My final day in Port-au-Prince was eventful but still wanting. As a journalist, I couldn’t have asked for better luck. Foreign correspondents from all over the world would have made enormous concessions for a word with Haitian president Réne Préval. After spending hours at the national police headquarters, where he was to hold a press conference with President Raphael Correa of Ecuador, I found myself face to face with Préval in a media scrum. But his response to my question about the possibility of large scale civil unrest as the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate was typical of a national leader. As a humanitarian, the plight of the Haitians is overwhelming and marks one of the most profound injustices in the world today. To the people of Port-au-Prince, the earthquake wasn’t the be-all and end-all I gathered. It was merely the latest of a string of major misfortunes dating as far back as one can imagine - to slavery, to colonialism, to the huge debt paid to France over 120 years for Haiti’s own liberation. There has been a huge cost to the people of Haiti, including the thousands of children orphaned by the earthquake. The reality that so many of them don’t stand a chance is a hard one to accept. But as the world looks on with seemingly great interest, I fear what many others do too: that the earthquake was just a blip in the grand narrative of our own lives. We watched for a week or two, and now we will focus our attention on other things.
I wanted to share some of the stories from the camps and from Cité Soleil with President Préval. Haitians everywhere were wondering where their leader was and what their government was doing to help them. Many expressed distrust in their elected officials. “Don’t give money or food to our government,” one man told me. “We won’t see any of it.”
January 30, 2010
On Thursday afternoon, I met with Mario Andre Sol, the Director General of Haiti's National Police. His force has come under fire as one of his men was responsible for the death of a Port-au-Prince citizen the week before. Severely understaffed (2,000 officers) and with unprecedented challenges in the wake of the disaster, Mr. Sol was intent on setting the record straight - that he is doing everything in his power to contribute to the relief effort while protecting the citizens of the city. He says they have prioritized the capture of convicts who escaped from the penitentiary when it crumbled. They'll look for the murderers first. When I asked him where on the list political prisoners were situated, he said as far as he knew there were no political prisoners in the jail. This, of course, is difficult to believe given the country's history of political repression.
After my meeting with Mr. Sol, I walked to the UN and WFP site and talked to World Food Program spokesperson Marcus Prior. I conveyed some of the information I was getting from people in the camps: that more than two weeks after the earthquake they still weren't getting food, including the people of Cite Soleil. He was quick to dismiss the claim, saying they are reaching hundreds of thousands of people, and that people will say they are not getting food even if they are because they are hungry. He told me that in the coming days they will implement a new strategy to deliver rice to women only, keeping the men at bay to avoid the pushing and fighting that has been going on when trucks simply arrive in a location and dish bags and boxes out the back. It will be interesting to see how effective this new method is considering how complex the food aid economy on the streets is.
I took several Tap Taps - the local bus system, which consists of privately owned small pick-up trucks with caps on the back - to Carrefour and called it a day. Two and a half days in Port-au-Prince and I still have not felt any aftershocks. Nor has it rained, a blessing for the millions of homeless.
January 28, 2010
I haven't been able to get transportation out of Port-au-Prince to the other places I wanted to visit: Jacmel and Deschapelles. But there is still so much to investigate and understand here. I spend the majority of the day around the airport. There seem to be as many camps there as downtown, but the aid distribution was much more prevalent the closer you get to the UN, MINUSTAH and WFP bases.
I had Pierre, my translator, with me again. We started at the biggest camp I've seen. There easily could have been 20,000 to 30,000 people there. Thousands were lined up for food and all were relatively peaceful. I spoke to an Argentinian UN peacekeeper behind the barricade where he and his colleagues were dishing out rice to small children. The children would pull up the bottom of their shirts and carry the rice in their makeshift pouches. As we made our way through the barricade and out to the people, a peacekeeper fired some shots into the air to subdue the few rowdies at the front of the line. People get excited when they're about to get their rice. I can't blame them. I spoke to a woman holding a child at the front of the line and she said she had been waiting in line since 8 a.m. It was 11:30 a.m. at this point. We walked through the camp and, just like everywhere else, it was a market atmosphere. Not all that was being sold was aid food though.
We were still about an hour's walk from our destination, the UN, MINUSTAH, and WFP headquarters. On the way we passed by Cité Soleil, the notorious slum that's been mentioned in a lot of news reports. I asked Pierre if we should go in because I was interested in knowing if the absolute poorest part of Port-au-Prince was getting food. He agreed. I think it may have been his first time in Cité even though he grew up in Haiti. It's one of those places to avoid, apparently. But like everywhere else in Port-au-Prince, the people didn't live up to the reputation they've earned in the media.
As we walked in, I noticed many of the buildings and houses, all short concrete blocks, had bullet holes in them. But before long the people were coming up to us, intrigued by a white person's presence. We stopped to talk to an elderly man and he invited us into his house. It was akin to a small dungeon cell. No window, just a small cot and a few pictures hung on the wall. He showed us the cracks in his foundation and said they were from the quake. He said no one has come by to assess the houses in Cité to see if they're safe. Many had crumbled.
Outside the man's house a young girl, about eight or nine, made me smile. She looked up at me and with the greatest confidence I've ever seen, said "T'es beau!” And then she reached up and felt my hair. I told her she was pretty herself and she gleamed. Another man came up to us and told us they had not seen any food distributed in their neighbourhood. He also said I was the first journalist he had seen. What he had witnessed though were a couple of trucks pull up to the entrance with journalists in tow, and some food given out as photo ops. He said people in Cité make their way into the city or to the airport to find what food they can. Cité Soleil doesn't live up to it's name "Sun City” and as a consequence, has been forgotten. Its people pleaded with me to tell the world they were hungry.
The day was only half over at this point, but as I write this the generator is being shut off and everyone's heading into the yard to camp out. I'm still with the wonderful family in hills of Carrefour and their neighbours, and have made friends for life. I'll take one more look out over the dark, quiet capital city, thinking about the hundreds of thousands of hungry and hurting people down there, and then I'll go to my tent. Everyone's praying for another night without rain or aftershocks.
More on my second day in Port-au-Prince tomorrow, including an interview with the general director of Haiti's national police and a WFP spokesperson with whom I shared the messages of the people in Cité and the camps.
January 26, 2010
Today, I walked around Port-au-Prince and witnessed not only the complete and utter destruction the media has been reporting for two weeks, but also a perhaps equally devastating attack on human dignity. In the five or six hours I spent walking through the rubble with Radio Caraibes journalist Magdalie Jean Louis and my translator, local high school teacher Pierre Bellegarde, whose school is now a pile of cement. I witnessed a deeply flawed and deadly process of aid distribution.
Countless people are still without food and water, due primarily to the fact that they simply cannot compete. In all of that time wandering through downtown Port-au-Prince, through what we might call refugee camps, I did not see one ounce of food being distributed, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars donated or loaned by the international community and the thousands upon thousands of soldiers on the ground.
A woman in a camp by the crumbled presidential palace was selling cooked rice someone had obtained for her. She said people simply are not getting food. In fact, food is at such a premium that those who do manage to get it are selling it to others at as much as twice the price as it normally would be. The way another person in the camp explained it to me, trucks pull up in the morning and the chaos begins. This tends to be the few moments that the media capture images of "violence,” - an act that could be prevented if there was any structure to the distribution of food. Instead, police and soldiers hand boxes out to the men who can best stand their ground. It seems many see the food not only as necessitating survival, but also a way to earn cash for themselves and their families. In other words, the distribution of aid has turned into its own economy. The strongest survive, but the widowed mother with children is left to acquire scraps or come up with the money to buy a piece of bread or some rice. With thousands of soldiers, aid workers, and peacekeepers on the ground, one woman wondered why they couldn't distribute food fairly, so that everyone could have a chance to get what they needed.
Down the road, I stood at the edge of a crumbled kindergarten school, but found myself gagging before I could even take a photo of the ruins. In buildings where bodies remain beneath the rubble the smell of rotting corpses still fills the air. At other sites, cleanup crews are piling concrete into dump trucks, while at others people risk their lives climbing two or three floors through half-destroyed buildings to find goods to sell on the streets.
I ran into 2006 presidential candidate Judie C. Roy downtown and we discussed the prospect of Port-au-Prince and the rest of Haiti being rebuilt. She is president of an organization that works on development plans for Haiti but has not experienced the political freedom to share her ideas with the country. A former Aristide loyalist, she was imprisoned and tortured when she turned against the former president. She said she doesn't see any prospect of rebuilding Haiti unless they first work to "develop the minds” of the people.
At the general hospital, which we managed to get into after being turned away by American soldiers for not having proper press credentials, the scene was overwhelming and emotional. We watched a 10-year-old boy have alcohol poured over a gaping foot wound from the earthquake without anesthesia. A few beds down, a severely malnourished orphaned one-year-old lay in a bed and was finally able to drink milk. He might live. A Haitian doctor now working in New York City broke down when speaking to us. He's ashamed more Haitian doctors who still live in the country aren't volunteering at the hospital. He praised his Chinese colleagues for being there to help him.
As we continued walking we found two badly decaying corpses laying outside a crumbled building on the side of the street. People covered their noses as they sped up the pace to pass by.
Many buildings appeared to be barely standing, ready to collapse with the next aftershock.
The reality in Port-au-Prince cannot be done justice by words. The poor sanitation is posing a problem - a potential outbreak of disease.
Even when the world seems to care, the world is not enough. The people here are still dying and still at great risk. What Port-au-Prince needs is less gun-toting soldiers and more organization on the ground. People are not getting food and water and their depression and desperation is growing. The president of a local radio station told me there is peace now, but he sees a possible eruption of real violence soon if the people's dignity continues to be threatened. When they give out food from the back of a truck, "they are treating them like dogs,” he said.
Tonight I am sleeping outside again with a family from Carrefour, just outside of Port-au-Prince near the epicentre of the earthquake, that has taken me in. Their house still stands but their fear of more aftershocks is powerful. People are really bonding together. With all the negative facts to report, I can say that it is truly amazing to witness and experience firsthand the goodness in human beings that seems to prevail in times like these.
January 25, 2010
The narrative isn't supposed to begin until I arrive in Haiti but I find myself reaching for my pen and notepad on the Air Canada flight into Punta Cana - our tropical destination on the eastern tip of Hispaniola island in the Dominican Republic. The man seated beside me and his friend across the aisle are talking about the buffets that await them at their resort.
I'm reading the Maclean's magazine cover story on Haiti's earthquake and staring at the images on the page. Like any microcosmic depiction of such catastrophic disaster, they attempt to best convey a magnitude of suffering and despair that is impossible to grasp from just a few glossy, colour photos alone. It's after 9 p.m. by the time I'm through Customs, so I drop in on a friend who is getting married in Punta Cana later this week and spend the evening in relative elegance. In the morning, I will hop a bus and start heading west.
You can reach Port-au-Prince from Punta Cana in the same time you would traverse Newfoundland by car to catch the Port aux Basques ferry from St. John's. But the opposite ends of this island are marked by stark differences, many of which I suspect will become more evident in the days to come. I'm on my way to Haiti for a few reasons. One is to do some reporting on the ground amidst all the destruction of the Jan. 12 earthquake, and while I'm at it try to make sense of the contradictory messages we are getting from much of the mass media. People warned me of the violence and "looting” they have seen in the news images of survivors desperately searching for food and water, delivered in a context that paints Haitians as poor, unruly people. Meanwhile, journalists who have been on the ground since the day the earthquake wreaked havoc on Port-au-Prince and other nearby cities and towns are reporting extreme resilience from the Haitians in the face of unprecedented adversity, and stories of people reaching out to one another in a time of despair.
There are deep questions to ask, some of which pertain to Haiti's dark history of oppression, the extent of the militarization of the relief effort, and the prospect of a good future, whatever that might hold. But today, one question occupies my mind more than the others: On this tiny island in the Caribbean, full of beautiful people on both sides of the border, how is it that one end is marked by luxury and indulgence, and the other, such a short distance away, by millions of desperate, devastated people fighting to stay alive and maintain their dignity doing it?
I am in the Dominican Republic capital of Santo Domingo now because of the kindness of a stranger. Sunday night at the luggage carousel, I met Nick Trent, an ADRA worker from British Columbia, who gave me a floor to sleep on in his hotel room last night and a handful of contacts in Port-au-Prince, one of which turned into a seat on a World Food Program helicopter that will take me to the "ground zero” of the earthquake's devastation this afternoon. Last night I crossed paths with Mitra Vasisht, India's Ambassador to Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Her words: "Be prepared. The people are becoming very depressed there."