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On the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, life goes on. ((Paul Hunter/CBC News))

So close yet so far.

One of the countless heartbreaking ironies in Port-au-Prince is that just up the hillside from the hard-hit city centre, life appears about as normal as can be in Haiti. 

When we drove in Friday, it was impossible to miss the shops and cafes open for business on the main road, maybe 10 kilometres from downtown.  Food and water seemed available everywhere as people in outer Port-au-Prince went about life as usual.

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Read Paul Hunter's earlier report: Haiti-bound with soft bags

With communications still down, it’s unlikely anyone in the earthquake zone even knows that. And as one of the poorest big cities on earth, with few cars for personal use — and clogged streets regardless — it’s also unlikely they could they get there if they did.

Half an hour’s stop-and-go drive from their own land of plenty and Haitians were begging us for food, water, anything.


HMCS Athabaskan crew gets ready to land

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Members of the naval boarding party practice their shooting skills, firing the 9-mm handguns they will be carrying. ((CBC News))

The crack of a Sig  9-mm pistol lets you know that the mission is Haiti is well underway and it’s serious business.

The naval boarding party spent the morning preparing to go ashore in Haiti. Going ashore in Haiti right now means having weapons ready to protect the sailors who will be there to clear roads, re-establish communications and, sadly, recover dead bodies for burial.

HMCS Athabaskan is now just north of Haiti. The mission is becoming more clear and more muddy.

As the combat officer told us in briefing last night, the enemy is chaos. And chaos is one of the most difficult foes to fight.

The briefing provided the ship’s crew with a situation report.

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This report from CBC's Rob Gordon, aboard HMCS Athabaskan

It’s not pretty.

A shattered city, hundreds of thousands dead and a nation that is two days away from running out of water and fuel.

Exactly how and where the sailors the Canadian task group will help isn’t known yet.

There is an aid bottleneck in Haiti’s main harbour. A U.S. aircraft carrier, a Brazilian amphibious ship, a dozen destroyers and coast guard cutters have jammed the harbour.

And on the way is a huge hospital ship, the USS Comfort.

Still, some things have become clearer.

The Athabaskan and HMCS Halifax will stay at sea. Neither ship will physically tie up to a Haitian wharf. The ships will remain just off the coast and send teams of sailors ashore by Zodiac. Each team will carry work parties armed with chain saws, concrete cutters and body bags.

And it’s going to be a daytime mission only. Just before sunset, the teams will return to the mother ships.

Its all beginning to sound like a plan.

There are some real vets here.

They are soldiers and sailors who reflect the Canadian Forces of today. Military police officer Mary Blois is one such vet. In her 24-year military career she has been ordered to many places that everyone else is trying to leave. She’s been to Haiti before.

"Expect the unexpected," Blois said. "The people going ashore should know that they will see things that nothing can prepare them for — nothing."

Captain Ron Stecum, the ship’s medical officer, foreshadowed the future. The future is now just two days and a few hundred miles away.

"We have concerns about your physical well-being and your mental and emotional health," he warned a group of sailors in a circle around him on Athabaskan’s helicopter deck. 

At his feet were a green body bag, a shovel and a pick-axe.

Groups of sailors nearby were getting detailed instruction on how to use chainsaws and concrete saws — necessary  tools when dealing with a city in collapse.

Again, the crack of pistol fire is heard from the upper decks. The bullets splash into the sea.

HMCS Athabaskan steams that steady course due south, a course that will bring the warship into Haitian waters by Monday morning.

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