet members were advised to stay in a safe place. Local business people scrambled to translate the news to others who were not fluent in English. Everyone looked at each other cautiously, not knowing what all this meant for our relations.

The Azeri guests cried and held our hands saying, “We did not do this,” in response to speculation that Muslim terrorists had perpetrated the crime against America. “Please don’t shoot us,” they implored. We responded, “Don’t shoot us!” No one knew what to do, how to interact; everyone was suspect, everyone was in shock.

As bits and pieces of news filtered in, we learned that the wife of one of our Board members was staying at the hotel across from the Towers- the panic of not knowing and not being able to know for hours or days was palpable. The news said planes were being diverted all over the world. We each spoke of those we knew who were on a plane bound for home- where would they get stuck as the planes were being immediately grounded, how would they get home, how could we find everyone?

We Will Never ForgetWith all the concern in the city, flowers started to pile up in front of the US Embassy-Baku, A signature book was opened at the gate and by the dozens our Azeri friends came to express their grief, shock, sadness, guilt, frustration, disbelief and support for all of America.

We knew we needed to find everyone to make sure we were all accounted for. Spontaneously American expats and Azeri supporters in solidarity showed up at Dave & Sheila’s “Fisherman’s Wharf” restaurant /bar to tap into the center of the information network. The Armed Forces News Network was turned on the big screen television and the restaurant filled with voices. We registered who we had seen.

The rest is history.  You all know what happened in New York City that morning- better than I do.  Being so far removed, we only got 3rd hand reports and bits and pieces. We sat at Dave & Sheila’s until 4 in the morning, watching and re-watching, not believing what we were seeing. We couldn’t make sense of it at all. Once the sun came up, we knew we had to find everyone, and that became the job of the days to follow. Phone tree calls, door knocks, verifying who had been seen last, and where.

The Embassy asked for help getting a room for a morning briefing. We didn’t know how many to expect and the room quickly overflowed with a mix of 158 people inside.  The Ambassador pieced together what was known at that hour, barely 12 hours on. Later, everyone offered their bit of news.  We didn’t know what was fact or gossip, but we were hungry for all of it.

The job of surviving began.

Fight or Flight: Coping Mechanisms

Many went home, when they could. Getting family back together for support was important.

Some got angry and dove into shoring up safety and security works.

Others joined groups, survivors/questioners/solidarity- all kinds. Talking and joining with others who shared the experiences provided comfort and solace.

Our friend whose wife was across the street said the blast blew her shoes off, she lost her purse and was dazed. But she was alive. She survived in body but not in spirit. Strangers found her and took her in. When things settled down, she took a train from NYC back home to Atlanta to begin rebuilding her life, piece by piece. There would be no planes. Ever. Years of therapy.

Some never heal. Some heal, but come back “different”.  Author and journalist Caitlin Kelly (Broadsideblog.wordpress.com) wrote about the effects of violence on journalists. Read her post here:   What Years of Reporting Violence Does to Journalists .

As we think about survival in the face of violence and danger in Syria, and other places, I would encourage you to talk about the “What If’s…” Talk about your plans, what if you’re not together when something happens. Prepare a Go Bag for the “imminent danger” moment. Oil companies used to advise expatriate employees to keep an “open date” plane ticket on hand, in a safe or other reliable (and 24/7 accessible) place. Ask a travel expert in your country what they are recommending now for instant ticket conversion in a crisis. And do it now. Be prepared.

Conversely: Don’t wait until danger strikes, and don’t count on using the internet.   Indeed, I entered “emergency war zone travel” and here’s the answer I got today…

“…please use the /stuck command to attempt to free your character from the location you are unable to move from. You also have the option to use your quick travel ability, which will allow you to travel to any binding point that you have manually discovered on your current planet.

Additionally you can use your Emergency Fleet Pass which you will receive the first time you enter the allegiance fleet.      Thank you for your patience and understanding, and we apologize for any inconvenience this may have caused.

                     —  Galactic support is our specialty.”

Aahhh, if only life and survival were really that simple:   To survive in a war zone, just call the Help Desk.

On a more positive note about global living, this is a wonderful video that came in today’s Worldette news clip, courtesy of Naomi Hattaway. Just to remind us that while we prepare for the worst, sometimes the best thing in life is life itself.

Graham Hughes’ TedX presentation on experiencing every country (and two jails!) in his around the world travel video.

(Many thanks to Naomi Hattaway and Worldette for the introduction.)

Be safe… and Live so that you Never Forget.

11 thoughts on “Ex-Pat Living: How Do You Survive Life In A War Zone?

  1. Very interesting and thought provoking article. Being prepared for a crisis is something we don’t think about often if we are living in a place where we feel relatively secure. But you never know and it is a good idea to have a plan. I was in London in July 2005 when there were terrorists attacks on the Underground. Fortunately, I was not on the Underground at the time but I remember the sense of fear and uncertainty in the city.


    • I cannot imagine the feeling in London- it would be more unexpected there. We don’t often talk about Survivor’s Guilt but it is every bit as important an issue and needs to be dealt with as a PTSD. We as expats take for granted that travel is safe, and it usually is, but you’re right that you never know and having thought about the what-if’s makes a huge difference in whether a person copes well or not so much.

      Thanks for adding your perspective on this. I’m glad to be able to share experiences with you.


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  6. I’ve got to be honest, I’ve not thought about this until now. It hit home, I’ve felt safe here in Russia. But I know things can change here rapidly as it can anywhere else. Thank you very much for opening my eyes.


    • Steve, Thanks for the insight.
      I’m glad this post resonated with you too. You’re in a unique situation as compared to many expats in that your wife and family are home- their first response perspective in a crisis will likely be much dIfferent than yours.

      Talking about the what ifs before anything happens makes sure that rational plans are in place if ever needed. “Ne di Bog” or, “Inshallah” as they say in Azerbaijan. May it never be. ..

      If by sharing our experiences we can help one another, then we’ll call it a good day! Very glad to be connected to your Life in Russia blog too.


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