On Safety While Researching in Areas of Political Conflict

In the summer of 2013, I conducted a research project on collective memory in the Southern Yemen independence movement (al-Hirak). To this day, I still reflect on some of the challenges I faced and I want to share some of my experiences if, for nothing else, to help others begin to think about potential obstacles they may come across while doing ethnographic research in unstable environments. For those used to doing research in conflict zones, much of this information will not be new, but for those considering any type of field research in politically unstable countries, I want to not only emphasize the difficulties such research can bring but also show that many of these obstacles can be overcome.

Protecting Your Interlocutors

Al-Hirak was seen by some as an illegal anti-state movement seen as a threat to the nation by the central government. Therefore, most of my interlocutors were de facto criminals. To even be speaking with me was a huge risk for many of them, and I will always be grateful for the network of people that agreed to work with me in order to have their stories told. At the same time, I had a deep moral responsibility to protect them from harm that would arise from my presence in the field, a responsibility I took very seriously.

Many of the people with whom I spoke insisted that I use their real names. They were known rebels and in hiding anyways, and they thought having their identities published in “Western media” would be a source of pride. I had to insist, however, that I would be changing all names upon the strong advice of my advisors and an insistence by the IRB. The logic was that publishing their names would incriminate them and me, and ultimately I would not be comfortable putting them in that situation and had to balance their desires with research ethics. Keeping my sources anonymous was crucial, as I did not want to further incriminate anyone in publications of my research.

Furthermore, protecting the identities of my interlocutors was important as they frequently discussed illegal activities, from as mundane as alcohol smuggling to plotting armed activity. No matter how open they were on having their names known, I felt that I had a moral responsibility to keep that information secure to avoid any negatives consequences for them from my research.

Protecting Your Research

My research was full of incriminating activity, both for myself and for my interlocutors. The last thing I wanted was to have my information stolen or discovered. Therefore, while I took my notes by old fashioned pen and paper (small enough to be concealed), each night I took the time to digitally transcribe my notes and upload them (encrypted of course), then removed all the information from my hard drive.

Whenever I had to travel through a security checkpoint, I wiped my entire hard drive clean. That way, even if my hardware was confiscated, there would be no physical evidence of anything on my person. I would never get on a plane with such politically sensitive data. I also never recorded interviews, as I felt that was simply too risky. This method of backup also had the added benefit of making sure I never lost any data.

Protecting Yourself

This is perhaps the biggest grey zone, and the most important advice I can give is to know what you are getting into. Don’t go to a country for the first time with no language ability and try to negotiate this kind of research alone without any local contacts. Also, never be afraid to ask for help from those around you. Lastly, when in doubt about the safety of a certain activity, it is better to refrain from engaging in that activity. No type of data is critical enough to take unnecessary risks, and sometimes taking a step back from fieldwork and a phone call to an advisor can help to reflect on that. A number of challenges can arise in situations like these and I am going to touch on a few.

Arrest

I was (technically) not allowed to be in South Yemen for my research, nor was I (technically) allowed to be doing research at all. Because of this, I frequently had to lie to authorities to mask my intentions and whereabouts. While I would never recommend traveling illegally inside a country (one must have permits to even leave the capital Sana’a), sometimes this is necessary. Understand the seriousness of the risk this involves and ask yourself, is your research worth being deported over? Arrested? This is where protecting my data was hugely important. In the case of arrest or detention, I NEVER had valuable data that could be used against me or my subjects, especially when traveling in a country with frequent checkpoints.

Also important was constantly staying on the move. Every night I moved to a new location, either a hotel or a friends house. I would not recommend staying in one place too long, as even citizens in the area may grow suspicious. I tended to vary my walking route by both path and time, refraining from developing any type of schedule. Lastly, staying under the radar meant I could likely not depend on the police/government in case of emergency, as this would have put me at risk. Therefore it is important to know where your nearest hospital is and have contact numbers of your embassy on hand in case of an emergency.

Harm

I spent years working on my relationships with my interlocutors, learning valuable information about them to determine if I could trust them or not. Trust was perhaps most important and what kept me the most safe. My network of friends, colleagues, and interlocutors was my safety net, and if any part of that net collapsed, there could have been serious consequences. Research in conflict zones makes the old anthropological tradition of building rapport dramatically crucial.

One major concern was getting caught up in violent clashes. Al-Hirak’s main modus operandi was large marches and protests against the government. While these almost always remained peaceful and were ethnographically rich performative events, protesters often came into contact with snipers, tanks, or even military aircraft depending on the location. Yet these were also the central sites of my research as I studied language and motifs that were used to energize the independence campaign.

It is hard to give specific advice for these situations, except to err on the side of caution. In my case, it was usually apparent when things were getting tense, and I quickly learned which types of rallies (led by which types of figures) were the most likely to turn violent. If I thought things were even slightly tense, I left. There would always be more, and it was not worth the risk.

I also had to frequently arrange meetings to interview an assortment of people. Much of the negotiation was done on my behalf, but there were still some precautions I had to take myself. As much as it may sound like a glamorous Hollywood plot, I used a burner phone. Cell phone activity is tracked by the government, and even the SIM card gets registered in your name with your passport information in many countries. Have a second unregistered phone (can be done in most shops if you pay extra) and use this for communication with high-risk contacts. I would also recommend not traveling internally, home, or internationally with the phone. I specifically used mine in the field and discarded it as soon as it was no longer necessary in my field.

Lastly, in addition to trying to use the most secure communication devices, try not to go anywhere alone, especially when meeting in private residences or outside of the city. Often meetings could not take place in public, and again this is where my trust in my interlocutors was critical. Do not get into a car with people you do not know if going to an undisclosed location unless you are sure about who those people are and how they are connected to people you trust.

As we are taught in our Anthropology courses, be reflexive. Always be aware of your positionality in the field; how your movement, your speech, your activity affects the well-being of others. This final point is not just about you and your research, it is about the safety of those in your host community, and most importantly those who are taking serious risks to help you with your research. I was fortunate that in the aftermath of my research and the selection of publications that referenced my data, I never encountered anything to suggest that my research had any damaging consequences. However, I am only certain of this three years after my data collection. At the same time, many of the people with whom I came to know have been arrested, disappeared, or killed in these past three years in relation to their work on the topics I was researching. These events have been blunt reminders of the sensitivity of certain kinds of research but also validate the importance of research in difficult situations, which makes overcoming challenges rewarding and valuable for both scholarship and knowledge production in and on your host community.