Leading Article: We must not be kept in the dark when we travel

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The Independent Culture
THERE SEEM no words strong enough to describe the horror of the killings in Uganda. It is beyond understanding how a trek to observe gorillas can turn into such a disaster. But change must come out of this tragedy, if it is not to be remembered as an inexplicable, nasty massacre far away, devoid of sense or meaning.

No one should blame the tourists themselves for the catastrophe that overtook their party. The situation in southern Uganda had stabilised since the chaos of 1994, when the implosion of neighbouring Rwanda threatened the whole region with bloody tribal conflict. Voluntary agencies such as the World Wide Fund for Nature were active in the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest, where the tour was ambushed. To the casual observer, the area seemed relatively safe.

All the same, we should all learn to be more wary when we travel abroad. Cheap air travel has brought potentially dangerous parts of the world within reach of more people than ever before; countries as diverse as Chechnya, Yemen, even the United States, have all spelt danger for Britons in the recent past.

When we travel abroad, we do not simply take ourselves. We also carry the baggage of our national identity, and the policy of the state to which we belong. It is reported that Britons were singled out for torture by their Hutu captors, who blamed Britain for aiding the Tutsi minority their tribe so brutally massacred in the Rwandan genocide. Britons travelling in regions such as the Middle East, where they may be at risk given the continuing military action in Iraq, should take note.

Foreign Office guidance in this case, as ever, was cautious. In this it was not alone; the US State Department had not issued any advice on the south of the country, but concentrated instead on the north. The warning the Foreign Office settled for spoke of rebel activity, and a situation that could change quickly. So far, so good.

What it did not mention was last August's kidnappings in the same forest, across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Two Swedes and a New Zealander who were taken captive then are still missing. Foreign Office advice should have been more specific. Such warnings are sensitive for those overseeing our diplomatic relations with these countries, but diplomacy should take second place to the safety of British citizens.

While no blame for the killings attaches to officials, they should in future be more forthcoming in their advice. Although we are all at liberty to take risks in the course of travels that benefit both ourselves and - usually - those poorer countries we visit, we should be properly informed about the dangers to which such holidays may expose us.