Published March 13, 2011
On February 18th, engineer Scott Wallace landed at a pipeline terminal complex about 75 miles south of Benghazi in eastern Libya, where he and three colleagues were getting an unvarnished look at the environmental practices of the country’s oil industry. Just the day before, opponents of Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi had staged protests in several cities, including Benghazi, as part of a “day of rage” against Col. Gaddafi and his regime.
Wallace wrote in a journal entry he made on the 18th that “it is hard for me to believe [that] four days ago I was in Amsterdam. It is far from today's reality of being trapped in a work camp in a sandstorm, in a country with riots.” Two days later the conflict between the Gaddafi regime and its opponents had escalated to the point where air travel between the work camp and Tripoli had been severed, and the next day, the 21st, Wallace would write, “It looks [like] I will be here for the duration of the revolution as it appears there is no way to leave the country. If I can make it to Europe, I will work out some alternate travel plans, but I may be here a week or more. There is really no way to tell."
Wallace would end up beating his estimate. On the 24th he and his colleagues got a ride to Benghazi, boarded the Turkish Navy ship Iskerendun, and on the 28th reached the Turkish port city of Marmaris. From there Wallace got to Dalaman, flew to Istanbul, and the next day made it back to Amsterdam.
While stranded in eastern Libya, one issue that preoccupied Wallace and his colleagues was communication. “The whole regime was very effective in shutting down cell phone access, Internet coverage, and data services,” Wallace told me, noting that he has been in many overseas destinations “where connectivity was limited, but when you have a government that is actively trying to block you,” as the Gaddafi regime was doing from Tripoli, “sending a message becomes a cat and mouse game.”
Indeed, figuring out how to communicate when traditional channels fail, knowing who to call if tensions escalate, and taking decisive actions on the ground should be part of your plan if you’re caught in the middle of a revolution.
Know how to reach people and be reached during a crisis.
Since sending a Short Message Service (SMS) or text message doesn’t require a lot of time or bandwidth in the way a voice message does, Wallace explained, he and his colleagues stranded in eastern Libya found that trying to text was the way to go as there was “always enough of a breakdown in the [regime’s] spam filters,” and while the text “might be delayed by six to twelve hours, it still got through.” Timing was part of their strategy, too. “We were getting up at three in the morning and pushing ‘send, send, send’ hoping that someone in Tripoli was asleep and [the text] would sneak through.”
During an uprising or a natural disaster, texting may be your best bet, concurs Michelle Bernier-Toth, managing director, Office of Overseas Citizen Services, Bureau of Consular Affairs, U.S. Department of State. During the recent earthquake in Chile, “we found that the Internet service was simply overwhelmed,” she says, “and we had a lot of study aboard kids and parents who were able to reach [each other] through SMS, and we are encouraging people to try that."
California-based law student Erika Huebschman was in Tel Aviv during a summer abroad program in 2006 when the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel escalated, with Hezbollah rockets landing in some cases within 40 kilometers of city. While some of Huebschman’s fellow students left the program early, she was among the majority who remained until August. Phone communication was undependable during her stay, but Internet access was not a problem. She cites an instance where a friend back home “was trying to call the cell phone I rented, and the hotel, and tried to call the law school and didn’t have any success,” but then the friend went to Myspace, “started an account and sent a friend request,” which Huebschman accepted.
If you’re at home worried about your overseas traveler and a phone call or text isn’t forthcoming, one strategy is to “follow the money,” says Mike Bowers, senior director of health and safety at People to People Ambassador Programs, urging parents with kids overseas to “make sure you have online access to bank and credit card accounts they'll be using. Not only can you monitor their spending and budget, but this will give you some clues as to their whereabouts and activities.” Bernier-Toth adds that if family back home can track a traveler’s credit card info, that will in turn help the State Department track the person down, noting that “we have had a number of situations where that was the step that has allowed us to find someone that it would have taken us longer to find.”
Know what resources are available on the ground
If you’re heading to volatile parts of the world, register with the U.S. Department of State’s Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP), which lets State track your intended whereabouts overseas and enables them to send you travel alerts and advisories, which includes evacuation information. Also make time to register with your embassy when you reach your destination, says travel security expert Philip Farina, noting that registering “could make the difference between your having to stay [in a dangerous situation] and your getting out.” And if tensions escalate quickly, don’t be shy about appealing to any available hotel, even if you’re not staying there, Farina says, as “they may be able to provide you with some level of protection and get into communication with your embassy or other organizations.”
Also “touch base with your airline if you are uncomfortable” remaining in your destination, says Bernier-Toth, and ask the airline beforehand if it has a plan or “system in place if conflict escalates,” Farina says. In the case of bombings in your destination, for instance, the airline should at least be able to tell you that “you have between this time and this time to get to the airport for an evacuation,” he says.
If you’d rather leave evacuation logistics to a tour company, those affiliated with the U.S Tour Operators Association have a good track record for mobilizing on behalf of tourists abroad. The association reports that when demonstrations broke out in Egypt in the beginning of February, their member companies were able to provide such services as rerouting travelers “to other countries when U.S. flights were cancelled or unavailable” and “moving guests on Nile cruises and those in the center of Cairo to hotels near Cairo airport to facilitate their departure as flights became available.”
Know what precautions to take on the ground
While in Tel Aviv, Huebschman and her fellow law school students were told to go to the nearest bomb shelter if air raid sirens went off and were advised to avoid outdoor markets and public transportation, seen as potential terror attack targets. And as Huebschman spent more time in the city – she also returned the following summer – she found she had “definitely developed a sense of heightened alertness” about her surroundings as she strolled various neighborhoods. And if you’re walking around, have a few simple items on you, Farina says. “I don’t go on a trip anywhere without a flashlight,” adding that it doesn’t have to be a huge one. “If there’s no electricity in your hotel or city you may need a flashlight desperately.” Also bring a map and a compass, he says, because “if you just need to get away from the violence you will have a very easy way to determine which way to go.”
If the situation in your destination has deteriorated to the point where it’s absolutely time for you to leave, Farina says, “cash is king,” particularly if an uprising has taken banks, ATMs, and credit card usage off line. Even having as little as $200 on you can make a big difference, he says, noting that if you’re caught in the middle of a protest, the disruption is usually “not about you being a tourist, it is about something else. In some cases tourists can be harmed, in others not, [but] it stands to reason you may need to buy yourself through checkpoints, through neighborhoods, or through a particular zone,” and he says be sure to separate whatever cash you have on you into separate pockets so whomever you’re appealing to won’t see you pulling out your entire bankroll at once.
Lastly, if you have to run, trust your instincts about how. Two days before eventually leaving for Benghazi and catching the ship to Turkey, Wallace notes in his diary that he and his colleagues “were offered the option of flying on the private oil company plane to another oil field and then a 9 to 24-hour bus trip to Tripoli. Since nobody could guarantee our safety, and we would pass multiple security checkpoints, some regular Army, some Gaddafi mercenaries, some People's Revolution, and some old-fashioned bandits, we decided that it would be unlikely we would pass through to Tripoli without being taken hostage, especially with American passports.”
Wallace’s boat ride to Turkey aboard the Iskerendun was not a pleasure cruise. He wrote that “about 750 people were seasick as soon as we left port [at Benghazi], so there is vomit all over the floor and almost none of the toilets are functioning.” That said, Wallace told me that the decision to take the long way to Turkey “was really about [time] versus uncertainty. I can get on a ship and sail to Turkey. It may not be fun, it may not be easy, but I’ll be alive.”
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