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

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.

First Published September 14, 2011

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