On September 11 2001 the world changed forever. Terrorism, raw and uncut had arrived on our TV sets, on the internet, and was delivered to our inboxes and we would never be quite the same again.
New York (USA)
Port El Kantoui (Tunisia)
Deir el Bahari (Egypt)
Nowhere near a complete list…sadly that would see me sitting here most of the night typing the name of town after town, city after city. Why did I chose these places? No other reason than I have been to these locations.
Add in Mumbai (India) and Garissa (Kenya) and a death toll already in its thousands rises by a few hundred more. Add incidents in the Middle East and you up the tally by another few thousand. Going to work, or university, or site seeing or just lying on the beach are no longer the simple things they once were. You kind of expect these things in a war zone, but Paris? Or London? Or New York?
Even though terrorism is on the increase the statistical chance of getting caught up in an attack is low, but I bet all those who have witnessed such attacks said exactly the same thing prior to the event that changed their lives forever.
In every such incident there are cases of people who don’t expedite their escape in a timely fashion, their brain fails to process what’s happening around them. What they are experiencing is so far out of their remit that they can’t function effectively. Normalcy bias paralyses them.
There are also cases where blind panic takes over and people move towards the explosion, not deliberately of course, they just have no idea of where they are heading, especially if the initial incident has disoriented them.
Yet more people will rush, as a mass with others towards the exit, which becomes so congested that people are injured or even killed in the crush to escape.
Others will stay where they are waiting for help. Another prime example of normalcy bias.
Every human emotion and almost every possible reaction comes to the fore in these circumstances and even though you think you know what you would do, at least some people reading this article would not react as they think they would should they be caught up in a terrorist incident. In short, most of us have not been tested under such circumstances and it’s difficult to predict how we would react in real life.
Do you have your kids with you?
Is your aged mother in a wheelchair?
Do you have an issue with walking that would cause problems with a quick getaway?
One of your party is injured…do you stay or go?
All of these things will potentially change the way you react in a life or death situation.
Is there anything you can do before such an event to maximise your chances of survival? As it happens yes there is. You can become situationally aware. Like most things situational awareness is something that needs to be practised to be effective but luckily you can do that every day and it may save you getting into a worst case scenario situation in the first place.
Situational awareness is being conscious of the area you are in. It’s the ability to watch people and learn what is normal for that area, time or weather and what isn’t. As an example: You are walking around town on a bright, hot summers day, maybe stopping at a bistro for a coffee, a pretty pleasant and quite normal thing to do. So you’d probably notice the guy in a full length overcoat, a hat pulled down low hurrying towards the plaza crowded with people on their lunch break right? A simple example of situational awareness, noticing what is abnormal for the situation you are in. Maybe our man in the overcoat is just eccentric, or suffers from the cold…but the point is you noticed him, you are aware of him, you are aware of the direction he is moving in, you have him on your radar and can watch for other odd behaviour he exhibits.
Taking the same situation again, maybe the person of interest is dressed appropriately for the weather and he walks past you with a backpack on, but does not have it on when you see him two minutes later. Again, there may be a valid reason for this, he is forgetful, he has returned the bag to someone who left it behind (which is something you should never do, you don’t know what’s in it). There could be a number of reasons why he no longer has the bag, but again the point is you noticed he no longer had the bag. Can you see the bag behind a table or litter bin? Has he dumped it somewhere? Why would he do that?
Becoming situationally aware means you know where the exits are when you are in an airport or hotel, both the main ones and the lesser ones, for example the staff exits at the back of hotels, are almost always accessible by going through a staff only door that leads to the kitchen. In airports staff only doors behind or near to baggage drop areas lead to loading bays and provide an alternative way out of the building. As with hotels restaurants within airpots usually have a way out via the kitchen, even those not on the ground floor will have an exit leading to a service lift and stairs for rubbish removal etc.
Situational awareness extends to understanding the culture that you are in. For men their mode of dress doesn’t present too many problems, but for women that’s not the case.
Ladies, dress sensitively when out in public when abroad. Walking around in a Muslim country, or a country where terrorism is a more distinct possibility than when you are at home, dressed in skin-tight shorts and a vest top is not advisable, save that for by the pool.
Personally I wear jeans and a modest tunic top when out and about in Kenya. Kenya only has a small Muslim population and generally integration is very good, but ongoing problems with al Shaabab means that the country is on high alert for attacks, as Westgate, Garrisa and a small incident at the Garden City Mall show. It’s quite common to see mzungu (white) Muslim women who are married to Kenyan Muslims wearing western style clothes and a headscarf, so yes I also have a couple of headscarves in my bag, one for myself and one for my daughter, and yes, I know the Shahadah as well.
I know some people in my church think that I’m wrong to admit I would be willing to recite the Shahadah should I need to but I’m not going to get into a religious debate about it. The fact of the matter is should the need arise, I will do whatever I have to do to keep my daughter alive and I will make no apologies for that. God, my God, the one true God knows what’s in my heart and that’s enough for me.
Obviously even those possessing a high level of awareness cannot be guaranteed to avoid terrorist incidents. Those who seek to do us harm are becoming more and more sophisticated, blending in better with the crowds, and generally getting to know their target area better before launching attacks.
The most obvious thing is to run away. If you hear an explosion, or the sound of gunfire, move as fast as you can away from the sound, preferably using side streets, passageways and such rather than main routes. A common tactic used by terrorists is that another device explodes on the main route people would most likely take to get away from the first explosion. Think of the most logical route to take and then take a different one! Move sidewards and forwards along your route, never back towards the original incident.
If you are caught up in an event and have no time to move away then the obvious thing to do is hide. How you facilitate this is impossible to say, every event is unique and no amount of planning can cover every scenario. Anything that puts a thick, preferably bullet proof object between you and those carrying out the attack is a good start, though you may have to move again as these situations are very fluid. Something that will stop or severely hinder the passage of a bullet will also impede shrapnel from an explosion, though what the bomb is made of will dictate how far the blast extends and the force it exerts.
As distasteful as it sounds, if you can’t make your way to shelter and there have been fatalities getting close to those bodies, wearing their blood as it were, can give the appearance that you too are deceased. Survivors of the Mumbai attacks, The Bataclan in Paris and the Westgate attack in Nairobi reported that they had hidden under the bodies of others, some draped the arm of a victim around the back of their head/neck area, giving the impression they had fallen together. Instinctively and invariably all of the survivors reported that they lay face down when playing dead. This is the best position to be in as your face is out of view, no twitching eyes to give you away. It often also allows sneak peeks of what is going on, and if the coast is clear the chance to move, inch by inch if there is a decent hiding place nearby. It’s also easier to get up and run should the need arise.
One mother who was at Westgate with her children when the attack started put her children into the base cupboard under the bakery counter. there was no room for her so she hunkered down opposite the counter behind a stacked rack of trays holding fresh bread. The friends with her at Westgate died that day, but her presence of mind got her and her kids out alive. All three of them survived the men with AK47’s that were roaming up and down the aisles shooting anyone they came across who could not recite the Shahadah in arabic.
‘Ashadu ‘anla ilaha illal-Lah, wa ashadu ‘anna muhammadan rasulul-Lah.
The shahadah is one of the five pillars of Islam and is known and recited by ALL Muslims, it’s literal translation is:
‘There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah’
The same woman also said that she heard mobile phones ringing, most were followed by gunfire, often a single shot. She’d dropped her large tote bag as they ran through the supermarket but had her phone in her pocket. She fumbled around, got a hold of it and turned off the ringer. A few minutes later, through the gaps in the racks, she saw a pair of boots stop between her and the counter where she had hid her children, she could see the muzzle of the ‘long gun’ he was holding. She said it felt like a lifetime but in reality was probably only a few seconds until he moved on. She admits that as he walked away she urinated with fear. They stayed in place for more than three hours before she came out of her hiding place screaming “I am German I am German” at the police officers approaching with guns drawn. Only when nobody fired at her did she get the kids from under the counter.
Those kids have lots of very good reasons to be proud of their mother.
There is little doubt that the atrocities we are witnessing will continue, and the death toll will continue to rise. As individuals there is little we can do to stop it, but we can try and improve our chances of coming out of such situations alive.
Be aware, be alert, be safe.
By Liz, Underground Medic