Bleeding Heart

25 Jan

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.

4 Responses to “Bleeding Heart”

  1. greg robie 25 January, 2010 at 10:25 am #

    “the humanitarian imperative” (a phrase used in the previous entry) is a concept that—and with whether we can (or cannot) remaining an open question—could benefit from an emotional parsing*. When a heart bleeds, what does one understand?

    An attempt, an haiku for Haiti et al:

    go(o)d’s ’bout me?

    I must do something
    even should that be nothing
    compassion’s deceit

    * an oxymoron; a moral meme’s Catch 22

  2. Holli 25 January, 2010 at 3:01 pm #

    Wow – being there, I can imagine how sick you would be of all the peanut gallery comments and complaints!!

    I can’t believe Wyclef.. pathetic!! Since when was Hollywood an expert on Aid?!

  3. Moi 26 May, 2011 at 2:55 pm #

    I follow your blog and very much enjoy reading your posts. Sometimes you peeve me off because I find you can get a little arrogant about aid work, but i continue to read, so clearly, I appreciate more than I dislike. I’ve just come from Haiti – i think I saw enough aid worker arrogance and territorial behaviour to make me never want to be an aid worker. (I was working in an aid capacity and decided for 101 reasons I didn’t want to stay… definitely not in Haiti, possibly not in aid work). Reading your post just now, I had a question pop into my mind. You were working in Haiti and yet, you don’t speak French? I’m curious who you were working with because the majority of Haitians can’t even speak French, just Creole, and even the educated ones I met generally spoke French and really struggled with English beyond a very basic level. I saw this with many aid workers… over and over, no French. Maybe aid workers shouldn’t be shuffled around on 6-month (or shorter) assignments because that doesn’t give them sufficient local context, including a chance to learn the basics of the local language. Granted, I’m new to the world of aid work, but it seems counter-intuitive to me that people are being sent all over the world to help, hopefully in a way that “empowers” and “includes” locals, and yet, immediately, the majority of locals are shut out of the aid process because they don’t speak the language of the aid workers. Is that weird?


  1. Haiti revisited « Tales From the Hood - 21 May, 2011

    […] Bleeding Heart – call me “bleeding heart.” You wouldn’t be totally wrong. […]

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