THUNDER BAY – For 90 minutes, Amy Leah Potter wasn’t sure she’d make it back to Canada alive.
Embedded in the middle of a bloody and brutal civil war in Yemen with Doctors Without Borders, the Thunder Bay nurse had been pulled over by armed guards and held.
Conversation was not possible.
Her driver and captors – who later apologized – spoke no English and Potter’s Arabic was limited.
“Well, I guess this is how I will die,” she thought.
Luckily, the misunderstanding was cleared up and she was released, allowed to return to work patching up the casualties of a war that began in 2015 that arose from the ashes of the Arab Spring uprising, when Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi took the reins of power from ousted authoritarian president Ali Abdullah Saleh.
He was immediately challenged by a movement known as the Houthi, who attempted to take over all of Yemen, leading Hadi to leave the country four years ago.
According to the United Nations, about 123 civilian casualties per week, though they have subsided in Hudaydah, the port city where Potter was stationed, thanks to a UN-backed ceasefire. Outside the city, the violence is growing and the country’s economy has taken a massive hit.
“I wanted to go there to help out where I could,” she said, explaining why an educated Canadian would voluntarily insert themselves into one of the most volatile places in the world.
“That’s what you do when you’re with Doctors Without Borders. You go where you’re needed.”
Last September, before heading to the Middle Eastern country, located on the eastern shores of the Red Sea, Potter’s only experience with war was from TV shows and movies.
“Of course, it’s nothing the same,” she said. “The first month-and-a-half there it wasn’t too bad. We could hear fighting in the distance, but it seemed pretty far away, so we were a bit removed. And then as time progressed, the fighting intensified until it was right outside our door.
“We actually had to move our guest house after it became compromised. Our guest house, the hospital and our office were all hit by random bullets. So it became really, really close. It surrounded us.”
She and her colleagues quickly learned to stay below the windows in their home, whose lower section was reinforced with extra thick concrete, when bullets started to fly.
It didn’t stop Potter from occasionally climbing up to the roof of her home to watch the air strikes, a near nightly occurrence, and she quickly learned to tell the difference between an airstrike and a shelling.
“I hate to say it, but it almost becomes a way of life. You know that’s what it is. We were lucky. We were in an area where Doctors Without Borders was well known, so we would only be affected by random bullets. We were never a target,” Potter said.
The work was like nothing she’d ever seen.
“I worked for quite a few years in emergencies and different trauma wounds. So I’ve seen a lot of gunshots, but I’ve never seen the 50 millimetre bullets coming in, and in children,” Potter said. “There was one little girl, the bullet was the entire length of her foot.
“We had a lot of shrapnel injuries, a lot of amputations – a lot of things you might see once or twice in your career working as a nurse in North America, but you would see daily in other countries.”
Would she go back?
In a heartbeat, Potter said, adding she had a chance to leave early, but chose to stick it out until March when her mission concluded.
“It feels bad to leave just because the fighting got bad,” she said. "It's what we do with Doctors Without Borders."