It is difficult to describe the length, the width and the depth of the tragedy in Haiti. Almost any normal adjective seems inadequate, and the words that need to be used sound improbable, so please read these words with an open heart.
The road from Santo Domingo is long and tiring, a six and a half hour drive, penetrating deep into the dry, poverty-stricken south of the country, to Jimaní on the frontier with Haiti.
It was Sunday, so there was little activity, and we crossed over in less than an hour and continued on westwards.
Driving towards Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, we began to see tent cities everywhere, with lines of tents in organized rows and files. However, the closer we came, the more the order broke down.
As we entered the city, it seemed that every third house had simply collapsed, its rubble spilling out onto the pavement. The remaining houses that are still standing are so cracked and broken that no one dares to enter them. The next after-shock might finally bring them down too, with someone inside.
In every empty space, makeshift shacks -entire shantytowns- unfold before your eyes. Every space, park, sports facility, every inch of open land is covered with thousand upon thousands upon thousands of sheds, frames, tents and huts, covered with multi-coloured tarpaulins, curtains, bed sheets. And the nightmare just keeps on getting worse, with more and more and more tents and shacks.
4:53 pm, 12th of January
More than half a million persons died in Port-au-Prince at precisely 4:53 pm.
We found this clock on the floor, broken, when we started to clean up the chapel.
Nowhere to go
It is difficult to convey the awful pit-of-the-stomach realization that these are not holiday camps, but literally the only alternative that remains for those who have lost everything and have absolutely nowhere to go. At least 600,000 of the population of Port-au-Prince have already left, for the country or to other towns and cities. But those who are unable to leave or don’t have family elsewhere, have to accept whatever they can find. At least 1,700,000 people are living under canvas: men, women, children, old folk, teenagers and babies. Some have no family left. Most have lost many relatives. We have only met one person who hasn’t lost anyone at all.
It is a living nightmare inhabited by 1,700,000 seriously traumatised persons. And every empty face hides the suffering face of Jesus. There is nothing to do but love -in the words of Mother Teresa of Calcutta- until it hurts.
Meanwhile, along every roadside are lines and lines of small stalls and tables, one after another, selling any and everything. Everyone wants to sell something and no one has any money to buy.
There is a constant haze of white dust hanging in the air, from the pulverized concrete. There are smells of urine everywhere, and -less obviously- the smell of death from the thousands of bodies still to be recovered from under the rubble.
We will never know the true figure, but it is probable -according to Msgr. Kebreau (President of the Haitian Bishops’ Conference) - that at least half a million people died at 4:53 p.m., on the 12th of January.
Driving on through the centre of town, you head out through a suburb called Carrefour, which is very simply a flattened, disaster area. On all sides, as far as the eye can see, there is nothing but piles of rubble, the odd half wall, and the occasional rooftop. One is reminded of photos of Hiroshima. And once again, tents, huts and shacks are everywhere.
You come across immensely long, open cracks in the earth,
sometimes running along the middle of the road.
And heading out into the countryside towards the south, finally you come across immensely long, open cracks in the earth, sometimes running along the middle of the road, with an opening maybe three to six inches wide, but with one side several inches higher than the other. I hadn’t believed the stories of people falling into the cracks and being swallowed up, but now I am not so certain.
The Presidential Palace
The Presidential Palace is the very heart of Port-au-Prince. In other days it had been the pride of the nation, an imposing, well designed and worthy seat of Government, set in well trimmed grounds, and fronted by a beautiful open park of trees and grass called the Champs du Mars.
The trees and grass have now disappeared under the encroaching, endless camp city, and the Palace itself, now totally un-inhabitable, is slowly folding in on itself, settling slightly more with each after-shock, the central cupola tilted forwards and the two side cupolas at each end of the main building, tilting outwards.
As the sun set, the traffic came to a halt and a platoon of policia ceremoniously lowered the national flag in front of all that is left of Haitian pride: a slowly collapsing symbol that no-one can do anything about.
The President’s Palace before
The President’s Palace after
We were living within the grounds of the HUEH, the General Hospital, a big university teaching hospital. No one dares to live or work in the shaky buildings. However, all the gardens and internal roads of the complex are filled with tents.
At the moment (according to the administrator) there are some 350 patients.
Each 20 bed tent is a ward. One tent is for leg amputations, another for arms, and so on. The majority of the patients seem to have received physical injuries: heads, arms and legs, internal bleeding, and so on. There are 25 tents like this for recuperating patients.
There are tents for pregnant women (along one side road), for paediatrics (further along the road), for emergencies (in front of the main gate) etc. And further back, there is an operating theatre tent (with 6 tables), and a recovery tent.
There is a tent for laboratory work, and another for preventative medicine (vaccinations and so on) and another 2 tents for external HIV patients.
There is even a tarpaulin for the volunteer firemen from Peru and Madrid who are supplying and purifying the water.
Most of the tents have open sides to allow the air to move and alleviate the intense midday heat. Only the most specialized tents have air-conditioning. Some of the others have an electrical fan. (One day we touched 43ºC in our tent).
This was a three-storied building in the University of Leogane – just imagine!
Sounds in the night
Sound travels in a hospital housed in tents, especially at night: the monotonous wailing of loneliness; a child’s piercing screams as a blood sample is being taken; the yells of a woman in labour, the cries of pure agony as a physiotherapist helps a knee to bend again, and -in the early morning- the low, repetitive laments for the dead.
One feels humbled by the size and the depth of the international aid that has arrived, from NGO’s and charities of every type, some faith-based, some philanthropic. We met a group from New York who belonged to a Hindu sect called Saibaba. They were sending 5 new volunteers every week to help some Franciscan friars. Every morning the Friars celebrate Mass, then convert their Chapel of St. Alexandre into a clinic, with up to 500 patients a day lined up, sitting in the pews, waiting for the doctors to receive them on either side of the altar.
Of course we found some groups who were only interested in propagating their own point of view, but the great majority recognised that there is a higher being, in some cases they called him God, who is love, all love, and only love.
We met Ivy, a happy young Jewess from Los Angeles, who had come on indefinite leave, to help the Hospital Administration. Very simply she explained that her best friend is Haitian.
We met Josee, a young pharmacist from New York who came down at her own expense to help organize the pharmacy storage.
We met Cándido from Guatemala, heading up a team of volunteer firemen from Peru and Madrid
We met Dr. Evan Lyon from Boston, working with “Partners in Health”, setting up clinics and small hospitals.
And everywhere we went, we were identified as Dominicans, and thanked. Thanked for being the first, and for doing the most.
We celebrated Mass beneath two large green American army tents. We found a tent city in and around a basketball court, with lovely big blue tents: “P. R. China”. We prayed the rosary in the Champs du Mars under a tarpaulin: “US Aid – a gift from the American People”. The children’s wards were housed in tents “Donated by Switzerland” and the children slept on cots printed “Ministerio dell’interno, Socorro Pubblico”, while the Genecology wards were housed in tents “Fondation Budiste de Taiwan”. Finally, Father Jaime was living in a tent: “Libyan Red Crescent”.
We had our own small polyester tent (made in Chile), 1.3 meters high with room for two mattresses. It was pitched in the side yard of what is left of the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception, next to the Administrator’s tent. (She -as so many others- has lost her own home). On the other side of the yard was the empty Laboratory building, still standing, but with enormous cracks not only in the walls, but dividing a supporting column as well. Any day now it will collapse.
Every time you see a building still standing, you find yourself playing “spot the cracks”.
Father Jaime and Nidia, infected by the enthusiasm of the boys.
What fun! Did you notice that the kid on the left has had his foot amputated?
Champs du Mars
Every evening we accompanied Father Jaime to visit the tent city in front of the Presidential Palace. An endless warren of tiny alleys winding through the noisy, smelly half-light of dusk, between tents and makeshift huts of every shape and colour imaginable.
The people were pleased to see us, and each night we rapidly collected a group (mainly women and children) to sing some songs and pray a rosary (in our very special Creole). We were accepted, but one felt that many people were close to their limits and the restraints of civilized life would soon fall apart, like so many other things from their past life.
Nearby was a fire hydrant – the only water available. In the half-light men, women and children soaped and washed themselves. Modesty is a luxury in such circumstances.
The face of Haiti
Juliana is almost three years old. She lives in a hospital that barely functions.
She is seriously traumatized with injuries to the head, body and both legs.
She has neither a father nor a mother. Her future is uncertain.
Suffer the children to come
The paediatric department wasn’t too far away, and we soon made friends with the children despite the language barrier. It is surprising how a funny face can make anyone laugh.
The children, between 2 and 14 years of age, were all recovering from serious injuries, and many lacked a foot, an arm, a finger or whatever. The grotesque metal screws used to stabilize broken bones are even more horrible, sticking out of the legs and arms of children. Most had head and internal injuries as well.
Some days you find an empty bed, and don’t dare to ask where the patient went. One hopes they went home. One fears they went to the morgue.
You cannot allow yourself to cry. We have to give hope, hope against all hope, the promise of hope, the expectation of hope, the dream of hope. And beyond the seemingly impossible goal of hope, are faith and love. When all is over, there remains just three things: faith, hope and love, and the greatest of these three is love.
Mass every morning
In times of uncertainty, people look for security. And so the Mass we celebrated every day was “more catholic than the Pope”, with everything done “just right”. For instance: not one but three mantels on the altar. Father Jaime dressed with all the vestments. And we prayed all and every prayer. And the people seemed to be calmed by the security of something from when life was “normal”, even though we were celebrating under a tent in the forecourt of the chapel
Maundy Thursday held a very special meaning for us. We were able to use the Hospital’s chapel for the first time since the earthquake. The damaged part had been walled off with plywood, and there was new paint everywhere.
Although we had spread the word, less than 20 people turned up. So, like the parable in Luke 14, 21 we went down the alley to the childrens’ tents and brought a dozen or so of the halt and the lame, hobbling along. They were happy with the chance to leave their tents, and showed off to us, making the most of their newly learnt skill with crutches.
And then occurred the worst single moment of all: without thinking what I was saying, I turned to Father Jaime and suggested that when it came to the ceremony of washing the feet, he ask the children to take off their right shoe, because several of them didn’t have left feet…
We looked at each other -¡they had been amputated! - and rapidly smothered our reactions.
The ritual washing of feet.
Our Maundy Thursday had been filled with sadness, but on Easter Sunday the chapel was full and the choir sang with joy. Twenty six of our little brothers and sisters from the childrens’ wards attended. Carefully placing their crutches on the floor they sat in the first three benches, and paid close attention to everything that happened: the triumphal entrance of the Easter Candle (lit by one of them); the choir singing in four voices, accompanied by a small drum; the short sermon in creole of Brother Miguel Martel; the solemn mystery of the Eucharist, and later, the surprise of a an iced cake and refreshments to celebrate the choir’s birthday. At the end of a week of trials and difficulties, Easter Sunday offered a future of hope and community.
The coming tragedy
The word “tragedy” suggests a coming disaster that we are powerless to avert. It is the only way to describe the terrible future that is awaiting the Haitian population. There is no organization in the world equipped to feed 3 million people for the foreseeable future.
On one side there are thousands of well-intentioned volunteers doing everything possible to help. On the other hand there are errors, and lack of planning, and occasional dishonesty (which receives too much publicity which in turn damages the main effort seriously).
In the middle are literally millions of people with nothing of their own, and no where to go.
Soon we are going to see people literally dieing of hunger. It is inevitable, and there is nothing that we can do about it.
And soon after that, the April rains are due. Remember that everyone is still living under canvas in unhealthy proximity to each other. We are going to see more deaths due to infections and contagious disease.
With death from hunger, and later on from illnesses, and so little help at hand, we are going to see a growing discontent. A tragedy is waiting to happen.
The final tragedy
The backbone of any society is the middle class, the owners of shops, corner stores, cafes, workshops and small businesses. All of these people have seen a lifetime of careful planning, long hours and personal sacrifice disappear in a minute and a half. They are back to being as poor as the beggars on the street.
The final tragedy is that Haiti can only pull itself up by its bootstraps if the middle class is motivated to start again. And the sad truth is that most of them would prefer to emigrate if they could.
If Haiti loses their middle class, the long term effect will be worse than that of the earthquake itself.
¿How do you console a 14 year old boy, still in hospital with a serious leg injury, who has lost his entire family?
The circumstances in Haiti are so over-whelming that they are difficult to grasp. But there are three alternatives:
1 Close your eyes really tight, and hope that it will all go away.
2 Judge and criticise.
3 Follow the advise of Sta. Teresa of Lisieux, and do little but do it well.
We can’t solve the problem of Haiti. It will be a next-door reality for the rest of our lives.
|Marlaine - the Administrator|