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Dealing with (Imminent) Death

I'm not heroic. I've never pulled a baby out of a burning building. I've never faced down a gunman. But that does not mean that I've not consciously put my life at risk. (Apologies to the double negative-hating crowd.)

There are two places where I've consciously taken on deadly risk. The first in Afghanistan during the civil war that continues to threaten its people. I took four trips there for work from 2014 to 2017. The second involved three trips to Liberia from 2015 to 2018, the first two during the Ebola outbreak. In neither case was I more than threatened by exposure to danger. I was never attacked by human or viral agents. I never heard a shot fired or saw injury or death directly. Hence, I'm not a hero.

But I did take on risk that I could not understand in advance. I did plan to go to these places, stayed there for weeks, and returned home more sober about death. The purpose here is what I learned in dealing with deadly risk. These lessons may be useful for others.

First, prepare. Before leaving home, I needed to do and understand a few things. I was briefed by people who understood a bit of what I would face. I had to get immunizations, take along some useful things, and prepare for the worst. That last part was the hardest because I had to do practical things like find my will and document all my digital passwords––just in case I did not return. I also needed to think of kidnapping and how I could prove I was alive to my family. The proof of life test involves asking a question that only I would know the answer. Usually it's something intimate and shared with a loved one, never documented, and concisely answered. I thought of it as the last words I might send.

Next, pay attention. In both countries, getting there involved many flights in cramped quarters. (People in global development do work in "exotic" places, but the commute is hard.) For both countries, every trip I arrived without sleep for a couple of days, muscles cramped by inactivity, and entered a confusing place. In Liberia, all international air travel arrives and leaves in the dead of night––from 2:00 to 3:00 am. (It's how the airlines avoid high landing fees.) In Afghanistan, all civilian air travel arrives after dawn and leaves before dusk to thwart surface to air rocket launchers. My point is that upon arrival I had to do some things that normally require some attention. In these cases, as a tired and confused arrival, I had to make extraordinary effort to pay attention.

In Afghanistan, once I found the security detail that was picking me up, I received the first of three briefings. These involved what I should do if I felt or was physically threatened, particularly by kidnapping. There were devices involved and procedures to follow. (I'm being purposely vague here.) The first of these briefings was in the car on the way to my hotel. The second at the hotel to point out their security protocols. And the third at the office, usually after a short (blessed) nap. The briefings focused on what I needed to do, what I needed to know, and how to react depending on where I was. Finally, I was asked to sign a statement that I had received these briefings. (Insurance companies are everywhere.)

In Liberia, the situation was less well organized but no less thorough. The first step upon getting off the plane is washing your hands––in the dark. Not at a sink and not with soap. Putting them under a slowly flowing tap on the bottom of a keg filled with bleachy water. Bleach so strong that you could smell it from a distance. Oh yes, I should mention that someone watches you so you have to do it properly and for long enough to be disinfected. (Later, I discovered this was the practice before entering every public building in the country.) Once your hands are clean but wet (no towels), you had your temperature taken by a health care worker before you got to enter the terminal building. You did not get in if you were running a fever.

In both places, getting through passport control and customs was far more onerous than any place else, although they were looking for different kinds of threats. In Afghanistan the worry was violence and in Liberia one of infection. They really wanted to know why you were there. They wanted to see your yellow fever card and they read it carefully. (It lists all the immunizations you have had.) They wanted your fingerprints and they checked if you had ever been there before.

In Afghanistan, I was never alone when traveling. When traveling by car there was a driver and a security guard. For longer trips, such as airport runs, the car was armored. (I should not have been, but was surprised at how heavy the door was to open and close.) In Liberia, the same driver and security guard pair were there on airport runs because the airport was a 90-minute drive from the capital through rural areas with active marauding bands on the highways. Remember, dead of night. I never saw a weapon, but suspect that they were at the ready.

All this sounds a little scary, and it was––at first. Then it became routine. Danger was normalized. Oh, it was present in the armed Afghan guards and security check points. It was obvious in the hand washing and never shaking hands in Liberia. But those were features and functions that done dozens of times faded into the background. They became rote.

But danger and death were there. Perhaps only a shadow of conscious thought but present always. That's the third part of the lesson. Never forget that death is hovering nearby. You might be practicing those safety steps unconsciously, but you needed to readily take them out of your back pocked in an instant.

So, why this exploration in my non-heroic status? I wonder about that myself. Perhaps, I'm trying to help the four people who read this blog understand their situations through mine. Perhaps, I'm processing earlier dangers so I can handle the current COVID-19 one. Whatever the reason, one thing I had to grapple with was my mortality. We all will die. But we cannot know when or how.

These episodes allowed me to think about death in practical and pragmatic ways. They turned out to help me understand our current predicament in my own terms. They made me recognize that others would feel my loss. Every trip involved saying goodbye to my family. Taking a final hug and kiss and making it last for a lifetime. We now face terrors that we cannot feel or see at first. Every physical contact is now dangerous, but each emotional one is vital.

Every moment we share is precious. Value them.

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