Getting to Port-au Prince isn't easy. A photographer and I flew into Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic with which Haiti shares the island of Hispaniola, at times much in the way North and South Korea share a peninsula. It was then a 150-mile plus drive to ground zero of the earthquake's wrath, downtown Port-au-Prince.
The Dominican Republic's sparsely populated western frontier is like a large natural reserve some minor shaking more than 20 miles inland hardly affected its flora and fauna. Green hills like giant iguanas, their crested backs rubbing against cotton ball clouds, stand untroubled by the travails of the people below. Its beauty is paradoxical the moment you realize you have entered the scene of one of the worst natural disasters to hit the Americas in living memory.
The first clue that we were approaching catastrophe came while we were still on the Dominican side: three Blackhawk helicopters circled overhead, wheels down as if they might at any moment swoop in to land. And, in fact, when we came to the Dominican town of Jimani, there they were in a field. Snapping pictures in front of them and looking as if they'd just stepped out of a bus in Orlando, Florida clothes immaculate, not a bandage in sight, children playing tag were 32 missionaries. According to Rey Fontanez, a National Guard Reserve captain out of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the U.S. Army was evacuating the missionaries to San Isidro, a Dominican Air Force base. His unit of three Blackhawks was the first U.S. military assistance on scene after the earthquake hit, safely bearing away three severely wounded U.S. Embassy staff.
The missionaries declined to be interviewed. But one large man whined several times, "I'm hungry." Behind the field and past the occasional wandering goat lay a municipal building where the United Nations had set up a temporary office and the Jimani hospital, which more than 7,000 injured Haitians were currently calling home, according to Leocardio Alcantera, an Adventist pastor working at the hospital. They crammed the floors and lay on pallets in the halls. Ambulances, often not more than large tuk-tuks colorfully painted semi-trucks converted into mini-buses dropped off more sick and injured. A new vehicle pulled in every 60 seconds or so; and, each time, men would jump out, carefully handing down victims carried on sheets and duvets.
They were all part of the traffic from the Haitian side of the border. As we drove the last 60 kilometers to Port-au-Prince we passed what was the longest line of "emergency vehicles" some defined only by frantic honking and waving of red bandanas any of us had ever seen. Among them were also what looked to be upscale Haitians in a mix of swanky Land Rovers and Lexus SUVs, most with tinted windows. Under the glare of international attention, the Dominicans have been friendlier to their neighbors than usual (even though the border was briefly closed on Thursday). No passports were checked as we passed through immigration and no searches were performed by customs. As we drove through wrought-iron gates topped with snarling barbed wire, a man yelled in English, "God help you."
Leaving the Dominican Republic and entering Haiti is as abrupt as ocean meeting desert. The country's green forests were long ago slashed and burned, giving way to dry, brown hills scarred from mining and from mudslides caused by deforestation. The valley floor is barren, over-farmed long before the devastating earthquake. Our caravan was composed of four Adventist Development and Relief Agency semi-trucks, a bus chartered by GlobalMedic a Canadian NGO and a rented SUV. We were packed with water purification devices to help alleviate the shortage of clean drinking water in Port-au-Prince.
We arrived at the city outskirts without incident. A few routines appear to have come back. Some local buses had resumed routes. The Parisien Salon and a local hardware store were operating. But downtown lay in ruins. Pounded by rubble, the once-paved roads, even though cleared of large pieces of debris, were still so thick with concrete dust that they looked and felt like dirt roads as we wound through the carnage.
We saw only one international rescue team but plenty of local Haitians digging through the rubble for their loved ones. In one narrow alley a man knelt with a hammer over a tiny wooden coffin, the bloated body of what looked to be a heavily pregnant lady beside him, wedged between two other corpses. An older woman, who looked to have been fleeing with her possessions, lay amidst suitcases and stuffed plastic bags, legs stiff with rigor mortis. Nearly half of the Port-au-Prince residents we saw sported white moustaches of pungent spices to ward off the smells of death and raw sewage. "Put down the camera and help us," yelled one man in English. "F---- you," screamed another.
That Haitians are angry that aid hasn't come more swiftly is evident everywhere you look. "I am your property, nothing else," sneered a girl, sponge bathing out of buckets with a group of topless friends. Nearly all of Port-au-Prince's three million residents have been reduced to street-side bathing out of buckets of dodgy water. What looks to be half the city is living in tents on sidewalks, boulevard medians and every other square inch of space. "The sky has already fallen, and now you come," bemoaned a teary man in French, arms outstretched as if to God, as our caravan passed. "Too late, too late."