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In many parts of the world there is civil unrest, in the form of local insurrections, inter-group hostilities that sometimes become violent, even rebellions. The effect of these can range from simple inconvenience (local strikes or blockades) through to seriously dangerous situations.
It is wise of course to try to avoid any area that has civil unrest. But should civil unrest arise in the area where you are, you should always take the advice of local people who are your friends and protectors about the advisability of travelling or doing the things that you had originally planned.
It is a good idea to remain aware of local issues and local difficulties; read the news, listen to what your friends and consultants tell you about local events on an ongoing basis and even before you leave for the field.
In some countries it is unwise to travel at the time of elections. Know when these are going to be, and plan to be somewhere else.
Questions you need to know the answers to:
- Who are the local people whose advice I trust and follow?
- Where is the nearest Australian or other embassy if I must get out of danger?
- Am I aware of the local issues and causes of civil unrest?
In May 2004 I was in India for the general election; on that day I remained inside the house on the advice of my host despite having a great interest in the elections. As it turned out, there were several bombings at railway stations up the line on that day. The next day, everything was fine.
On one of my last fieldtrips to Nigeria, I unexpectedly found myself confronted with civil unrest. Violence broke out the very day I was travelling by local transport to my field site. As we got closer to the site, we encountered more and more worrying signs - until finally, we met a car coming towards us whose driver stopped us and told us about violence and killings in the towns ahead. All Nigerians in my bush taxi argued against continuing our journey: we turned back, and learned later that religiously motivated violence had lead to a large-scale massacre in the town just adjacent to my field site. The army moved in relatively quickly and managed to stop further major outbreaks of violence, but the situation remained highly volatile, and all my Nigerian friends and colleagues strongly advised against me going to this area again. I heeded their advice, and instead worked with speakers who happened to live in a town well outside the affected area. I did not return to my field site until the next year when the situation had calmed down.
-- Birgit Hellwig