Inside Haiti

A local reporter sifts through the rubble.

By Susan Phillips
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 2 | Posted Feb. 2, 2010

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It’s here, on the heliport that I meet Michael, who tells me he works for the Peace Corps—but not really—and won’t give a last name. “It’s complicated,” he says. Nevertheless, he agrees to find me a ride to Port-au-Prince with the group of volunteers in yellow vests and orange hats. The group turns out to be pastors with the evangelical Christian Church of God in Santo Domingo. Most are middle-aged men, but Jessie, who speaks English and grew up on Long Island, is a young woman in her thirties. Another teenage girl from Indiana is also on the bus. She says her stepfather is starting a Church of God mission in another Dominican town. They’re traveling with a truckload of supplies for their seminary in Port-au-Prince where the grounds have been converted into a refugee camp. I decide to go along with them. They have no intel, and unlike the doctors, seem unconcerned with security. The bus chugs along a single dirt road toward the border, one of many aid trucks stuck in a traffic jam inching through the gates without any attempt on the part of border guards to check I.D’s. On the other side, desperate Haitians press against the gate.

Soon, steep white cliffs appear. A single man with a pickaxe slowly mines the substance, which looks to be some sort of construction material. Small villages of thatched huts with tin roofs dot the landscape. The shores of a lake come right up to the road, sometimes causing large pools to form. The driver says no one knows why the lake is rising. A few boys fish with a bird impaled on the end of an unwound hanger. Residents sit and watch the cavalcade of trucks go by. They wear secondhand T-shirts sent from the United States, bearing the slogans of American rock bands, prep schools and golf classics. There seem to be none of the security threats along the road that were feared by the doctors. Once in Port-au-Prince we stop for a bathroom break. Soon a group of men flashing their driver’s licenses surround another reporter and me, begging for work.  One comes up very close, points to his bloodshot eye and asks if I have eye ointment.

Port-au-Prince looks as if a massive bombing raid just took place. Buildings, lacking the rebar so common at construction sites just across the border in the Dominican Republic, lie flattened. Thousands of people walk down the streets, stepping over the rubble or sorting through it. The pastors have suddenly turned into disaster tourists, snapping pictures of suffering Haitians from inside the bus. In return, the Haitians implore them for help. The bus drives on. Signs along the streets read, in English and Spanish, “S.O.S. help us we need food and water,” and include telephone numbers and directions to nearby encampments. The need feels overwhelming to me and to the pastors. But no one threatens to hijack the bus and take the cases of soda and cans of hotdogs, part of the pastor’s private stash.

Finally, up a long rugged road at the top of a hill, we find the camp. About 800 people, mostly children, sleep under trees where clothes hang to dry on the branches. Some have created makeshift cooking stoves, a few have tarps to shade them from the sun. Pastor Valentine seems to be the guy in charge. He speaks Creole through a bullhorn, trying to keep order as the first truckload arrives with water and supplies since the earthquake struck 10 days ago. A man with dark sunglasses and a shotgun walks around the camp with a menacing look. Two policemen walk by. A human supply chain is formed to unload the truck, where men toss cartons of water bottles to each other and small boys scramble to grab anything that falls by the wayside.

Small children dominate this camp. They smile for the camera, but their mothers are less exhuberant; they sit and wait. They’re angry that they have nothing to feed their children. No one has come to help them. Others appear to be in shock. A man in a Led Zeppelin T-shirt tells me he lost his mother, his wife and two small children. He sits forlorn, with his only surviving son, who appears malnourished. Off in a corner, one woman holds her niece on her lap, braiding her hair and singing.

Haitians in Port-au-Prince refer to the earthquake as “the thing.” This “thing” took the lives of more than 100,000 people. But for the survivors, it took their homes, their jobs, their schools, their legs, their arms, their children, their parents.

Back on the bus the pastors are quiet as they make their way back toward the Dominican Republic. Once they get close, they break out in prayer. I’m not sure if it’s for those they left behind, or if it’s because the gates of Jimaní are in their sights. ■

Susan Phillps is a reporter at WHYY.

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1. Cin said... on Feb 2, 2010 at 08:23PM

“Thanks for your story. I leave for Jimani on Saturday for a couple of weeks. I very much appreciated your insight. Good job and God bless.”

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2. Pierre F. Lherisson said... on Feb 3, 2010 at 06:06PM

“This has been a daunting task.”

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