Port-au-Prince. 24 January. Earthquake + 11: I had the opportunity to get out and around Port-au-Prince a bit in the process of wrapping up a number of work-related errands.
While I’m patently against bringing in non-aid workers just to have a “look-see” (I think calling Madame Secretary Clinton’s visit “assessment” was somewhere between idiotic and hilarious. She came to take a look and gain a general sense for how bad things are. But she didn’t assess squat. At least not in the sense that aid workers know the term.), I do think that it is incredibly important for those involved in the effort in-country, even in more support positions, to see the terrain, see up close and in person what they’re working for.
Dramatic pictures and emotive narrative reports and huge numbers are simply incapable of conveying what the reality is. And that was my experience today.
It was not pretty.
I can say without exaggerating that downtown Port-au-Prince looks like a war zone. It looks like a scene from “Enemy At the Gates” or a WWII documentary. It is blocks and blocks of piles of rubble. Buildings collapsed on top of themselves, partially or fully.
Most of the corpses have been cleaned up. But the smell of death emanates from beneath piles of concrete. Some places it’s stronger than others, but once you have “that smell” in your nose, you can’t totally lose it and it makes you a bit paranoid. Whether walking or driving through the streets, you catch it for a moment. At those moments the other person in the car will make eye contact and say something like, “is it just me?” And I’ll say, “no, I’m getting it, too…” And we’ll get quiet for a minute.
Near the end we visited the big stadium in Port-au-Prince. It’s getting emptier now. But still, a big, ramshackle looking tent city on the astro-turf. Everyone looked at us with what I took as suspicion at first. Then one kid – a small boy, maybe 6 years old – cracked a smile. I smiled and shook his hand. Then a small girl with braided hair and gorgeous big brown eyes giggled behind her hand. And then everyone was smiling and laughing at my utterly crappy two sentences of French, and calling the colleague with me “Chinois” (that’s funny because she’s Sri Lankan).
I know that this country has a tortured past and a conflicted and complicated present and that horrible things have happened there because of, or perhaps despite the “help” that’s come from other countries. I can’t claim extensive knowledge of, or deep connection to, or love of this region. I’ve spent my career focusing primarily on Asia and more recently the Middle East.
But in that moment my heart bled for Haiti.