PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Some pictures may indeed tell a thousand words. But there are others pictures that can instantly mute a person.
“You have got to see this shot I took last night,” said a German freelance photographer. He was on assignment for one of his country’s bigger magazines and as he flipped open his laptop I could see the grisly photo of the corpses of two boys. They were no more than 12 years old and were lying mangled and dead on a road not far from the once affluent Port au Prince suburb of Pentionville.
Eight months after the devastating earthquake that rocked Port au Prince, Haiti, the area still resembles a war zone more than a recovering city. Streets and waterways are clogged with fetid rubbish and half-collapsed buildings teeter on crumbling foundations. Enormous piles of rubble block roads awaiting the vital heavy machinery that may never come.
The poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, Haiti could least afford such a devastating earthquake. However, according to the United Nations, donors pledged an estimated US$4.6 billion to recovery. But 1.5 million Haitians still remain homeless and rebuilding efforts look like they have yet to start.
As I would eventually find out, no one is able to provide a clear answer to why the Haitian government, who are responsible for the clean-up, have made little progress. Officials told me that despite having the requisite funding, “they are working on an urban plan for rebuilding the city and that takes time.” However, it's far from the reassuring message that the international community wants to hear – not to mention the people of Haiti.
But I will leave you to draw your own conclusions as we venture through the reality that is the daily life of the over 1.5 million Haitians who remain homeless.
It’s hard to miss the scores of teeming ‘temporary’ tent camps as our flight from Miami drops through the clouds. Their white and blue roofs are easily visible from the aircraft window as these ubiquitous shelters spread across the outskirts and throughout Port au Prince.
After shuffling through a makeshift immigration hanger, I hooked up with a gentleman named Franklin who was to be my guide and ‘fixer’ for the trip. A grizzled 69-year old, he is a church pastor and orphanage proprietor as well as an occasional tourist guide, although there is little need for that these days, and he knows just about everyone and everything about Haiti.
During the 1986 revolution when the Duvalier dictatorship was toppled, Franklin was driving an NBC news crew as their car was raked with automatic weapons fire. According to him, only God’s mercy helped him survive the 4 bullet wounds, one of which has left a nasty scar on his forearm. From that point on, he claims that he was indebted to the Almighty.
Time is of the essence and after a quick stop at Le Plaza Hotel, one of the few hotels left standing in the city, we are soon on the traffic clogged road to Leogan, the epicenter of the quake.
Pounding through knee-deep water and mud-filled potholes over roads that were nearly snapped in two by the earthquake, we arrived at Leogan with just enough light left to get some pictures of the unimaginable carnage.
Entire streets have been reduced to piles of busted concrete. Most of the buildings that remain are in such a precarious state that nobody dares enter for fear of collapse.
There was not a single work crew clearing rubble, or trash – and virtually no evidence of any reconstruction work.
Franklin, it turns out, is a true optimist as befits someone who has cheated death. He can find a silver lining in the most despairing and harrowing situations and tells me that the quake was not all negative. “The local people have been using the crumbled debris to repair roads that would normally be covered with heavy mud and passable only with a 4x4 at this time of year,” he said.
On our return trip, we make a detour onto a largely impassable track that leads us to the site where Franklin’s school and church once stood.
After his encounter with the stray bullets almost 25 years ago, Franklin set out to raise money to build a sanctuary for orphans. He also took to preaching the word of God and judging from the reaction of the kids and the adults in the community, he is a highly regarded and respected person.
Sadly, all that remains of the school and church are the foundations. The kids who were living in a chicken house for the past 5 months have recently been located to tents donated by an aid organization.
As we head back to the city to drop me at my hotel, Franklin issues a stern warning not to go into the streets after dark. “Don’t even think about,” he says. Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) spokesman Francoise Bocken later confirms that Port au Prince remains an extrememly unsafe city, particularly at night. “Our security rules are quite strict,” he informs me. “We are not allowed to go out alone day and night and all our movements are in cars to avoid any problems.”
Haiti has long been a desperate place, but now more so than ever. Compounding the crime and violence is the fact that hundreds of hardened criminals escaped when the country’s biggest penitentiary partially collapsed during the earthquake. They quickly formed armed gangs that roam the darkened streets at night striking fear in one and all.
We would spend the next two days trudging through the incredible devastation, street by street and almost numbingly documenting damage that appeared to be untouched since the earthquake.
After many hours spent hiking through the bowels of Port au Prince, I saw only one piece of heavy machinery, a Caterpillar excavator, sitting idle on the side of the road. There was not a single work crew either clearing rubble or trash anywhere to be seen. There was also virtually no evidence of any reconstruction work completed or in progress. What I did see, however, was an extensive presence of foreign relief agencies throughout the city.
UNICEF naturally had a number of centres in place and there was also the distinctive red, white and black logo of MSF in numerous clinics and field hospitals.
An MSF spokesman indicated that there has been no let-up in their relief work as they continue to operate 19 health structures with 16 surgery theatres in the country. The focus for MSF relief efforts had now evolved from treating traumatic wounds during the emergency phase to dealing primarily with daily diseases like diarrhea and respiratory infections.
MSF was also still providing mental health care for patients who were showing symptoms of intensive stress related to their living conditions and the devastating loss of family members, homes and sources of income. With 316,000 casualties, it seemed like an endless task.
But to obtain a better understanding of what life is like for the average Haitian, I decided to spend some time in the tent camps speaking with the inhabitants of these ramshackle communities.
However it was much easier said than done, as I initially encountered not only an unwillingness to engage in discussions, but outright hostility as well.
As I would soon find out, this anger was a product of tremendous frustration on a number of fronts. Their desperate circumstances included entire families living in tents without running water or toilets as well as armed gangs extorting money and monopolizing commercial activities to force up the prices of goods. There was no shortage of drug dealers and numerous reports of rape, robbery and other violent acts. And if all that wasn’t enough there was also the simple fact that there were no jobs and no hope on the horizon. Their misery seemed endless.
The Haitians were simply exhausted and traumatized. The only people that seemed to listen or care were journalists so they chose to target them with their displeasure because there was no one else.
On more than one occasion, I was asked how much money I was making from taking photos. Because the people are not seeing any reconstruction activities, many Haitians question where the aid has been directed. There is a perception amongst them that journalists are exploiting their situation and making money off their misery.
Once I explained that I had come to Haiti to try to bring awareness to their problems and to help raise money for MSF, they began to open up about the problems they are facing. MSF has been active in Haiti for over 15 years and the most of the population of country are quite familiar with this organization, many having been treated at an MSF facility. There are few institutions or groups the people trust, and rightfully so, but MSF is certainly one of them.
In almost every instance, after overcoming their initial reluctance I found the people to be friendly and eager to discuss their problems. What they want more than anything is to move out of the tent camps and back into their communities and get their kids into school while hopefully finding work. These are simple demands but somehow quite elusive. The people are struggling to find some semblance of their lives before the quake and even a small sense of self-esteem. Their frustration is more than understandable; it’s palpable.
It is now 7:00 a.m. and as I prepare to leave the country, I believe that I have left plenty of time to make the 15km drive to the airport for a 9:30 flight. But this is Haiti where Murphy’s Law has reigned supreme for over 200 years. Naturally the main road to the airport is closed forcing Franklin and hundreds of other vehicles to navigate a traffic-clogged detour. As we crawl along panic begins to build. I know that missing the flight will mean a US$526 rebooking fee. But more importantly, trying to get on one of the few overbooked flights leaving will be next impossible.
Eventually we arrive at the airport and not a moment too soon. The departure lounge is heaving with bodies but fortunately I am able to clear customs with only minutes to spare. Soon, I can exhale as I am on a flight back to civilization. For those left on the ground though, the notion of civilization seems distant and alien at best.