A Reservist looks back at Haiti after the Earthquake

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. James Bishop
  • 439th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
The rock in the water does not know the pain of the rock in the sun.
-Haitian Proverb

Nearly three years after Haiti's lethal earthquake, and the 439th Airlift Wing's humanitarian response, I visited the recovering country.

On January 12, 2010, a magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti, with the epicenter just 15 miles west of Port-au-Prince, killing more than 300,000 and leaving about one million homeless. Within three days, the 439th Airlift Wing flew emergency supplies to Homestead Air Reserve Base, Fla., to transport to Port-au-Prince as part of Operation Unified Response.

I traveled on leave with my nephew, Dr. Ben Fredrick, President of Thriving Villages International and head of the Global Health Center at Penn State Hershey. For 12-14 hours each day, Ben met with politicians, health workers, nuns, priests, Kazaks (a sort of justice of the peace), teachers, patients, and more to provide access to clean water, basic health care, nutrition and education in the remote coastal area of Pestel. He finds any way he can to save and improve lives in some of the most impoverished villages in the western hemisphere.

I'd read about Haiti and given money to help. But visiting was fundamentally different. As the time drew near, a sense of dread crept over me. Anything I read about Haiti said the small republic held layers of danger for visitors. Since the 2010 earthquake, the U.S. State Department has maintained a travel warning for cholera and urges people not to travel to Haiti for "nonessential" trips. If there was no revolt going on, as in 2004, or natural disaster, there were kidnappings, lack of medical care, even nasty intestinal infections from a stray sip of local water. But the cholera epidemic, which broke out after the earthquake and has killed 7,500 so far, scared me most.

We arrived Oct. 6 in Port-au-Prince. The city is a sensory assault. Car horns blare, goats bleat and roosters crow. Porters elbowed in and grabbed our bags, then asked for more than the five dollars apiece we gave them. Outside the airport's gated walls, the markets are strewn with garbage. I saw one tall, well-dressed man carrying a dead chicken by the feet. Police and ambulances are rare. The well-dressed beauty of the Haitian people stands in stark contrast to the dusty shoes and fly-covered meat for sale in the market. Haiti seems a contradiction of beauty and ugliness.

That night we were preparing for the long trip to our main destination: the remote area of Pestel on the southwest side of the island. Evens, the Haitian translator, Eliab, the driver, "Dokté Ben" and I pulled into a "National" gas station to exchange dollars for gourdes, the Haitian currency, and to fill up for the trip. A man wearing navy blue pants tucked into combat boots stood by the door holding a shotgun.

We pumped $100 worth of gas into our red Toyota 4-Runner. Afterwards, I heard an animated discussion in Creole between our driver and the attendant. Then we drove off without paying. The man clutching the shotgun watched us go. I asked Evens what we were doing.

"We're going to exchange the dollars at another station where the rate is better and then return to pay him."

"He trusts us to come back?" I asked.

"He knows we will. If we did not come back, he would lose a month's salary," Evens said, settling the matter for him. Basically, we wouldn't do that to a brother, he said. That was the first of many lessons: in Haiti, other people matter. A lot. In the midst of the smell and rubble that still isn't fully cleared away, we saw the hope of something solid in Haiti.

The next morning, Sunday, we left at 5:30. We passed people in the pre-dawn, women walking in crisp white dresses and men in bright shirts, ties, and dark pants, and busloads of people dressed for church. We heard loud singing from one the many churches we passed, and for the next seven hours we heard singing resonate from roadside churches.

Three hours into the trip, we picked up Sonny, my translator, and continued into the mountains. (Haiti - Ayiti - means "land of high mountains" in Creole.) Just before we reached the crest of the mountain pass, the paved road ended and became a rocky, washed-out riverbed.

Traveling in the mountains was bone-jarring but beautiful. Lush mountains rose beyond other mountains until they disappeared into the horizon. We passed small houses with coffee beans drying in the front yard. Young children lugged water jugs up the mountain pass.

In the small mountain town of Duchity, we stopped to buy bananas from a roadside vendor. Later, Ben told me that the town had an outbreak of cholera the previous week.

After three hours of dodging rocks and the fast-moving, brightly-colored buses that zoomed by, we reached the coastal village of Pestel and we put up at Madam Jacques, a house-hotel. She ran her generator for an hour - there is no electricity in town unless you produce it yourself - and we went to bed, if not to sleep.

At night the sounds resonated through our open rooms. The dogs have ganged up on one yipping mongrel tonight. There's music and laughing a few feet away. The roosters that run in the town start their calls around 2:30 a.m. Others reply.

During the day, smells permeate the heat. My own body odor. My companions'. The acrid smoke from thousands of slow-burning charcoal fires Haitians use for cooking. The clean ocean smell and the smell of the forest after a rainstorm.

The next morning, after a breakfast of seafood, homemade juice, and plantain, Ben told me, "When Haitians pray and say thank you for our daily bread, they're literally thankful for their daily bread in a way we can't know."

He went off to meet with 19 trained health care workers. They are the core of what makes his organization effective. Instead of setting up a clinic and waiting for people to come, Ben hired people from Pestel who go into the area's 240 remote villages and distribute Vitamin A and deworming drugs. They also do immunizations and measure children's upper arms for signs of malnutrition. Not only do workers reach 7,000 village kids in a way no blan - white person - could, but the jobs pump essential income into the local economy.

On Monday, I interviewed Elmina, a 26-year-old mother of five who lives in the mountains above Pestel. Sister Fidelis, the hero-nun who came to Pestel in 2001 and stayed, doing everything she can to improve life in Pestel, brought me to their tiny house.

While Elmina's younger children laughed and played in front of their tin-roofed house made of interwoven stalks, measuring no more than 10 by 20 feet, she spoke about her life. She's able to send three of her kids to school, which costs 250 gourdes a year - $6.25 American. Though she hasn't been able to pay for school, the nuns and teachers still let them come.

They rise at 6 a.m. "Sometimes we eat breakfast," she told my translator. "When we have it." "What do you eat?" I asked.

"Anything, whatever we find," Elmina said. "Plantain." They drink rainwater from an old cistern at a relative's house during the wet season. When it's dry, she walks for two hours to get water.

Her situation sounds tragic, but it would be a distortion to call Elmina anything but happy. She breast-fed her two-month-old daughter while she spoke. "Even though I don't have money I don't let it get myself down too much."

For entertainment, Elmina said she tells jokes with her family, sings, dances, and does homework with her daughter.

I asked what her favorite time of day is.

"I like the whole day," Elmina said. Then added, "Noon. Because then I pray."

On Tuesday, we went to the nearby island of Grande Cayemite, which is also part of the Pestel region. Sanon Fleury, one of the 19 medical workers, proudly showed us his small house on the beach, which he built with money he earned working for Thriving Villages. He had someone scurry up a tree, drop coconuts, and cut them apart with a machete for us.

Grande Cayemite Island held the sharpest contrast of my trip. Children swam in the ocean, laughing and waving. On a porch, men played dominoes, shouting so loudly I thought a fight was breaking out. At the island village of Boucan Philippe, pigs and goats grazed - and defecated - near pools of standing water while people walked by barefoot.

"See that?" Ben said, pointing to pebbles of goat feces near the water. "That's a recipe for disease."

At Point Sable on the island, we saw one child with the swollen head characteristic of hydrocephalus. Ben knelt by the crying boy, rubbing his head. He explained to the mother that her son would have to travel without her to the hospital, undergo a long procedure, and stay for up to a year in recovery. "I can't promise, but if you want I can try to make this happen. Do you want me to try?"

"Oui." Soft voice. "Yes."

Later, Ben told me, "I hate it when things happen to children. I just hate it. I don't know God's will in everything. But I know Pestel should have clean water. I know the children should have food and education. These are no-brainers."

Ben's white skin and tall frame assures that he is noticed. As we left Anse a Macon, an island village of about 3,500 people, Simon, a lanky man in his 30s, approached Ben, upset. He said the village needs help.

"What are your biggest needs?" asked Ben.

A clinic, a school beyond the 5th grade, Evens translated. "He says that a 34-year-old died in childbirth in a dugout canoe on the way to Pestel for medical help." The baby survived; the father takes care of him.

A crowd had gathered. Simon was talking and gesturing loudly.

In the center of town, a school building sits unused because there is no teacher. It was built in 1986.

"Do any charitable organizations or churches help?" asked Ben.

"Okenn. Okenn," Simon said in Creole. "None. None."

At Pointe Sable, the third island village we visited, while Ben met with medical workers, I took a photo of Parchouco and Jean-Kerry smiling widely, arms around each other. Parchouco had lost his left leg during the 2010 earthquake and moved to the island from Port-au-Prince. I had expected to see the poverty and the tragic situations, had braced myself for it, and I was still shocked. I hadn't expected the smiles, the ubiquitous laughter and games.

We rode back to Pestel in a yellow fiberglass boat. On the way back to the mainland, Ben told me, "I think it's important professionally and spiritually to get way out of your comfort zone. None of this is anywhere near my comfort zone." As if on cue, a crackling thunderstorm started pummeling the shore right where we were headed.

"Will we make it before the rain?" we asked.

"We'll make it," the captain said, smiling.

"Before the rain?"

"No, no. We'll get wet."

Between lightning cracks, the captain said some of the beached boats we see along the shoreline were abandoned by drug runners being chased by the police. "They just ditch the boat and run," he said, and gestured to his own boat, "This is one."

On Wednesday I visited Dr. Seneque Phillippe. He's the town's only doctor, and until recently the only doctor for the 240 towns and 70,000 people in the greater Pestel region. His clinic employs 25 staff, one other doctor for HIV cases, and four nurses.

"When health care was free, we saw 100 people a day. Now it varies," he said. "People can't pay." The day before we spoke, Dr. Seneque had seen a young man brought in from the island with a skin infection. He had no money, no parents. He gave the man medicine, then sent him home with food.

"I'm not rich," he told me. "In this community, there is only one social class: poor. If I were a materialist, I would have stayed in Mexico or moved to Port-au-Prince."

I wish I could introduce you to the principal at St. Clare school in Carrefour Citron who said only three of his six teachers receive a small salary. "This caused teachers to suffer a lot," he said. "Teachers do not consider themselves working here but doing a service to the community. Still, they need a small salary to survive." I wish I could introduce you to Evens Lanot, who manages the projects in-country for Thriving Villages International. He speaks seven languages, has gone to law school, and donates his salary to the orphanage where he volunteers.

We visited Nelson, a 17-year-old heart patient who had lived with Ben and his wife in Pennsylvania while recovering from heart surgery. The bioprosthetic heart valve surgeons had implanted six years earlier was failing. He would need another. It was a hard conversation. The surgeon wanted to put in a metal heart valve, but that would mean taking strong blood thinners and being closely monitored for the rest of his life, which would be difficult in America and impossible in Pestel. When we were preparing to leave, they offered us lunch. It would have been an insult to refuse. But the risk of intestinal infection was high. We both got hit hard by that evening. Stomach cramps, diarrhea, sleepless night. It hurt, and we had good medicine. The next day, Ben excused himself from a meeting, passed out in the bathroom, then returned to finish the meeting.

Beauty and ugliness mingled in each area we visited. In Port-au-Prince, magazine-model good looking people in bright clothes stepped over garbage in the dusty streets. In Pestel, the calm expanse of ocean reached the village of Point Sable, where malnourished children sat on porches.

On our return to Port-au-Prince, we passed the presidential palace, still in ruins from the earthquake. Evens said that the cleanup and the economy are moving forward.

"Is it as good as pre-earthquake levels," Ben asked.

"I think it's better than it was just before the earthquake," Evens said. "But there's still a long way to go."

Coming back to the U.S., I experienced reverse culture-shock, glad to see paved highways, indoor plumbing and reliable electricity. At first, I was hesitant to drink tap water again.
Stuck in traffic around New York City, I found myself wondering which is the true Haiti: the happy people and beautiful land, or the dire poverty and substandard health care?
Remarkably, from the little I've seen, it's both.