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The former Haitian ruler Jean Claude Duvalier once said, "It is the destiny of the people of Haiti to suffer."
That was one of the things I read among my notes as we traveled down to Haiti on the night of Jan. 12, 2010. The quote sounded fatalistic and unfair. How can an entire population be destined to suffer?
But the more you learn about Haiti, the more you realize the situation most Haitians are born into is a cruel semblance of life in the Western hemisphere. There are mobile phones and internet connections and television programs. There's an understanding of what life is like in most Western nations, but life doesn't look like that in the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, and Haitians are well aware of that fact.
When we landed on the tarmac in Port-au-Prince, one of the first planes to arrive that morning, the first person I saw was a woman in a wheelchair whose head was completely bandaged in bloody rags. She was one of the lucky ones. She was being flown to the Dominican Republic for medical help. I asked her companion where she had been when the earthquake struck. "She worked at the Citibank building," he told me. It's been flattened." We decided to drive there and set up for our broadcast.
Haiti's President Rene Preval was also on the tarmac. He wasn't wounded, but seemed lost and wondered aloud when help would arrive.
It had been 14 hours since the 7.0 quake had struck. The tarmac was eerily empty.
We met up with Sebastian Petion, our driver, an all-around great person I have stayed in touch with, and he took us through the streets of Port-au-Prince. It's so hackneyed to say it looked like a disaster film, but when that's your only frame of reference, it's difficult to come up with adjectives other than "surreal." A building completely intact stood next to one that had pancaked. People were working with tiny pick axes in a slow, painstaking effort to dig through the rubble. Some walked through the streets on a kind of mass exodus to nowhere. It was strangely silent. No ambulances, fire trucks or rescue workers. As I quickly learned, these kinds of services don't exist in Haiti. And then, of course, there were the bodies lying everywhere. Some were covered by blankets. Others were wrapped in aluminum siding. They seemed as commonplace as strewn litter on the streets and sidewalks. One side street was transformed into a makeshift morgue as someone lined up body after body, death with no dignity. I will never forget the image of one woman, lying face down, stacked on other bodies, her arm sticking straight up. She was wearing black underwear.
The Citibank overlooked a makeshift tent city, a place where some of the 1.5 million people who became homeless in an instant set up a temporary dwelling. That first night, shortly after the broadcast, people in the camp below us were singing songs that sounded joyful, like gospel music but in Creole.
Sebastian told us they were singing because they were happy to be alive.
Within walking distance, Doctors Without Borders had set up a medical tent. What I found there were patients without doctors. At that point very few had arrived, and the personnel and supplies they had were no match for the carnage and devastation on the ground.
I walked into a Belgian clinic set up by B-Fast, emergency responders from Belgium. Under the hospital tent I saw people on stretchers on the grass in front of a hospital. There I met Pierre Larousse, who was 13 at the time, a skinny kid with a handsome face, wearing boxers and a T-shirt. His eyes were swollen, he had a big scrape on his forehead and he was clearly in excruciating pain. Doctors were trying to reset his broken leg, no anesthesia and no plaster cast available. His parents were dead. His cries penetrated all else. They were deafening. "Why, God, why?" he screamed in Creole.
All I could think to do was to hold his hand and calm him as I would my own child.
We left four days later, and the next week we ended up in Miami to meet some of the injured who were evacuated to hospitals like Jackson Memorial, which I knew well from my days as a reporter for local TV in that city.
I met Romel Joseph at that hospital. He's a Haitian man who has loved Tchaikovsky since he was a child. Romel plays violin and made it to Miami, where he raised his lovely daughter Victoria and started a music school. But he also runs a school in Haiti and was there when the ground shook on Jan. 12. Many of his students, and his new wife, were killed. He was crushed under debris and when I met him it was unclear if he would ever play again.
Further up the Florida coast I met Erin Kloos. She had gone to Haiti as a volunteer, and on the day of the earthquake her brother Ryan was there for a visit. Erin was trapped in rubble for 12 hours, sustaining crushing injuries. She lived. Ryan died.
I returned to Haiti six months after the quake and found little had changed. Of the 1.5 million people displaced, fewer than half have found a new home. Many still live in refugee camps. In fact, as we approach the one-year anniversary, Oxfam reports only 5 percent of the rubble has been cleared. In the tent cities, cholera and crime threaten the already devastated populations. Amnesty International found that more than 250 rapes occurred in just the first five months after the quake.
On this one-year anniversary, Sebastian wrote to me to say he's still very worried about life in Haiti. He said 80 percent of the schools were destroyed in the quake and many people, particularly those in tent cities, see no way to resume normal life or to attend school. He also complains that there is little leadership among the government or the NGOs there to assist in the reconstruction.
It's a mammoth undertaking. But progress seems painfully, ridiculously slow. Oxfam also found just 15 percent of the required temporary housing needed for those left homeless has been built. Of the $2.1 billion pledged by governments for reconstruction in 2010, just 42 percent has been allocated.
That's how things stand right now. Keep in mind that any subject can change over time, so be sure you keep up with the latest news.