Last week my daughter, Tanya, and I embarked on a trip to Haiti. We packed, with the help of some very good friends, 5 large duffle bags of food and medical supplies to carry to the people who were terribly stricken by the January 12th earthquake, and the ensuing aftermath.
It's very hard to put into words what we witnessed. We felt profound sadness and saw destruction of a magnitude that cannot be rivaled. I realize that we are not "disaster relief" experts, and therefore have not been around to see other tragedies, but I doubt that anything can match what we saw when we went into Port au Prince one month after the earthquake.
The two of us wanted to help with our own hands, not just by throwing money at the hundreds of NGO's and other groups who wanted donations from the world. We felt it was better for the people of Haiti to actually put a face to the help they wanted and needed desperately. Caring about humanity means more than shaking our heads in horror.
After speaking with Tyler Westbrook, a friend, we came up with a plan to travel to Santo Domingo, DR, and then to "Good Samaritan Hospital" located on the border of Haiti in Jimani, DR. Tyler and I know each other from years of anti-war protests and street activism. He has been documenting anti-war actions on WhyNotNews.org. Being the mother of a US Marine who did three tours, one in Afghanistan and two in Iraq, I am opposed to all wars and am against the growing US Empire. Over the last 9 years I have developed a perspective as to what has happened and will continue to happen to countries such as Haiti where US oppression and intervention has caused people so much pain and suffering.
When we left Santo Domingo early Tuesday morning we met Paul, who we didn't know at the time would be our guide throughout the trip. Paul was traveling home to Haiti to see his family for the first time since the quake. He didn't lose anyone, but this was his first time back and didn't know what to expect. It took us 6 hours on a long bus ride to Jimani, where we were met by Tyler and a priest from a Haitian orphanage, Rev. Bourdeau. Piling our supplies in the back of the pickup truck, my daughter on top, we drove to the hospital. A brand new structure the hospital sat alone amongst huts and shacks. Inside the compound were about 100 patients with all kinds of horrific injuries from the collapse of buildings inside Haiti, along with about 100 doctors, nurses, EMT's, and staff who volunteered on their own time and dollar to respond to this tragedy.
Three huge tents were arranged on the grounds, and inside, beds strewn about on top of dirt and rocks with patients ranging from infants to adults, all with broken bodies being mended by the adept hands of the medical teams. We were lucky to stay there. The hospital had rooms for us with beds and bathrooms. When we first started our trip we were prepared to sleep in a tent on sleeping bags in the middle of Haiti if we had to. But as luck would have it, that was not the case.
Upon our arrival, we jumped into medical scrubs and started working. Tanya assisted in the operating room, mopping up blood from an amputation which was performed on a young woman whose arm was infected. This, we found out, was the norm. A limb being taken to save a life was standard procedure in the aftermath of the quake. We witnessed it first hand on our first day. Later on that afternoon, a 6 month old baby died from internal infections. And so our trip started.
Dominican Republic Military Guards
The next day we discovered that the military was posted around the hospital to keep the patients from leaving. The local military chief stopped by to say that they were going to close the hospital to Haitian patients in 2 weeks. The medical staff was extremely upset, and were now rushed to care for the sick only to send them away.
Politics once again played a role. It seems that the DR's patience had run out for the Haitian community, and was chasing them out of the country. There was never any love lost between the two, but in a time of a disaster, you hope that barriers would be dismantled. That was not the case, and this particular hospital was in danger of being shut down much sooner than it had anticipated.
The Trip into Haiti
Paul returned on Wednesday morning to take us into Port au Prince. We had medical supplies and food we wanted to distribute. Heading into Haiti our first stop would be the orphanage. Our mission was to find a Haitian village that we could help rebuild or support, and we decided we would devote ourselves to helping these orphans. It was a 2 hour trip that rocked all of my senses. The border alone was enough to make you weep. People crawling all over each other, trying to buy food, ship food, sell food, and the border guards patrolling amongst the smells and dust. On our way into the city, we saw tents everywhere, along the side of the roads, and in open spaces. This was just the beginning.
We arrived at the orphanage compound encircled by a gate, and when it opened, we were greeted with dancing, smiling, singing children that brought an overwhelming feeling of happiness as well as grief to all of us. They sang a song that they had created, singing in French. The words were of praise and hope for a better future; that we would help them rebuild their roof that had collapsed in the quake, and get them beds to sleep on. We shed tears for the millions of people who were suffering. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mv7S4YAtnQQ
When they finished, we gave the Reverend rice, bandages, anti-bacterial ointments, baby formula, and an array of other things that they had never seen before. They cried for joy! I understand why people work in disaster relief because there is no other feeling like giving to those who need it most, directly from your hands to theirs.
We stayed for some time at the orphanage located in Croix des Bouquet, outside Port au Prince, in a bustling community, but eventually headed into the city.
Port au Prince
The drive took us longer than we expected and Paul was striken by what he saw. He said the streets of Port au Prince had gradually over the last 5 years become full of people selling their goods, but this was nothing like he had ever seen before. There were military trucks everywhere, with troops carrying machine guns, and they were from every nation. Stopping at the US Embassy we spoke with the marines who were on guard duty. I identified myself as the mother of a US marine, and they were happy to see us. They said "glad to see Americans." I asked them how they felt about being there and one young marine responded by saying "When they told me I was going to Haiti, I was excited. I thought I would be helping people but all I am doing is standing around in the heat with a gun. I'm ready to go home."
And that's what they were doing. Everywhere. In trucks, humvees, on the streets, standing around in flak jackets with guns. Or sitting in the trucks with guns. While the Haitian people were digging themselves out. I couldn't believe my eyes, even though I half expected to see this scene. The streets were teaming with dust, people, cars, motorcycles, dogs, goats, cows and military vehicles. The smell ranged from putrid to horrific. And mixed in was some food cooking. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8WUxxfijtRU
There were makeshift tents everywhere, people living on top of the rubble of destroyed buildings, with traffic all around them. The feeling in the air was one of desperation, even though those living on the streets were trying to put their lives back together. As far as the eye could see people were moving around, bathing, eating, sleeping, talking, singing, getting on with their lives.
The history of Haiti is one of constant upheaval, and oppression. On top of the abject poverty already in existence, people are living in the rubble of homes they were attempting to rebuild. Every single structure for miles had been damaged in one way or another. As we drove up the mountains, we saw Haitians still digging themselves out. Not once, and I mean not once, did I see anyone else helping them. They had small shovels, or buckets; they carried wood or bags of cement on their heads back to where their homes once were, trying to rebuild.
Where Has All the Help Gone
The world wept for Haiti on the evening of January 12th, and immediately donation lines were set up by every single NGO and then some, to collect donations to "help Haiti." Over $644 million, and possibly more, was collected worldwide.
The United States government announced that they would send $100 million in aid to Haiti, a fraction of the costs of the occupations being conducted in the middle east; and 2,200 marines, which then climbed almost immediately to 22,000 marines, soldiers and sailors. The troops began landing in Port au Prince on Sunday, January 17th, five days after the devastating quake. Defense Secretary Gates told reporters on a flight to India there would be a security element to U.S. relief efforts, but added: "I haven't heard of us playing a policing role at any point." Asked about rules of engagement, he said "as anywhere we deploy our troops, they have the authority and the right to defend themselves." "And they also have the right to defend innocent Haitians and members of the international community if they see something happen," he said. So much for humanitarian aid.
With the critical need for doctors and supplies, the US government chose to send in troops. What I personally witnessed was just the opposite of what Secretary Gates announced. The troops were policing. If they were participating in any relief efforts, it was minimal. Everywhere we drove we saw Italian, French, Canadian, and US military personnel and vehicles. Most of the time holding up the traffic, causing more congestion than was necessary, and not completely participating in relief efforts.
The non-military personnel were helping the most in the hospitals and clinics, as we found out not only with the DR hospital, but on our trip to the Haiti National Hospital close to the military controlled airport.
On our second day in Port au Prince, we transported medical staff to the orphanage to examine the 53 children who needed care. From there we travelled back into the epicenter of the quake. We got inside the National hospital, and spoke with the Chief of the Emergency Clinic. Since there were so many doctors at the hospital back in the DR, there was a possibility of getting some of the staff to the Haitian side if they needed more hands. Which they did. One month later, this hospital, that turned no one away, was overflowing with patients, inside and outside. Of course guarding it were marines and soldiers, who escorted us around the grounds. We saw hundreds of people mostly with leg, arm, body casts, broken jaws, facial restructuring with metal rods, and other monumentally horrible injuries. The mood in the hospital of profound despair, not only the medical staff but the patients. Although it was teaming with people, it was relatively quiet.
That's when it finally hit me. Between the oppressive heat and extreme dust in the air, I started to feel sick. Had this really happened? How would these people ever recover from this mess? Why aren't there more people helping? Where is all the aid and money donated from around the world? Why are they struggling so much, and are they angry or sad or both? This Country is ripe for revolution.
Driving back to the orphanage to pick up the rest of our team of medical staff, it started to get dark. There was no electricity throughout the city, and only random lights run by local generators. The orphanage was dark and the children were waiting for us outside. Massive mosquitoes swarmed us as we headed back for the border. However, it was 8 pm, and the border closed by 6 PM when the gates are locked. We were 2 hours away.
Once we arrived at the border gates the guards refused to unlock them. However, a medical technician with us brought medical face masks. He said the guards always needed them and our gift might get us through. Within a few minutes of showing them the masks, they opened up the lock, and allowed us safe passage.
Back to Port au Prince
On our third day into the epicenter, we once again transported medical staff, but this time they were four medical students. They had travelled on their own dime to help, and by now the hospital in the DR had less than 80 patients, and too many doctors. Our stop at the orphanage was a regular visit now, but these med students carried with them enough shoes, toys, candy and some soccer balls for the kids. The Reverend lined up the children, smallest first, and they received shoes, which they had asked for the day before. We gave them candy, and left for the national hospital while they were singing goodbye.
We drove past the palace again to show them the devastation and the tent city set up right across the street. I also wanted to hand out whatever medical supplies and food I had left in the bags, and thought that doctors in scrubs might do the trick. But when we arrived, people swarmed the truck. Leaving quickly, we took the med students to the national hospital. The marines let us in and we saw the Chief of the ER, who took all four of our passengers immediately and put them to work on setting up a new medical tent since 1,000 more patients had come in that day. One woman had her lower body crushed by the quake, but did not seek medical treatment until then and reports of typhoid and malaria outbreaks had just surfaced. The medical students thanked us for taking them there and told us that we had just helped save more lives.
We made our way to Paul's home to meet his mom and sister, who had prepared a Haitian meal for us. Their home was untouched, but his mother refuses to sleep inside any longer, so they pitched a tent in their front yard. She thanked us and was grateful that people like us would be willing to come there to help. She said, speaking French that we are all human and we must all care about one another especially in times of tragedy and for caring about the Haitian people enough to give up our time and spend it with them.
Winding back down the mountain on the rubble lined streets, we saw a few bulldozers that were being operated by people in the community. They worked on a few homes together to remove a building that hadn't yet fully collapsed. We stopped on the side of the road, watching them carrying shovels, cement and trowels, and the small dozers picked up rocks to dump in the truck. In the 3 days that we traveled, this was the first time I saw any heavy equipment . However, the Haitians were helping themselves with no one from other countries visible.
Left with two duffle bags of supplies Paul took us to visit a doctor, who was a friend of his family, Dr. Margarette Blaise Jean, who is a pediatrician at Unitemedicale De Lilavois, on the outskirts of Port au Prince. As we drove up to her clinic, we saw a small tent city outside the property. Dr. Margarette told us, in perfect English, how much she and her husband, Philippe, appreciated people coming to her country to help in whatever way we could. We took our supplies out and she wept with joy saying that she would be able to bring them to the tent city next to her. She had been caring for them, especially the women and children. The peroxide bottles, and bacitracin ointment were needed, but the feminine hygiene pads made her night since the women were always searching for them.
The Border Patrol
On our way back, once again it was dark and we were 2 hours late. The border had closed and this would be our third night of trying to get the gates open for us. Paul rushed us to the Haiti side of the border, but they wouldn't let us pass through this time. They said they had "orders" not to let anyone cross over to the DR side. We knew why. Paul told them what we had been helping in Haiti, and the guards again asked for our identification. I gave them my husband's NYPD Lieutenant identification card, and immediately they let us through!
We got to the DR gate and on the opposite side was our friend Jonathan who the night before had the face masks. He said the "commander" had kept the key that night, and the gate couldn't be opened. Again, we knew why. Then a guard said in Spanish "if we could fit through the hole in the fence, we could come in." I looked down to see a 2 ft. opening which my daughter could fit through, but I doubted I could.
It was the only way in that night, unless I wanted to sleep amongst the trucks and people trying to get across, so we laid down on the ground and shimmied our way in, laughing hysterically. We laughed so hard I couldn't move and was wedged between the poles. The Haitians, laughing as well, started to push me through. I made it, to the sound of applause, laughter and congratulations in 3 different languages!
A Week Was Worth It
Heading back to our base at the Good Samaritan Hospital in Jimani, we realized we had made new friends, and had brought whatever help we could to people in dire need of more.
Tyler and another friend remain at the Orphanage Notre-Dame of Perpetual Souls. Our mission now is to rebuild it through donations, help and hopefully more people who want to spend time doing the most important work that's possible.
For videos and pictures please check my blog at http://elaine.worldcantwait.net