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Zanzibar Acid Attack

The acid attack on two British teenagers in Zanzibar an island located off the coast of Tanzania West Africa, has rightly brought shock and condemnation from all quarters.

It seems that Kirstie Trup and Katie Gee were walking innocently down the street on their way to dinner when a motorcycle pulled up alongside and two men threw acid over them before speeding off.

While the attackers fled, it seems the girls had the presence of mind to attempt to wash off the substance, which considering the panicked state they must have been in, shows remarkable composure.

An important part of their story is that local people and other tourists immediately came to their aid. This is important in my opinion as most such attacks are unrepresentative acts of criminality (whatever the motivation), rather than a reflection of the attitude of the general population.

It is unlikely that this is a random attack as such and it would seem likely that these girls were targeted, either specifically as British or certainly a ‘western’; there is no evidence to suggest that their behaviour specifically made them a target.


Could the Attack Have Been Prevented?

We have been contacted by a number of media agencies to provide comment on this case and asked what they might have done to prevent such an attack?

At this stage there is no evidence to suggest that these girls did anything wrong, on the contrary, everything I have read suggests they behaved better than many who choose to travel.

It would seem the girls were acutely aware that they were in a predominantly Islamic country and that they were there during the holy month of Ramadan. They were dressed appropriately covering their arms, midriff and legs and at the time of the attack their behaviour seems to have been completely innocent.

They had already encountered some intolerance when one of the girls had been struck for singing openly, something which those who practice Islam strictly may interpret as contrary to the teachings. I am no expert on Islam or its interpretation and as such it would be wrong for me to make a definitive statement of fact on this matter, however we know from the behaviour of the Taliban that their interpretation of Islam forbids music at any time of year.

I have no desire to debate Islam, that is not something which can be done respectfully in the form of a blog. What we do say is that travellers must expect to comply with the cultural and religious sensitivities of the country they are visiting, or not visit.

However in most tolerant societies people would seek to educate those who make errors, rather than immediately punish them; for example in the remoter areas of Zanzibar signs inform tourists to cover up when visiting, so as not to offend local people.

In the popular tourist towns of Zanzibar, whose economy relies so heavily on the income from tourism, there is a reluctant tolerance amongst local people of visitor’s behaviour and dress standards not meeting their own expectations; yet this is not something every local will agree with.

It would seem to me at this stage that these girls did nothing which would have placed them at any more risk than the average traveller to Zanzibar; in fact it is a positive reflection on them and their families that they seem to have adhered to local sensitivities more than many other travellers might.


Life & Travel Carries Risk

Any travel carries an element of risk in all sorts of guises, often these risks are manageable, acceptable and tolerable. Certainly for many scenarios there are actions we can take to reduce the risks we may face to acceptable levels, however to do this we have to know of those risks in the first place.

This type of acid attack against tourists, to our knowledge, had never happened before in Zanzibar, so the risk wasn’t known. It may seem crass to compare this attack to the attack on Drummer Lee Rigby in Woolwich earlier this year, but the point in comparing these cases is to highlight their unforeseeable occurrence.

No one considered that either Drummer Lee Rigby or Kirsty & Katie were at risk from their respective attacks nor that Woolwich or Zanzibar were going to be locations for such attacks. It would seem on initial evidence that in both cases the victims were selected at random for a system / ideology they represented, rather than any actions they themselves carried out.

There is a fairly strong chance that the aspect which links these two attacks, is that they happened as a result of what most people believe is a misinterpretation of an ideology; in this case a religion which the vast majority agree preaches peace and tolerance.

Wrong place, wrong time, seems horribly simplistic description for such horrific unprovoked attacks, yet that may well turn out to be the explanation. Yet had the victims not been in that place at that time, I would suspect we would still be writing about the attacks but using different names.


Volunteering

Travel with purpose is increasingly popular, it has sometimes been termed the ‘snap-year’, as many of these trips are now done over a short period of time. People go for a few weeks or months to destinations all over the world, to offer their time and services to local charities and NGO’s in an effort to help the people at their destination.

While the merits of such projects are often debated, there is little debate about the intention of those taking part. Spending time and money to provide some form of assistance to the communities which they visit, is certainly selfless, generous and commendable.

Prior to booking such an experience some consideration should be given to the type of project undertaken and the real value of these projects. There are many extremely genuine and positive volunteering projects all over the world, there are also many more dreamed up by companies to attract business, where the real merit for local communities is questionable.

There are plenty of stories of volunteers going into schools to teach and replacing local teachers because volunteers are cheaper (in some cases the companies pay the school to take a volunteer…), which naturally breeds resentment; volunteers turning up at projects only to be turned away because the no one has let the local organisation know they were coming; volunteer groups building structures, only for them to be knocked down so that the next volunteering group can rebuild them.

Although I am not suggesting that there was any connection to the volunteering project in this case, it is not inconceivable that religious fundamentalists (and most religions have fundamentalist elements) could feel that volunteers from a foreign country and alternate religion, teaching their children was not acceptable.

You only have to look at the projects set up to vaccinate children against Polio in some parts of Nigeria which have been undermined by rumours that the vaccination teams are CIA operatives seeking to sterilise local children to prevent the spread of Islam. This preaching has meant that a polio which had been eradicated from all but a couple of small locations across the world, is once again endemic in parts of Nigeria; it has also led to a number of fatal attacks against the NGO vaccination teams both in Nigeria and Pakistan.


Is Zanzibar Safe?

Whether Zanzibar is still safe as a destination to travel, is the question many now ask. I would suspect that answer is no, but then one could also ask the question is Woolwich safe?

The only true safe option is to stay at home and lock the front door…

The FCO have not added Zanzibar to their list of destinations to avoid, but there is an acknowledgement that levels of crime and violent incidents are on the increase there.

I would keep a close eye on this particular destination and travellers should certainly take more care when travelling to the region, but at the time of writing this has been an isolated attack of this nature. What might concern people is that the perpetrators of this attack have not yet been apprehended, despite a reward being offered.

There does seem to have been an increase in religious tension on the island in general and the shooting of two Christian priests on the island as well as an acid attack against a Muslim cleric earlier this year, point towards attacks with an ideological motivation. There is also a strong separatist movement, seeking full independence from Tanzania; there has been some suggestion that there is a link between these movements.

If we were advising someone travelling to Zanzibar in the near future, we would look in more depth at their behaviour in relation to cultural sensitivities and advise them to dress appropriately, keep a low dignified profile, show respect to their hosts and avoid alcohol; especially any form of public drunkenness.

Dressing appropriately means covering up the shoulders and arms to the elbows at least, not showing the midriff and wearing garments to cover the legs to the ankles. Clothing should also be loose fitting as opposed to tight or revealing clothing; clothing should not be transparent or reveal undergarments.

It is particularly important for women travellers to take appropriate steps as those who perpetrate such crimes may have a belief that the status of women in society is much different to the equality we hold dear in the UK.

There were threats made in 2012 against Christians on the island and in that year, five arson attacks took place against Christian churches; another similar arson attack took place in 2013. In these circumstances it may seem prudent not to display overtly Christian symbols such as a crucifix; although we fully accept the importance of all religious symbols to those who choose to wear them.

The other sensible measure which travellers may consider is to walk as far away from the road as possible, in other words on the very inside of the pavement. This would make it more difficult for someone on a motorbike to carry out such an attack from the street itself, making them less of a target. This has the secondary advantage of reducing the risk of bag snatches from motorcycles, an increasing occurrence in Zanzibar.


We wish Kirstie Trup and Katie Gee a speedy and full recovery from their horrific attack and send our best wishes to their friends and family who have had to endure such a difficult time.


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Author – Peter Mayhew is the Managing Director of Safe Gap Year. He delivers independent travel safety training and provides expert advice on all issues of travel safety to individuals, organisations and public bodies. Peter is a frequent contributor to travel industry publications and media organisations.

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Page Updated: 12th August 2013