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Samantha Nutt, wearing a black T-shirt and pants, stands in front of a wall filled with rows of photos of African children.
Samantha Nutt. Photo by Liam Sharp

Witness to War

While visiting Somalia in 1995, doctor and U of T professor Samantha Nutt experienced the hardship and rawness of bloodshed. Now, the founder of War Child Canada says she's "driven every day” to help children harmed by conflict

In the early 1990s, Western journalists dubbed Baidoa, Somalia, the “City of Death.” The city, like the rest of Somalia, had been ravaged by ongoing civil war, exhausted by drought and crippled by a famine that killed hundreds of thousands.

It was just outside Baidoa in 1995 that Dr. Samantha Nutt made her first descent into a war zone. Touching down in a six-seat plane, she and other UNICEF volunteers landed on a desert airstrip teeming with men armed with machine guns, AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenades. The aid workers exited the plane in flak jackets and helmets, and were driven into the city in a Land Cruiser protected by four teenagers with guns. The cruiser also carried munitions; on one sharp turn, grenades rolled out from under the back seat, then back and forth under Nutt’s feet. “That was my first experience in a war zone. I went from zero to 100 in five seconds flat,” says Nutt, who was 25 at the time.

As a member of UNICEF’s maternal and children’s health team, Nutt – who now holds postgraduate degrees in both community medicine and family medicine from U of T – visited clinics throughout Somalia. The landscape was riddled with signs of despair: crumbling buildings were punctured with bullet holes; women stood in line at feeding clinics cradling children, many near
death and some of whom had died during the wait; and guns were ubiquitous, slung from the shoulders of both national soldiers and civilians. “War is always an unfathomable hardship to bear witness to,” says Nutt, now 37 and an assistant professor in U of T’s department of family and community medicine. “And it’s everything about it: it’s the stories that you hear compounded with the devastation that you’re witnessing and the hardships. Anyone who has experienced war and the rawness of it, and the absolute horror of it, can’t ever go back to being the same person. You’re driven every day to do something about what you’ve seen.”

What Nutt was driven to do was start War Child Canada. The non-profit organization, which she founded in 1999 and now runs with her husband, Dr. Eric Hoskins, offers long-term humanitarian support to children and families in a dozen war-ravaged countries including the Congo, northern Uganda, Iraq, Sri Lanka and Darfur. The programs foster independence, and emotional and financial security, in adolescents and their families.

One of War Child Canada’s programs is the Ethiopian Development Project, for which Nutt is travelling to Ethiopia in October. The beleaguered country has about three million people living with HIV-AIDS and the world’s third-highest rate of infection. The crisis filters down to the youngest generation: about 1.5 million children have lost their parents to AIDS. Typically, the eldest child of the orphaned family is thrust into the role of financial provider, taking on responsibility for supporting several younger siblings. To buy food, he or she is often forced to beg on the street or engage in prostitution – putting the adolescent at risk of contracting HIV. Nutt and her organization, along with a local partner, work with 300 AIDS orphans from 53 families. They provide all of the children’s basic needs, and offer schooling and counselling while ensuring that the eldest child also receives job training. Once the eldest child has secured employment, they put the next-eldest through job training in an effort to break the cycle of poverty and disease.

Singer/songwriter Chantal Kreviazuk is giving the Ethiopian project a boost by filing field reports with Entertainment Tonight Canada. Partnerships with musicians are a common anthem in War Child Canada projects. Concerts raise funds and awareness and can be stadium-sized events; a 2000 concert in Winnipeg featuring The Tragically Hip and rapper Maestro drew 80,000, the largest audience the city has ever seen. Small-scale Keep the Beat music marathons typically feature local groups at bars and concert halls. In 2003, War Child Canada released the Peace Songs CD, which features artists such as Avril Lavigne, David Bowie, the Barenaked Ladies and Elvis Costello. Rock stars, perennial lodestones to the young, have an unrivalled ability to make youth stop and listen – and when their message is legitimate, to foster action. “Music is the root of activism,” says Nutt. “It inspires and agitates. It speaks to people, it motivates people. And it’s a creative vehicle that reaches a broad audience.”

One of War Child Canada’s most successful projects is Musicians in the War Zone, a documentary that first aired on MuchMusic in 2001 and featured Canadian musicians exploring human-rights issues in Iraq and Sierra Leone, and at the Thai-Burmese border. Denise Donlon – a former president of Sony Music Canada – first met Nutt and Hoskins in 1998, when she was MuchMusic’s vice-president and general manager. The couple came in to discuss Sierra Leone’s civil war and its impact on children. (While the war ended in 2002, conflicts fuelled by the illegal trade of blood diamonds still cause much turmoil in the country.) Nutt and Hoskins proposed working on a project to galvanize support for the country’s children. “I think Sam had this magical, hypnotic power over me,” says Donlon. “Before I knew it, I was in Sierra Leone wondering, ‘What in heaven’s name am I doing here? I should be editing a Madonna special.’”

Donlon, who was a field producer of Musicians in the War Zone, recalls a day in Sierra Leone when the group, which included hip-hop band Rascalz, visited a camp for amputees. (Revolutionary United Front rebels often severed their victims’ limbs, and the camp was filled with close to a thousand casualties.) She remembers seeing Nutt with a mother – an amputee and rape victim – holding her baby on her lap. The baby had a distended belly, and Nutt quickly discerned that he had a parasite and sought the requisite antibiotic. “Sam went immediately into medical mode,” says Donlon. “It’s one thing to be a humanitarian and another to have that ability to shift gears and immediately be hands-on with the baby, comforting the mother, trying to assess the baby’s condition.… It gave me a perspective on her that I hadn’t seen before. I knew that she was an activist, I knew that she was just full of vigour and passion and commitment and experience, and yet, she was able to wander through both those worlds and back into being a practising medical doctor. You know, it was amazing.”

Nutt also effectively shatters the hackneyed image of the war-zone doctor as a strapping, Hemingwayesque type. Donlon says, “Here she is having spent time in some of the most dangerous places on the planet, like the Sudan, and she’s 5 foot 4, has blonde hair and I constantly have to introduce her to people as Doctor Samantha Nutt because most people think she’s my children’s babysitter. She looks like she’s 16 and has the experience of someone who may be 600.”

BORN IN TORONTO, NUTT LIVED NEAR THE town of Durban, South Africa, from the ages one through six, before she and her family returned to the city. Her father was a children’s shoe designer, and his work took the family to Brazil for six months when Nutt was in her early teens. Her experiences in different countries fostered an independent streak. “I grew up with a strong sense of different people and different cultures, and possibly a little sense of adventure,” she says. “Not afraid to travel, not afraid to move. Not afraid to get by in a foreign environment.”

After finishing high school, Nutt studied drama in England, although she says, “I can’t sing and I can’t dance.” She adds: “I know it sounds like it’s a real departure to go from studying drama to attending medical school, but here’s my reasoning for why it’s not: I think that drama teaches you the ultimate expression of empathy. It’s the complete absorption of another person’s life experience, to the point where you’re trying to emulate that person. And medicine to me is about empathy. If you’re not interested in understanding someone else’s experience, and how that manifests itself in terms of illness and in the interpretation of illness, then I think you’re going to be severely limited in terms of your ability to practise, and to be a compassionate human being. And, you know, every actor likes a soapbox, and I found mine.”

Nutt returned to Canada to pursue an undergraduate degree in the Special Arts and Science Program, with an emphasis on international studies, at McMaster University in Hamilton. She also earned a degree in medicine there. During those years – with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War – Nutt became intensely engaged in social and political issues. The 1991 Gulf War profoundly affected her, and she participated in peace marches on campus.

In her final year of medical school, Nutt applied for a Rhodes Scholarship in the hope of pursuing a doctorate in international human-rights issues. Throughout the application process, people kept marvelling over how much she had in common with Dr. Eric Hoskins. A physician, humanitarian and former Rhodes Scholar, Hoskins had worked in war zones in Sudan and Iraq. “At one point someone said to me, ‘You have to meet Dr. Eric Hoskins because you are the female version of him.’ And I was so annoyed,” says Nutt. “I’ve always been kind of feisty, so I was like, What do you mean? I have all these ideas, all these things I want to do, and some guy I’ve never met apparently has already done them.”

But Nutt was curious about Hoskins, so she attended a slide show he was giving on his work in Iraq. Hoskins had been the co-ordinator of the International Study Team, and helped produce the first comprehensive assessment of the impact of the 1991 Gulf War and sanctions on Iraqi children. “He walked into the room, and I looked over and I was like, Oh, there he is,” she says, with mock gruffness. “And then I thought, Oh, he’s really cute.”

“I approached him afterwards, and we just had an instant connection. It was like some cheesy Nora Ephron movie. As soon as I met him, I just knew. That was it. And that was 14 years ago.” The couple now has a two-year-old son, Rhys.

While Nutt was a runner-up for a Rhodes Scholarship, the British Council did award her a prestigious Chevening Scholarship that enabled her to study at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. There, she earned a master’s in public health in developing countries – which led to the opportunity to work with UNICEF in Somalia. Nutt went on to earn two postgraduate degrees in community medicine and family medicine, with a sub-specialty in women’s health, from the University of Toronto.

Nutt started War Child Canada because she wanted to work directly with local people and organizations in war-ravaged countries, empowering them to create long-term change in their communities. She also wanted to create a model that had a strong domestic component, which would educate North Americans about global justice issues and help get them involved. While most organizations focus on either advocacy or program implementation, War Child Canada does both.

The philosophy appeals to Nike Adebowale (BA 2007 UTM), who entered U of T’s master’s program in international relations this year. As a summer youth outreach officer at War Child Canada, she led presentations and workshops for young people, educating them about the financial and human costs of war, and how they can make a difference. Adebowale, 23, lived in Nigeria until the age of 11. She remembers well her parents picking her up at school because riots, stemming from widespread poverty and political unrest, were flaring up. “I always feel like, ‘Oh my God, how can we not do anything?’ You realize how privileged you are once you see a different side of things.”

IN MAY 2004, NUTT SET OUT TO DO A SECOND documentary, this one with rock group Sum 41 in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Congo’s civil war was considered to be the worst in African history, resulting in more than three million deaths. Nutt wanted to educate young people about the impact of civil war on the Congo’s citizens and North America’s connection to it. The war had been financed almost exclusively through the Congo’s natural resources – particularly coltan, an element used in the manufacture of electronics devices such as computers, cellphones and video game consoles. Rebel groups and foreign armies still control many of the mines and are implicated in creating much of the country’s instability.

A tenuous UN-brokered peace accord had been in place in the Democratic Republic of Congo for almost two years, leading the group to believe it was safe to visit. They stayed in Bukavu, near the Rwandan border. The trip started off as planned: the rock group talked to a coltan dealer – “the best-dressed man in the Congo,” according to one band member – who hired children to work in his mines. They visited a rehabilitation centre for war-affected youth, including former child soldiers, as well as a shelter for girls cast out of their homes by their families who deemed them witches, responsible for the hardships suffered during the war.

It was on the sixth night that, as bass guitarist Cone McCaslin says in the documentary, “All hell broke loose.” At the Orchid hotel, around midnight, the four bandmates were chatting outside when gunfire erupted. The shocked McCaslin looked over at drummer Steve Jocz, and the group, in near silence, made its way inside. Soon, the air became heavy with the crackle of gunfire, followed by the deep baritone of a rocket-propelled grenade detonating.

A skirmish had broken out at the Congolese-Rwandan border, about one kilometre from the hotel. Nutt, Hoskins, Sum 41 and the other hotel residents listened fearfully as the fighting, between Rwandan-backed rebels and the Congolese military, drew closer. Over the next day-and-a-half, 100,000 rounds of bullets were fired and rocket-propelled grenades were lobbed about 30 to 40 metres from the hotel.

When the gunfire erupted, all of the hotel residents – which included 15 foreigners and 35 Congolese – enclosed themselves in two rooms. Later, they hunkered down in the basement. “I wasn’t concerned about bullets flying through windows. I wasn’t even all that concerned about a mortar hitting our location, although that was a possibility,” says Nutt. “I was more concerned that Mai-Mai Congolese [child] soldiers or Rwandan rebel [child] soldiers were going to show up in the hotel armed to the teeth with their semi-automatic weapons and start killing people or raping people… That’s what you worry about. Because you don’t want to be stuck with a 12-year-old pointing a gun at you. You just don’t.”

The gunfire flared up, then stopped – giving the group hope that the fighting had abated. Then it erupted again, at closer range. Then came the mortars: one landing so close that the building shook and the ceiling began to crumble. Chuck Pelletier, a United Nations peacekeeper who had made his way to the hotel, said, “We’ve all got to get out.” He contacted UN headquarters on his walkie-talkie and stated, ‘We need an evacuation. We need tanks to come.’”

“We were all scared,” says Hoskins, “and you’d be lying if you said you weren’t scared, but despite that I remember Sam saying we were there with a rock band who had never been to Africa, nor had their management, nor had the film crew that we brought with us, and we were responsible for them.”

Nutt used her conflict-zone experience to help prepare the group for the escape to the tanks. She primed them to run in a zigzag, for example, because it’s harder to hit a target that’s moving erratically rather than in a predictable straight line. “She’s gathered a lot of street smarts along the way,” says Hoskins. “And surviving in a war zone is more about street smarts than it is about anything else.” As the hotel residents evacuated the building and ran toward the tanks, two mortar rounds exploded.

IN THE DOCUMENTARY, lead singer Deryck Whibley admits that when the first mortar hit near the hotel and Pelletier called for evacuation, he thought: “Now it’s over. This is how we’re going to die.”

In fact, Whibley and the other Orchid hotel residents reached the armoured personnel carriers safely. They were driven to Manuak, a UN compound, five minutes away. The next day, the group, including Nutt and Hoskins, took a chartered plane to neighbouring Uganda. They paid for their commercial airline tickets, showed their Canadian passports and boarded their flight. They landed in Toronto, and went home to their families.

In Bukavu, thousands of Congolese fled their homes due to the fighting. Homes were looted. Families were separated. And 350 civilians did die.

“There are times when you can feel, in those situations, extremely afraid because of what’s happening,” says Nutt. “But at the end of the day, I always think it’s really indulgent for me as a Canadian with a Canadian passport to say, ‘Oh my God, I was almost killed and that was really horrible,’ because I still have the luxury – and it is a luxury – of getting on a plane and coming home, and having a period that’s determined by me of normalcy. And that’s the guilt I feel very much.”

What keeps Nutt using her Canadian passport to enter war zones is, perhaps, the very fact that she has one. She fights to make people understand that what happens here, affects what happens there – in Somalia, Sierra Leone and the Congo. Those vague, indistinct regions over there may be out of our sightlines, yet they’re acutely visible in our video game consoles and cellphones. “Whether you’re looking at conflict diamonds, whether you’re looking at oil, whether you’re looking at coltan, whether it’s our policies or our arms exports, we are implicated in war,” says Nutt. “In addition to that, we have, I think, as human beings an ethical and moral responsibility to protect the vulnerable, and to protect civilians, in warfare. And so for me, it’s really about creating a climate that will support involvement in global issues.”

“Because Lord knows, I don’t want to hear another person say to me, ‘War has nothing to do with me.’”

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  1. One Response to “ Witness to War ”

  2. University of Toronto Magazine says:

    Thank you for this article on Dr. Samantha Nutt’s life and work. She is the kind of role model women of my generation rarely see in the media but so desperately need.

    Andrea Nussey
    BA 1998