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Reporter’s Notebook: Memories from Haiti, One Year After the Quake

Ray Suarez in Haiti, July 2010

This past summer, I stood at the edge of a fetid pool of standing water. Marooned in the middle of the deepening pool were two forlorn soccer goals, indicating a place that wasn’t always under water. On a raised berm of soil at the water’s edge were maybe 50 tents, pushed into a corner of what had been a more roomy tent settlement before the rains came and the waters rose.

Children scampered amidst the crazy criss-cross of ropes holding up the tents, darting in and out of the tiny lanes created by people who were both trying to stay above water and create a little space between the makeshift shelters.

An EU aid agency had supplied a water container. It was an enormous tank that could be filled by a passing water truck, but too small for a settlement this size. It sat flopped on the edge of the stagnant water like a beached whale, and after each family filled a plastic jug from the spigot at one end, it dropped into the filthy water.

The observers from an international relief agency wanted a foreign reporter to see the terrible conditions, but seemed unaware of how impotent it made them seem. I was told they were looking for another place to move people, but landowners alarmed by the rampant squatting all around Port-au-Prince were now strongly asserting their claims, so it was difficult.

At that moment, all the futility, all the suffering, all the good will, and all the furious but inept activity of the Haitian capital was laid bare.

A sweet, decent, and increasingly worried Renald Derazin, the only camp resident who spoke English, was describing his accidental little community and its sufferings. He told me of repeated visits to aid agencies and government offices. The kids were getting sick. Biting insects were breeding in the water. His beautiful little daughter was among the children playing among the tents. After she had fallen and knocked over a pot of boiling water, the girl was waiting with Derazin’s wife for treatment in a hospital emergency room on January 12. The ground started shaking, the two fled, and the emergency room collapsed. The horrifying scalding was never properly treated. A scar ran from her thigh to her armpit. It was hard to look at without wincing.

Watch my visit to Derazin’s camp below:

There was the crowding. The water. The children. The helplessness of people who had little to begin with, and now had even less. The concern, and at that point inaction of international aid workers.

Americans tend to look at even the worst situation through a “can-do” lens. Surely there’s something everyone can manage to improve their situation? As I talked to Renald I thought to myself, “OK, smart guy… what? You get on a plane and come to see these people’s misery so you can tell others about it. Now what?” This group of mostly women and children had managed for six months since their houses had been reduced to rubble, their modest possessions and their employment swept away. What was their next play?

As we took our pictures, joked with the children, and wished Derazin good luck he had a modest request. “Can we be Facebook friends?” Modest, and surreal. And yes, today we are Facebook friends. A man living in a tent at the edge of a pond of standing drainage water somehow gets to another part of the city, to a place where there’s electricity, to a place where there’s internet service, and now chats to his friends around the world. You can’t make it up.

We Americans live in a way that is admired, envied, and still can’t fully be imagined by Haitians. We have our complaints, sure, but even in the perilous time we’re living through most things work most of the time. Almost all the time in fact.

The last time you visited your bank, it had your correct balance and a correct accounting of your last deposits. If you own a house, your County Recorder of Deeds knows you own it, has a record that indicates it, and this can easily be verified if it has to be. When you picked up your phone it had a dial tone. The electricity stayed on all last night.

For many Haitians, these aspects of unremarkable daily life were a luxury even before the earthquake, and became unattainable after it. Many police heroically continued to work without pay after January 12, and the people they picked up for this and that languished uncharged in packed jails because there were few operating courts to hear their cases. Electricity disappeared in much of a city of millions. Hundreds of thousands of children were at loose ends because schools had simply ceased to exist.

One by one, the small details of existence that are almost invisible to us because of their reliability are being restored. The sheer size of the task has been overwhelming. I sometimes wondered whether the capacity of the Haitian people for adaptation and suffering hardship hadn’t cut the government and the international aid community a massive break. Was fixing a smashed society allowed to take a long time because people were somehow muddling through?

What little capacity the Haitian government had on January 12 was pulverized by the earthquake. To cover Haiti is to be reminded again and again: Too many dichotomies are false ones. The response doesn’t have to be either heroic, thorough, and competent — or insufficient, disorganized and diffuse. It can be both.

The Haitian government doesn’t have to be hardworking, caring, and capable — or corrupt, venal, and clumsy. It can be both.

In February, I reported on the NewsHour and on this website that temporary shelters would grow more permanent over time, and that hastily erected camps would become more like towns the longer they were allowed to stand. Watch an excerpt from that report below:

By July that had come true. For thousands, the camps offered a better shot at regular meals, medical care and clean water than many Port-au-Prince neighborhoods. For a time the camps offered a safer option than deserted neighborhoods and shaky buildings. However, if it’s not already here, the day must surely be coming when the camps must be dismantled and cleared.

Gangs have started to run many of the settlements. Rape and robbery are still a problem. The outbreak of cholera has only intensified the need to get hundreds of thousands off the streets. The live and let live decency that marked life in the camps for months has a limit, just as the Haitian patience for action inevitably must.

As I see televised images from Port-au-Prince and read the latest reporting, I think of Rachelle Garnier, who was living with her pre-schooler son in a camp near the international airport. She caught my eye when she emerged from a crowd of hungry people and tried to help South American relief workers distribute family food rations. Watch her in action in the excerpt below:

Eventually, they had to give up. There was too little security, and too much demand, and Garner had to return to her shelter of bedsheets and tree branches empty-handed. Has she been able to keep her son safe? Has she been able to get the food she needs? Medical care for the little boy?

From the beginning, we were told by Haitians and international groups that the recovery “had to be” a Haitian-run affair. I understood why that was such an article of faith. Work is capacity building. Citizens will “own” the capital projects of outsiders if they’re given a stake. Someday, the foreigners will go home, and Haitians will become the custodian of all that was left behind. The people are desperate for any work, so go and make them partners in their own rescue.

It has all turned out to be so much easier said than done.

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