Navigating Armed Conflict Zones

Navigating Armed Conflict Zones

March 20th 2020
by Josaphat Musamba

Translation by Sara Weschler


Josaphat Musamba

Researchers who work in contexts of armed conflict are compelled to implement a range of strategies to help them navigate between various zones controlled by, or under the influence of, competing armed groups. These strategies are important because they allow researchers not be perceived as a “spies,” or simply “strangers” by actors in the midst of these zones. A question then arises as to which strategies are most effective in allowing researchers to navigate the areas we call “complex security fields.”


Indeed, collecting data in complex security zones requires rigorous preparation and a tailored approach to navigation. Not only must one meet with political, military, and police authorities, but one is also called upon to interact with armed groups and local populations. If actors in the field come to regard the researcher as a spy, or to see him as a threat due to one of his meetings or interviews, then there is reason to fear that the entire research project will be called into question. It eventually can also put the researcher’s life in danger. How then do we carry out this sort of research in a way that avoids the abovementioned risks?


First of all, detailed preparation prior to departing for the field is crucial. In so-called “red zones,” for example, the researcher faces enormous risks. What concrete steps does one take to prepare for these? What measures can be implemented so that researchers may enter such terrain under optimal conditions? In this blog we will present some important measures to take into account when accessing such terrain.


To begin with, it is important to underscore general principles and guidelines, which do not necessarily relate to the risks of intimidation, arrest, or murder. They can pertain, for example, to means of transport, which are a critical issue. The risk of traffic accidents is considerable, and help can be very hard to find. How do we minimize these risks and arrange for help assistance needed ? Then, once in the field, the way one presents oneself is a next challenge. In areas controlled by state services, an honest and transparent presentation allows one to avoid potential problems with security services, as well as with military and civilian intelligence personnel. That said, in some cases, too much transparency about where we’re going or whom we expect to meet and interact with can also cause problems. It is therefore highly advisable to only be partially open with one’s plans – that is, to communicate only the necessary minimum amount of information to these services. In order to avoid suspicion when navigating between security zones in areas where the army has stationed forward bases, one must make sure to obtain official stamps demonstrating that the military hierarchy is familiar with one’s research project.


Next, the “politics of stamps” suggests that the researcher ought to get his or her mission order  stamped with various seals at the level of the security services (especially the military intelligence), the level of state structures (the provincial Ministry of the Interior and of Security, the post chief, or the territorial administrator), and at the level of local customary leadership. It is also necessary to consider navigation in and between areas controlled by armed groups. One important strategy is to have the phone numbers of various armed group leaders on hand, and call ahead (or send a text message) when moving through their areas of control. Certain local elites can also be of immense importance for facilitating a researcher’s entry into a sensitive area when one does not have the contact information for armed group leaders. One can also send a courtesy message to the commander, detailing one’s role and academic affiliation, as well as the subject of one’s research – and then request a meeting. Some armed groups know that students from their communities come to the field to collect data for their Kitabu ya Masomo ya Université (their university dissertations). So a researcher affiliated with a university or other institute of education can justify his or her presence in the field on academic grounds. The most complex situations arise if a researcher is affiliated with one of the NGO’s operating within an armed group’s sphere of control. This suggests an association with the organization’s activities, which can severely impact the way local actors view the researcher (depending on whether a given NGO’s work is seen as legitimate or illegitimate).


Secondly, after handling these logistical issues, such as initiating contact and making introductions, one stressful and particularly delicate moment that can arise is when a researcher has to pass from one security zone to another. In this sort of “no man’s land” there is often an elevated risk of running into unexpected check-points, or encountering local actors with ambiguous allegiances. Beyond the necessity of acquainting oneself with all these risks before entering these fields, it is also advisable to remain well anchored within a local network so as to get the most up-to-date information. For some people working in this sort of context, maintaining neutrality and diversifying one’s intermediaries, or else working with a well-established and respected local organization, can help to facilitate access. In any case, we should seriously consider all precautions that guarantee our neutrality and allow us to obtain precise information on security dynamics. Researchers should think carefully about the way that their choice of intermediaries affects their own security. They should also avoid staying in these environments for a long time, so as not to find themselves stranded amid clashes. It is also important to remember that everything can change from one day to the next. An area controlled by one group can pass into the control of another group or actor in very little time, and one might not even see it coming. It is therefore important to constantly check one’s information and keep it up to date.


Thirdly, there is the question of how to deal, on a mental level, with the impacts of unforeseen events such as attacks, arrests, kidnappings, intimidation, etc. Other contributors to the “Bukavu Series” have already elaborated on this topic. Indeed managing the psychological effects after an experience of intimidation or following a violent encounter with the military or an armed group is far from simple. Sharing these experiences with colleagues and friends so as to clarify their contours and consequences can be a valuable approach. Even if convinced of the collective effort involved in managing the psychological effects of fieldwork, a common and standardized prescription is problematic though. Nevertheless, the space for joint discussion remains limited at the moment and more initiatives should be put in place. Researchers and donors who demand that research assistants go into high-risk areas should take a greater interest in support such initiatives.


In contexts characterized by violence and insecurity researchers face numerous and specific challenges. In these contexts, anticipating risks and dangers remains a priority, but it exceeds the individual responsibility and capacities of the researcher him- or herself. Donors and project managers should take the complexities and risks of fieldwork into account rather than letting these difficulties rest solely on the shoulders of individual researchers. If the world needs to know what’s going on in these areas, the safety (physical, mental, road, financial, and otherwise) of the researchers who open up the eyes of the world to these conflict zones should be a top priority. Security, back-up, and care arrangements should be made for all researchers working in “red zones,” regardless of whether they hail from the Global North or Global South.


Josaphat Musamba is a PhD student at Ghent University and researcher of GEC-SH in Bukavu.


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