Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Bob Braun on Haiti

Photo by John Carroll

Haitians offer to share food, water and stories with American journalists after earthquake

By Bob Braun/Star-Ledger Columnist
January 19, 2010, 9:45PM

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — Nothing new — a group of men atop a collapsed building using whatever tools they have to try to find entombed family members.

But something odd happens when two Americans — les blancs, literally "whites," but a general term here for foreigners — arrive. One of the men gets angry.

Matt Rainey/The Star-LedgerPeople scavenge for Rebar in Petionville in this photo taken on Jan. 16.
"You come here to watch, but that is all you do," shouts the man. "You do not help. You do not bring water. You just watch."

He leaves the pile of rubble. Another man Delva Presendiem, pauses in his hot, exhausting and, ultimately, futile work.

"Do not worry about him," says Presendiem. "Please stay."

The incident was odd because, in six days here, his was the only angry face turned to me and my colleague Matt Rainey. During our brief stay, Haitians — in the worst moments of their lives — were kind, welcoming, and helpful. They opened their homes, offered to share what little food and water they had, and willingly told their stories.

Remember this if you read, hear, or even see accounts of violence or looting. We were all over this city — from Petionville on the mountain to the ghetto of Belair and the shanty town of Cite Soliel — and we did not witness one act of looting or violence.

Undoubtedly, some did occur, but all we saw were orderly, patient queues for water, for food at supermarkets, for medical care.

Haiti is not a violent country. The Canadian Foundation for the Americas put its murder rate in 2007 at 11 per 100,000 population — compared to 23.9 in Newark and 26.7 in the Dominican Republic, the nation that shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti.

"Haiti stands out in comparison to the rest of the region for low levels of violence," the foundation reported. Most violence is committed by "official actors" — the police and army among them — and 90 percent of all murders in the entire country occur in three neighborhoods in the capital city, it noted.

Veteran Star-Ledger columnist Bob Braun and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Matt Rainey are in Haiti covering the aftermath of the disaster


John Carroll, a physician from Peoria who works here, told me another reason on my first trip here in 2004 in the aftermath of the coup that brought down former President Bertrand Aristide. I was staying with him in a motel in Delmas, and he suggested we go out for beer and pizza. It was after dark, and I hesitated.

"This," he said, tapping on my bare arm. "Your white skin and your American citizenship. It protects you." A group of Haitians with us agreed.

Violence directed at, or in the presence of, Americans would only bring more suffering to Haiti, Carroll said. The U.S. Army occupied Haiti and ran it from 1915-1934 and, according to a U.S. Foreign Policy Association, the occupation was a "failure" because it brought on the subsequent dictatorship of Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier.

But there are other reasons. "Haitian people suffer in patience," says Jean Jacob Paul, a Presbyterian pastor who helped us when we first arrived here. "They share everything, including their misery."

Matt Rainey/The Star-LedgerHaitians in Port-au-Prince cover their faces from the smell of bodies in this photo taken Jan. 15.Of course, violence and theft occurs, and they may have occurred here since the earthquake, but we did not see it. On two occasions, we were surrounded by crowds and, to nervous les blancs, the scenes may have looked like incipient riots.

In the sprawling tent city outside the destroyed National Palace, we made rounds with doctors and nurses from Cuba. Homeless Haitians, mostly women, surrounded us, pressing their sick and injured children into our faces, begging for help. I explained we were not doctors, and they backed off and patiently waited for aid.

What would American mothers frantic about their injured or sick children do?

At the Second Baptist Church on Sunday, the pastor introduced us and told more than 100 congregants that we were interested in hearing stories about the disaster. Virtually everyone pressed in on us, handing us their identity cards to make spelling their lyrical but (for me) oddly spelled Creole names easier to write down.

I repeated pas besoin — no need — but it was useless. They wanted to help.

Americans remember 9/11 as a day of unprecedented fear and suffering. Although the disaster here was natural, not man-made, 1/12 affected far more Haitians. At least tens of thousands of people are dead and the nature and magnitude of the carnage has stripped away an important part of their culture.

Deaths are attended with considerable ceremony and large, extended family gatherings. Or were until last Tuesday. Pictures are taken of the deceased — dressed in expensive finery. On my last trip here, I watched helplessly as a 16-month-old baby girl died, apparently of meningitis. Carroll, the Illinois physician, could not save her.

"Now," he said, "her mother will spend a year’s income to bury her. She will wear a dress far prettier than anything she would have worn had she lived."

But, here now, the best that can be done is to wrap the dead in sheets and put them at the curb to wait, often alone, for the wandering garbage trucks to collect them to be dumped in a mass grave. That’s the best — the worst is the unattended corpses dumped on the street or lying half-buried in the rubble of a collapsed building.

Violence? Looting? Maybe some has occurred. Maybe more will. These are people steeped in wretched poverty before the earthquake — and now most have lost someone, they loved but cannot properly mourn. They have nothing to eat and nothing to drink, and they are surrounded by gawking, well-fed, well-watered les blancs, who probably soon will leave and forget Haiti until the next disaster.

What would happen here?

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