Wandering War Zones (originally published at www.exploco.com)

Some people are so tired of the predictability and ease of traditional travel that they’re turning to, shall we say, more challenging destinations. Some are brave – or foolish – enough to go wandering about in actual, live war zones.

War zone, Afghanistan

Is this view really for you? Image: Flickr/ The U.S. Army

They risk their lives and petrify their friends and relatives back home. The news is increasingly filling with backpackers who trek with guerrillas in Nepal and pensioners who’d rather fly to Afghanistan than take a cruise in the Caribbean. There’s now even a whole Wikipedia war tourism page and a best-selling guidebook called The World’s Most Dangerous Places.

But is such an approach to travel enlightening because it shows us the harsh realities of the world – realities any sane, rounded person should be aware of? Or is war zone wandering just tasteless and irresponsible? We think it’s time to have that debate.


“What the Hell Are You Doing?”

This is the natural question anyone would want to ask a war zone wanderer. The simple answer may be “curiosity”.

In 2009, 74-year-old Gordon Moore eschewed a relaxing retirement to venture to Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Syria and Lebanon. His reason: “The experiences I have excite me and I find it so interesting.”

Trekking Holidays, Walking Holidays, Afghanistan, Nepal, Caribbean, Wandering War Zones, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Mogadishu, Somalia, 38th Parallel, Vietnam, Antietam, US

Vietnam – a former war zone – has been safe to trek for years. Image: Flickr/ Kyle Taylor, Dream It. Do It. World Tour

He sounds almost blasé about it. In a typically English flourish, Mr Moore tried to send postcards to his grandchildren from Basra before realising that the stamps he’d bought dated back to before the fall of Saddam.

Other war zone wanderers speak of the rarity of their experiences. In an age when everyone has seemingly been everywhere, thanks to affordable air travel and a globalised culture, setting foot somewhere that nobody would think – or want – to go brings a certain cache with it.

Prepping for the Worst

The abovementioned World’s Most Dangerous Places has a whole section entitled ‘How to Survive War Zones’. Obvious advice (“Carry a lot of money in hidden places”) is interspersed with less obvious advice (“Bring photographs of your family, friends, house, dog or car” in case you are caught by people who want to kill you and you badly need them to take pity on you).

Trekking Holidays, Walking Holidays, Afghanistan, Nepal, Caribbean, Wandering War Zones, Iraq, Pakistan, Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Mogadishu, Somalia, 38th Parallel, Vietnam, Antietam, US

Looks appealing, but is danger just around the next corner?. Image: Flickr/ mariachily

Opt to ignore regular walking holidays and head solo to any country where war has wrecked the infrastructure, you’ll find access to basic services such as food, running water and electricity tricky and expensive.

In particularly hectic cities such as Mogadishu, Somalia, it is virtually impossible to wander around in the open air without some kind of bodyguard, such is the risk of random shootings and abductions of foreigners.

Before you even start your planning, take a long look at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Travel Advice by Country. Here you’ll get a few pointers as to where might be too hot to trot.

Someone Else’s Misery

But isn’t it exploitative to turn a human disaster into recreation? Remember ‘Holidays in the Sun’ by the Sex Pistols? “Cheap holiday in someone else’s misery”.

Trouble spot travellers have the luxury of being able to leave whenever they like and return to a comfortable, peaceful First World existence. This is a luxury that nobody they’ll meet on the ground will share.

‘Someone else’s misery’ could well apply to friends and relatives who have to suffer for your art, especially if you tread on a landmine or get a piece of shrapnel lodged in your brain. If before you left they appreciated your need to sate your curiosity, they probably won’t appreciate it now.

They may suddenly be tasked with trying to get you home, supposing you’ve survived. And if you haven’t survived then they’ll be left grieving for you, which is an even harder task.

Expect checkpoints and scrutiny on your travels. Flickr/ US Army

If you have dependants, risking your life in the middle of some foreign war is almost certainly selfish and reckless.

The Right Reasons

The wannabe war zone wanderer will have to weigh up a few pros and cons before he or she sets off.

You might need to ask yourself the question: ‘Am I doing this for the right reasons?’ Will you arrive in some bullet-holed scene of devastation and get a sadistic thrill out of it or will you have genuinely learned something about man’s inhumanity to man?

Perhaps the test is staying in a war zone for longer than just a few days or weeks. If, like many foreign correspondents and aid workers, you’re willing to put yourself through that, no-one can accuse you of being an exploitative tourist… or can they?

A safer compromise might be taking trekking holidays that are war zone wandering-lite i.e. going to the scenes of wars that are safely over. From the 38th Parallel in Vietnam to Antietam in the US, there are plenty of good treks to be had in places that used to be extremely dangerous but, thankfully, aren’t now.

Originally published on APril 5th 2013 at http://www.exploco.com/blog/25571/wandering-war-zones-enlightening-or-just-tasteless/#comments