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 génocidaires 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?

First Published September 14, 2011

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