'Darling, I don’t want to scare you, but, I was woken up by explosions and now I am under my hotel bed waiting for the gunfire to cease.'
I texted this to my wife on February 8, 2016, while doing DPhil fieldwork in Arauca, a Colombian town located in the east of the country, close to the border with Venezuela. I had arrived there a few days before to carry out interviews about the local politics of oil revenues. A couple of days before my flight back to Bogota, a guerrilla group that operates in the region detonated bombs in an army base located within the town limits, about 2km from the hotel where I was staying.
I am Colombian so I knew that Arauca was one of the places most affected by the armed conflict. However, this was an unforeseen crisis. Arauca had been free from terrorist attacks in the last few years and the incident surprised even locals.
Before arriving to Arauca I had - what I thought - was a reasonable safety plan. This, among other things included: a) collecting information from locals about safety; b) keeping my wife informed about my agenda, about my movements and about the people I would meet; c) identifying key stakeholders that could provide me additional help in case of emergency; d) identifying local media sources to keep myself updated; e) keeping the university informed about any developments; and, f) staying within the urban limits.
However, what seemed like a sensible plan for someone doing research in his home country, fell short when tested. Arauca is remote from the principal cities of Colombia and at that time the border with Venezuela was closed. A couple of commercial flights operated on a daily basis, but after the terrorist attacks the authorities closed the airport for security reasons. Taking a bus or a car to leave the town and crossing the rural areas would entail further risks. I was stranded. My only option was to stay put, hope the violence didn’t spread, and monitor local media until flights resumed and it was safe to leave.
In conclusion, I want to share additional lessons learned from my fieldwork experience so that you take them into account for your safety plans:
• You can feel like a stranger in your own country, don’t underestimate regional variations.
• Always have an exit plan and a backup plan.
• Be flexible and be prepared to change your research plan, safety should always come first.
• Tap into useful sources of local information (e.g. Twitter, local radio, etc.)
• Local contacts are key in operating effectively and safely.
And finally, if I could convey just one message in this text, please note this: when you prepare for doing fieldwork, do not underestimate the importance of thorough planning and having a detailed safety plan.