Josaphat Musamba

How Researchers Navigate in Armed Conflict Zones: Some Do’s and Don’ts

How do you do research in a war zone? Josaphat Musamba in the latest of our reposts from the Bukavu series. Introduction to the Bukavu series here. Search on ‘Bukavu’ for the other posts in the series. Original post here.

To begin with, it’s important to underscore general principles and guidelines, which don’t 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 minimise these risks and arrange for assistance when needed?

Once in the field, how one presents oneself is the 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’s therefore highly advisable to be only 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 military intelligence), the level of state structures (the provincial ministry of the interior and security, post chief, or territorial administrator), and at the level of local customary leadership. It’s 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 doesn’t 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 (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 NGOs operating within an armed group’s sphere of control. When the researcher is perceived as associated to the organisation’s activities, this 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 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’s often an elevated risk of running into unexpected checkpoints or encountering local actors with ambiguous allegiances.

Beyond the necessity of acquainting oneself with all these risks before entering these fields, it’s 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 such context, maintaining neutrality and diversifying one’s intermediaries, or else working with a well-established and respected local organisation, 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 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’s 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’s therefore important to constantly check one’s information and keep it up to date.

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

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