In Port-au-Prince, Life Goes On, as Does Suffering

I have crossed many borders in my life, and crossing the border from the Dominican Republic to Haiti on Monday, January 25, 2010 was one of the easiest I have seen. We were forewarned that the border is heavily militarized, that we had to provide evidence of vaccinations, and even that we had to give 24-hour notice before crossing the border.

However, crossing the border into Haiti was simply a matter of asking the person who was about to close the gate to leave it open for us. We were waved through and no one asked for our passports, our vaccination cards, the reason for our trip, or how long we planned to stay in the country. Crossing was so easy that we were not sure we were in Haiti until we saw two Haitian police officers standing outside the UN building in Malpasse.

We made it to the border a lot quicker than we thought we would. It took less than five hours to get to Jimani from Santo Domingo, and, an hour later we were at Croix-de-Bouquet, a town just outside Port-au-Prince. It was there we encountered our first problem — a major traffic jam. Aid trucks and vans coming in and out were blocking the way, and traffic was completely deadlocked.

We did not see any evidence that people are hijacking cars on the roads and stealing provisions, as we had been warned. Instead, we found many friendly people who guided us to our destination. We arranged to meet with our contacts in Croix-de-Bouquet.

In Croix-de-Bouquet, we began to see some of the destruction caused by the earthquake. Many houses were left standing, yet many others had been demolished. In general, however, life seemed to go on as usual. People were selling telephone cards, food, drinks, and other sundry items on the street.

Young men from the Dominican Civil Defense and police officers were trying to direct traffic in Croix-de-Bouquet, without much success. Finally, we were able to get through by going down a side road, and we made our way towards Port-au-Prince.

Driving along, we saw many destroyed buildings, and a lot of people in need. Relief efforts are underway, but they are not enough. Even if they were enough, there are little signs of how the city will begin to rebuild itself. People cannot live off of handouts of rice and beans forever, nor should they.

What’s more, the earth continues to tremble, keeping people in fear. In one day, there were three noticeable tremors. Each one shows the earth’s power and validates people’s fear that another terrible quake will occur. Geologists have confirmed that the earth has not finished settling and that another quake is likely.

Nevertheless, to the extent possible, people in Port-au-Prince continue with their daily routine. People with roadside stands set up shop where they can; police officers show up to work. However, many others are idle. Many businesses have been shut down because the building has been destroyed or rendered unusable. Schools are not operational because of damage. Many people are not going to work because their place of employment is not there any more.

At the same time, there is a lot of work to be done in Haiti. Some people are coordinating rescue efforts and cleaning up buildings and sweeping streets. Others are providing security for those who must sleep on the streets or in tent cities. Others are rebuilding walls or salvaging bricks from destroyed buildings.

The future of Port-au-Prince and of Haiti remain uncertain. Port-au-Prince needs not only to be rebuilt, but also to be built better. The poor building construction is one of the main reasons for the high mortality in the aftermath of the quake. There is much more work to be done, and, as yet, no clear plan for how it will be accomplished. There are many destroyed buildings and little organization in place for a plan to rebuild the city.

With the national palace and many important government buildings in ruins, there is barely a functioning government in Haiti. This makes organization difficult.

With many problems in providing relief, many people in Haiti continue to live with little food and in unsanitary conditions. On Wednesday, we saw a dead body lying by the side of the road, full of flies. Two weeks after the earthquake and no one had taken this corpse to the morgue or even to one of the many mass graves.

That is one image I can’t get out of my mind. Another is a destroyed school. It was a seven story building. During the earthquake, it shook so hard that it completely crumbled. The walls disintegrated and each floor fell on top of the other. People say that there was a room full of students in the basement, and that they likely have died slowly of thirst and hunger, as no one came to clear the building and rescue them.

The loss of life in that one school is a clear example of the fact that many lives were lost, not just because the earth shook, but because Haiti is a poor country. The incredibly poor quality of the seven story building meant that the walls crumbled under the weight of the ceilings. The lack of sufficient heavy machinery meant that there were not enough trucks to come and remove the rubble and potentially save the lives of the children and teachers in the basement.

The accumulated human suffering in Haiti is unfathomable to me. Although I have now left Haiti, images of destruction run like a slideshow through my mind. The fact that many of these deaths were preventable makes it worse. For these reasons, I am committed to doing what I can to ensure that this destruction does not reoccur. For that to happen, we cannot turn our eyes away from Haiti once the cameras are gone and the blood dries up. We must work to build a better Haiti and a better world — one in which people do not die because of poverty and inequality.

Tanya Golash-Boza is on the faculty at the University of Kansas. Read other articles by Tanya, or visit Tanya's website.

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  1. mary said on February 2nd, 2010 at 4:34pm #

    Unbelievably the Canadian Maclean’s Magazine have published an article by their Editor-at-Large stating that there was a ‘golden age’ in Haiti when it was occupied by the US from 1915-1934 . Joe Emersberger has taken the author to task most effectively in this exchange by using his greater knowledge of the history.

    I know nothing about Macleans (in the UK it is a brand of toothpaste!) and assume that the contents of these paragraphs on Wikipedia are accurate. ‘White’ is obviously the colour both the magazine and the toothpaste people prefer.

    ‘The post-2001 period has been marked by a sharp swing to the right in the magazine’s editorial views, and an aggressive tabloid-like tone in its articles, giving them a resemblance to the type of writing seen in the National Post, with whom Maclean’s now shares some writers, and of the newspapers formerly owned by Conrad Black.

    Noted Maclean’s contributors during its incarnation as a newsweekly have included columnists Barbara Amiel, Allan Fotheringham, Paul Wells, Mark Steyn, and Andrew Coyne.’


    ‘In December 2007, the Canadian Islamic Congress launched complaints with the Canadian Human Rights Commission, British Columbia Human Rights Commission, and the Ontario Human Rights Commission against Maclean’s accusing it of publishing 18 articles between January 2005 and July 2007 that they considered Islamophobic in nature including a column by Mark Steyn titled “The future belongs to Islam.” According to the CIC complaint (as discussed in a National Post article by Ezra Levant): Maclean’s is “flagrantly Islamophobic” and “subjects Canadian Muslims to hatred and contempt.” In contrast, Levant says of the complainants that they are “illiberal censors who have found a quirk in our legal system, and are using it to undermine our Western traditions of freedom.”

    On October 10, 2008, the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal dismissed the allegations of “hate speech” made by the Canadian Islamic Congress.[citation needed] Maclean’s consistently took the position that Mr. Steyn’s article, an excerpt from his best-selling book, America Alone, is a worthy contribution to an important debate on geopolitical and demographic issues.[citation needed]’

    PS The charity record that Simon Cowell has produced for Haiti has been released today. A remake of ‘Everybody Hurts’. The poor people of Haiti are most definitely still hurting but I guess Cowell’s bank balances are as healthy as ever. Why and how do these (minor?) slebs get on bandwagons? I hear that the same sort of thing is going on in the US.