Saturday, Jan. 16, 2010

Into an Angry Land: The Land Route Into Ravaged Haiti

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 

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 

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."