Special Report


Two young doctors, journeying with a pair of rock stars, write about the deplorable conditions they found in the Middle East

February 26 2001
Special Report


Two young doctors, journeying with a pair of rock stars, write about the deplorable conditions they found in the Middle East

February 26 2001

In January, a team of young Canadians visited Iraq to mark the 10th anniversary of the start of the Gulf War. Among them were newlyweds Samantha Nutt and Eric Hoskins, doctors who have worked extensively in war zones in Africa and the Middle East, and singers Chantal Kreviazuk and her husband, Raine Maida of Our Lady Peace. The four were part of a production crew taping a segment for the documentary war2music, which will be shown on the Much Music specialty cable channel on April 19. Nutt is executive director of War Child Canada, an Ottawa-based not-for-profit organization that inspires youth to support global humanitarian projects, and one of 12 Canadians featured in the 2000 Maclean's Honour Roll. Hoskins is a public-health specialist who received the Governor General's Meritorious Service Cross for his humanitarian work in Iraq. On this latest trip to Iraq, the pair kept field diaries. Some excerpts:

JAN. 12: Toronto, day before departure

Nutt: No time for reflection, rush, rush, rush. We are still awaiting the arrival of one last travel visa from the Iraqi Embassy, which is causing a great deal of anxiety.

JAN. 13: En route to the Middle East

Hoskins: This is my 26th trip to Iraq. This time, I know what to expect. Ten years of sanctions have battered Iraq’s economy. Unemployment is 70 per cent. An egg costs a week’s wages. UNICEF estimates that the ill-effects of sanctions have, over the past 10 years, led to the deaths of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children.

JAN. 14: Amman, Jordan

Nutt: Eric is trying to confirm whether there will be a flight into Baghdad. If the flight is cancelled, we'll start to prepare ourselves for the long 12-hour drive through the desert. 

Hoskins: Omar, the desk clerk at the Hisham Hotel, learns of our imminent journey. ‘We sometimes think the world has forgotten about the people of Iraq,’ he says. ‘You Canadians are truly blessed with kindness.’

JAN. 15: Baghdad

Nutt: We are met at Saddam International Airport by our minder from the ministry of foreign affairs and whisked through customs. We are then ushered through to the baggage inspection area. We watch nervously as the camera bags are thoroughly inspected, but they are quickly approved. Our personal effects undergo greater scrutiny. Finally, we are allowed to gather our things. We are directed to the Babylon Hotel, passing by Saddam Hussein’s new ‘Peace Palace,’ and the newly constructed Ba’ath Party headquarters. The minder informs us that we are not allowed to film any official portraits of Saddam, his palaces or any government buildings. 

Hoskins: Our logistics expert, Mike Nahhal, was beside himself on the flight. In 10 years of working in Iraq, this was the first time he had been able to fly into Baghdad.

We use the code name the ‘Big Cheese’ for Saddam, so as not to alert our minder—we hope—when wishing to speak about the Iraqi president. The absence of guns in the street is surprising; in Jordan armed soldiers are everywhere.

Dinner tonight is at the historic Al Muteef restaurant on the left bank of the Tigris River. Requisite portrait of the Big Cheese nicely positioned to glare down at our table. I change $50 (U.S.) and receive a bagful of nearly worthless Iraqi dinars in return. Paying our cheque takes us 10 minutes just to count through the 400-odd banknotes.

JAN. 16: Baghdad

Nutt: We have waited all morning for our minder to arrive with our government-approval passes. Without them, most people will be afraid to talk to us.

Hoskins: It is now late afternoon and I have returned from the ministry of foreign affairs where I delivered my requests. The documentary team wants to travel to Kerbala and Basra in the south. We need permission to film.

JAN. 17: Baghdad, 10th anniversary of the Gulf War 

Nutt: Our passes did not arrive this morning. We are told it is due to bureaucratic delays and general confusion stemming from the large number of journalists in the country.

While we search for a Plan B, Chantal meets an 18-year-old Iraqi woman named Sahra. She would like to be interviewed. She wanted to be a doctor, but her mother died several years ago and now she has to work to support the family. She earns 50 cents a day selling souvenirs to Iranian tourists. She recently became infected with parasites from contaminated water. She owes approximately $200 for her medical care, for which the payments eat up more than half of her monthly wages. This is a familiar story in Iraq.

After all the discussions we’d had about documenting the 10-year anniversary, in the end there were no parades, no displays of weaponry and no marching soldiers. There was not even a public address from the Big Cheese condemning the western aggression.’

Hoskins: I am getting anxious that we do not yet have our travel permits. Raine and Chantal have to be back in Amman soon, and we are running out of time. Kerbala, today’s intended destination, had to be put off.

JAN. 18: Baghdad to Kerbala

Nutt: Our official passes have arrived. Eric and I returned to the Kerbala Pediatric Hospital for the first time in five years. There have been some improvements: plain water is now used instead of diesel fuel to disinfect the floors; there are a few intravenous bags and you can find the occasional antibiotic vial sitting on a window ledge, all of which read ‘Keep refrigerated, do not store above five degrees, avoid sunlight.’ There are no fridges and no curtains in the hospital. There are few beds for the patients and the ceiling is coming down in most rooms.

Dr. Ali Hammid, the hospital chief of staff, is a 29-year-old internist who lives at the hospital. He sleeps on a urine-stained mat on the floor of the ‘Resident’s Room.’ Due to inflation, his salary is now the equivalent of $2 a day, most of which he spends buying supplies for patients who cannot afford them. ‘I am doing this for humanity,’ he explains. ‘I have so much sadness and anxiety. I never see my wife or my family. All of my medical books are more than 10 years old, I do not know whether our treatment is right anymore.’ He proudly displays his name tag and drapes his stethoscope around his neck, but he knows that he can do little more than offer hope and a place for children to die, or if they are lucky, get better on their own.

Hoskins: When we arrived at the hospital, Sam went inside to find the doctor. I stayed outside to brief Chantal and Raine. Sitting on the curb, we talked about what to expect, what questions to ask. I had been to hospitals in Iraq a hundred times. I knew that there was nothing I could say, or do, to prepare them for the agony that awaited them inside.

In the two hours that followed, the rest of us rushed around trying to set up the interviews and gather information. But Chantal moved effortlessly from room to room, talking to women and children in her limited Arabic and relating to their fears and frustrations. The first child she met, four-year-old Mohamed, arrived at the hospital more than a month ago with fever. His mother, unable to afford the approximately 10 cent daily fee, took him home after only a few days. Mohamed then had a massive seizure, lost consciousness and was brought back to hospital. There was no oxygen in the hospital, so he suffered irreversible brain damage. Dr. Ali pays for his medicines and hospital fees.

Raine, in the meantime, was wandering solo around the hospital, visiting children and giving them balloons. Word quickly spread of the ‘balloon man’ and, rooms ahead, the hospital’s small patients would anxiously await his arrival, their eyes lighting up, their smiles wide.

The stories were no different than the last time Sam and I were here in 1996. A shortage of medicines, no painkillers, few antibiotics, no feeding tubes, disposable syringes being used over and over again, no antiseptics to cleanse wounds, doctors and nurses performing truly heroic deeds. In Canada, I could have saved these children. Here, I was helpless.

JAN. 19: Basra

Nutt: Today, we drove eight hours south from Baghdad to Basra, the second-largest city in Iraq. We have not been able to film today, largely because of delays at a military checkpoint. While collecting some back-up shots of the desert, we had accidentally filmed a training area for the mujahedeen, Iranian rebel fighters. The soldiers radioed ahead to the checkpoint, where officials inspected our documents and concluded we were not approved to film the mujahedeen, neither accidentally nor on purpose. After several hours and many long explanations, we were allowed to proceed.

Hoskins: We arrive in Basra by early evening. As we check into the Basra Sheraton, we find a group of Canadian businessmen in the lobby. From Montreal, they are in town to rehabilitate the grain-unloading equipment in the port.

JAN. 20: Basra

Nutt: The war seriously damaged all 3 major infrastructures in the south, including electrical, water and sewage systems, and the sanctions have made it difficult to rebuild. Basra is drowning in garbage and raw sewage while children die of dysentery and other diarrheal illnesses. Still, we have finally managed to secure an interview for Chantal with a group of female high-school students. The young women no longer expect the United Nations or anyone else to help them. They believe the sanctions have caused suffering, but now Iraqis must take care of themselves. Full of hostility and resentment, they want everyone outside of Iraq to know that they will continue to resist.

Hoskins: Listening to their thoughts made me realize how much Iraq had changed in the five years since I was last here. Before, Iraqis were merely coping, waiting for sanctions to end. Now, as Chantal spoke with these girls, it became clear to me that Iraqis were no longer ‘in waiting.’ Iraqis were getting on with their lives.

We moved from downtown Basra to a small rural school just north of the city. The school had been damaged a month ago, when coalition forces had dropped a bomb on a nearby military target. Few people know that the U.S. and UK still regularly drop bombs on Iraq.

Last week, 24 aircraft bombed five Iraqi long-range surveillance radar sites. U.S. president George W. Bush called it a “routine mission,” but it was the first strike against targets outside the southern no-fly zone since December, 1998.] The intended targets are military installations, although misses do occur and, at least according to Iraq, civilians are often injured or even killed. Students in this primary school were injured by glass shattering from the nearby bomb blast.

Our government minder wants to get us back to Baghdad. Our attempts to stall, or to visit unscheduled sites, prove futile. Our minder is doing his job well. By now, we dislike him intensely. The lack of freedom has become oppressive and we are showing the strain, even arguing among ourselves.

JAN. 21: Baghdad

Hoskins: Our last full day in Iraq. A short visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. A visit to the market to interview people receiving their food rations. We ask Raine and Chantal to record their final thoughts for the documentary. I can see how this trip has transformed them. That’s what I remember most. How coming to Iraq eliminates any chance of your life ever going back to what it was before.

I prepare to leave, a luxury granted to very few Iraqi citizens. I think of the future, while the Iraqis we’ve met remain caught in their nightmarish past.

JAN. 22: Iraqi Desert

Hoskins: We depart, by road this time. The five-hour journey to the border is painless. Once there, we wait patiently as they check our passports, search our bags. After a few minutes, the border guard approaches us. ‘Tell the world that Iraq is OK,’ he says, ‘that there are good people in Iraq.’ I thank him in Arabic, and with the others, I get back in the Suburban and head west, across the border, into Jordan.

JAN. 29: Return to Canada 

Nutt: I believe I no longer experience culture shock, but as the plane lands in Toronto I am surprised to see the snow, the starkness of the airport, the order that defines our lives here. Everything seems so clean, so sanitized and so functional. It is at once liberating and isolating. It is home. 

Hoskins: I remember being in a Baghdad market just three days after the end of the war. I was one of three westerners, the first allowed into Iraq since all foreigners had been kicked out midway through the conflict. As I wandered around with an American journalism professor, the two of us couldn’t have looked more western. I remember worrying we would be attacked by Iraqi civilians. Instead, we were greeted with a compassion and warmth I don’t think I have witnessed since. The explanation given to me by countless Iraqi citizens for why they had not wanted to beat me to within an inch of my life: ‘You are a person, you are not a government.’ Perhaps this is one lesson the Iraqi people can teach the rest of us. E23