After working in the security industry for many years I was asked by a client to do various projects in Serbia during 2009. I had been to Pristina in 91/92 but had not returned to that region since then and was interested to see how things had changed and developed. Part of my contract would also be training with the police in Belgrade at their shooting range facilities. I have operated in Afghanistan, Iraq, Africa and many other high risk areas so this was obviously going to be a lower risk scenario. However, I did ask myself how low the threat is realistically? One should never be complacent when travelling so i began my research prior to travel.
When researching I came across contradictory information about the risk of travelling in Serbia. This is normal as people will see what they want to see and also have different experiences during their time in a country. If for example a person travelled to London and arrived at Heathrow Airport, picked up his bags and went to get a taxi and on his way a pick pocket took his wallet!! His impression of England has already been tainted. His view would then be biased by his negative experience at the airport. So does that make England a high risk country??
My job is to analyse the facts and information given to me and assess the real threat for that particular area. Whether it be in Iraq or France the method is the same. I am looking at certain criteria and information to give me a picture of the actual and current situation. So what do I need to know? Well facts and statistics are important but basics come first, what is the history of this country? What are the cultural considerations? How does this country work politically? What is the currency? Etc. Once I have this basic knowledge then the research becomes more refined, What terrorist groups, if any, are active in this country? What are their tactics (Kidnapping, shootings, Improvised Explosive devices)? What is the crime rate, both violent and non violent? How safe is public travel? Etc. From all these pieces of the puzzle you can already have a picture of where you are travelling and what is to be expected. I always expect the worse as it’s my job to be prepared for any situation that may arise.
So having completed all my research I booked my ticket and headed for Belgrade. There is always a certain level of apprehension when travelling somewhere for the first time. The first period is what we call adjusting your routine. Anyone who has travelled has experienced this. For example, when you go on holiday the first day everything is new and unfamiliar but after two or three days you start to adjust and you know where the shops are, how to get to the beach and you start to blend in to your situation (you will also be a regular by now at the hotel bar!!) So in this period I try to just relax and get a feeling for what’s going on.
I was staying in a Hotel in Belgrade and also had projects to do in Novi Sad and Nis in the south. It soon became apparent that a lot of the information that I had gathered prior to travel did not reflect the actual situation. I was amazed at the infrastructure in Belgrade and also the efficiency of the public transport. I went out at various times of the day and also at night to get a feeling for the city. As part of my assessment I also ask people for directions just to see how they react, shy? Aggressive? Non cooperative? Just to get a feeling for the general mood. I was impressed that nearly all the people that I asked spoke some English and the highlight was one young lady walked over two kilometres with me so that I could find my destination. I have never experienced this in all my years of security and travel. I also go to bars and cafes and observe people and the way things tick. Again, the only thing that I found was a good atmosphere similar to any other modern city you would find globally. It is important not be naive and all cities have crime and risks. Belgrade made me feel safe and at no more risk than where I currently live in Frankfurt. I have been to areas in southern Italy that did not give me this feeling!!