A Letter from 12 War Zones

As a young physician in the 1990s, Samantha Nutt thought she knew how to help the women and children who are the victims of conflict. Then, she writes in her new book, she went on her first overseas mission.

By Maura Kelly
samantha nutt illustration damned nations book jacket photo
Humanitarian doctor/activist Samantha Nutt and her new book, which is part memoir, part call-to-action
Photograph: Illustration by QuickHoney

Samantha Nutt, MD, may not be the kind of emergency doctor who sews on limbs or tends to gunshot wounds. But as a public health specialist and family physician, she is a humanitarian activist who has worked her way through more than a dozen of the most dangerous, devastated places on earth, including Burundi, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Darfur and Uganda. There, Nutt has helped civilians, many of them victims of unimaginable violence and abuse, build healthy, productive communities.

It’s the kind of work you’d think all sides could applaud. Yet as she notes in her provocative new book, Damned Nations: Greed, Guns, Armies and Aid, the activists’ ability to help is increasingly compromised by the changing nature of contemporary warfare, specifically a “blurring of the lines between civilian and military operations.” Nutt’s life has been threatened at gunpoint, and she found herself in a hail of grenades and gunfire during an unexpected outbreak of armed conflict in Congo in 2004. She has survived the dangers of her work, but two of her close friends, women she got to know over the course of 12 visits to Iraq, were not as lucky; her book—part memoir, part call to action—includes a memorial to them. Their murders underscore a disturbing trend, she says: Attacks on aid workers have increased an astounding 177 percent since 1997, and some 80 percent of those who die in war now are civilians—jarring evidence of how complicated modern-day warfare has become. As she writes, “It turns teenagers into killers, neighbors into g√©nocidaires and politicians into executioners.”

In her book, Nutt, 41, chronicles her evolution from starry-eyed and admittedly self-righteous twenty-something to cofounder and executive director of War Child, a Toronto-based nonprofit that helps establish educational programs and employment opportunities in conflict-ravaged communities. “Education is critical to peace,” says Nutt, who has been named one of Canada’s five leading activists by Time magazine. “Women are critical to peace. We ought to be investing in their potential.”

War Child’s programs, run mostly by people recruited from the areas being served, benefit up to 200,000 children and their families each year. These days Nutt’s field visits are shorter and more targeted; she spends the bulk of her time focusing on which programs the organization will create and support, and she travels across the U.S. and Canada to speak publicly about the impact of war on women and children. We caught up with her by phone and e-mail during what Nutt describes as her “first week off in ages.”

What was your first experience as a humanitarian doctor?

I’d always been interested in human rights issues, and women’s health in particular, and the relationship between the two. So when I was 25, after graduating from medical school, I went to Baidoa—Somalia’s “City of Death”—to do UNICEF research on how war affects women’s health. This was the mid-’90s; 300,000 people there had died of disease and starvation. Somalia was the black eye of the world, a humanitarian effort that had unraveled. The lawlessness was shocking. You couldn’t go anywhere without armed security guards—and they were all young men strung out on khat, an amphetamine-like drug. At every turn, every good deed I thought I might do was thwarted by the anarchy and the rampant proliferation of small arms in that country.

What did you learn from your experience?

I went into Somalia thinking the solutions were easy and came out realizing how incredibly complex the situation was (and 20 years later, it’s still the same). But once I was exposed to the horror of war and saw the courage of the women and kids there, the adversity they live with every day, I couldn’t ignore it.

What event in your learning curve prompted you to start War Child?

I was in Liberia [in 1997, when the country was under the control of warlord Charles Taylor] to do UNICEF research. A physician’s assistant, a Liberian who was running a U.N. clinic there, was suspected of selling medical supplies to a local market, and I’d been asked to confront him.

I show up in this big U.N. car, and here is this guy who is treating hundreds of people a week, through a food-for-work program. He was selling surplus supplies he hadn’t been able to use so that he could feed himself and his family. And he was swapping medications—if he had a surplus of one kind of medication, he’d use it to buy another he needed. He was probably making $5 a week. He hadn’t been given the food he’d been promised [as compensation], and I was the first U.N. worker he’d seen in three months. The man’s actions were, morally, wholly justifiable, and I thought, We can’t keep chasing our tails. We need to allow people on the ground to be involved in their own reconstruction.

War Child does exactly that, working with local partners, like government ministries and community groups, in countries wrestling with war. Most of our overseas staff is recruited locally, and the end goal is always that our partners will take full ownership and our presence will no longer be necessary.

In the book, you warn that the rise in Western military involvement in humanitarian efforts over the past decade is “an increasingly risky strategy with devastating consequences for both soldiers and aid workers.” What’s wrong with our armies helping to build schools and distribute food overseas?

In many countries, aid workers and NGOs are seen as having imperialistic overtones. In such circumstances, aid workers are often viewed as an extension of Western military and political objectives and become easy targets for extremist and other violent factions. The idea that there can be an independent humanitarian space has, in a practical sense, completely eroded, compromising our ability to respond to human suffering and endangering civilian lives.

Tell us about your two friends who were killed in Iraq.

Aquila al-Hashimi was a multi-lingual Iraqi politician and internationalist from a prominent Shia family. I was able to work in Iraq because she personally vouched for me, which was a huge risk for her. Once Saddam Hussein fell, she was one of three women who were appointed to the interim government. We were having tea in her home, and she said she felt as if Saddam and war had stolen the last 30 years of her life. She said, “I hope it’s over, because I’m ready to live my life.” She was a progressive choice for the coalition government, a bold feminist by any standard. I thought she’d be prime minister someday. Instead, in 2003 she was ambushed in front of her home, shot and killed.

Margaret Hassan was a British national married to an Iraqi. She’d lived in Iraq since 1972, working for the British Consulate in Baghdad, and she became the head of CARE’s program there in 1991. She was on her way to the office one morning in 2004 when armed men stopped the car and severely beat her driver and security guard and kidnapped her. Hundreds of Iraqis marched to demand her release; she’d spent half her life helping wounded and malnourished Iraqi children. And yet she was killed—to protest the British presence in Iraq, it seems. Her body was never found. Her kidnappers released three videos of her. This is still very difficult to talk about. It’s so clear how deathly afraid she was, and she was not a person who backed away from difficulty.

Did the deaths of these women change you?

I was angry. I really questioned what we were doing; in my mind, there was no one more emblematic of the humanitarian experience than Margaret. I thought if you had local support and clear objectives, you would be protected. But all those things that we cling to as humanitarian workers no longer counted. What pulled me back was hearing from my partners around the world and from kids in the programs who want to become doctors and lawyers. But we now operate very differently. We try to be as quiet as possible, especially in places like Afghanistan and Iraq. You want to have a very low profile. In some places, I’ve had to travel around under a carpet in an unmarked car.

In your years of doing this work, is there one survivor who stands out as a symbol of hope?

There was a young woman at a camp for displaced people in West Darfur, where she was attending a literacy program we’d been supporting for three months. She’d lived through so much atrocity, and I thought, “What are we doing here? . . . This is never going to be enough [to help her].” She was a new mother; when they heard the militia coming, her family told her to grab her baby boy and go hide. Her mother and father and husband and housemates were gunned down in front of her, and then her house was torched. She arrived at the camp traumatized. She couldn’t barter for food at the town market—she couldn’t add or subtract—which is why she wanted to be in the literacy program. I asked her, “Has this program helped you?” She leaned forward and proudly wrote her name in the sand and said, “Now that I can write my own name, I will learn how to write my son’s.” I realized you don’t have to have all the answers. But we want to invest in hopefulness. We don’t know exactly what will result, but we want to invest in a better and more secure world.

Maura Kelly has written for the New York TImes, Slate, Salon and the Daily Beast.

Originally published in the October 2011 issue of MORE.

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First Published Wed, 2011-09-14 15:14

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