Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Welcome to Haiti, now go home

Yesterday we arrived in Haiti. Disembarked the airplane, walked on the tarmac as the little trio of musicians played welcoming Haitian music, flanked by two grim-faced sentries. The airport was calm and clean, organized.

Got outside, the typical crowd was there. Taxi drivers accosted us in their usual friendly manner. "Hey, you need ride?" UN vehicles, their glass windows shrouded in wire mesh screens to protect them from flying rocks, lined the street. Then we saw C & P in the Montero, coming to pick us up. We climbed in and they said, "Welcome to Haiti! Now go home."

P drove 50 yards to the departure area. They were putting us on the next flight out.

It was too dangerous to stay and they didn't want us to get stuck there. Rumors and facts peppered the air like bullets. Fact: UN troops exchanged gunfire with armed gunmen yesterday in Cite Soleil in a door-to-door search for weapons. Gunfire was exchanged. The gunmen spread the violence out of the slum to downtown PAP. Four
people were killed, many more wounded by stray bullets. Rumor or fact: A huge demonstration (including lots of burning tires, gunfire, etc.) is planned for Friday in the area where we were scheduled to work. Rumor: The US embassy is closing?

Fact: It's too dangerous, too hot, too violent right now, we can't protect you. Go home.

I hurriedly gave C & P their Christmas gifts, and romance novels for them to give my friend. C told me she was driving to the grocery right after we left to stockpile on food. She sounded like a soldier mobilizing for a siege. I felt horrible watching them drive off. I was leaving friends behind in a war zone.

The violence isn't confined to the hellish life in the slums, like Dante's inferno containing the damned. It oozes out onto the streets, escaping into the mountains where the wealthy live, into the hotels where the foreigners stay, spilling out onto the streets. There was shooting in a section of Delmas we always drive through. How many times have I passed that area, idly looking out the window at the paintings hanging on the chain link fence, the broken glass sprinkled atop the high concrete walls protecting the homes there?

Putting it into perspective, imagine if it happened in the USA. Total anarchy but for a few thousand UN troops trying to control a few million people. Where do you go? The wealthy enclaves that were always safe? No longer. Take Petionville, Haiti. If Petionville had a sister city, it would be Boca Raton. Home to the rich and the richer. P said yesterday they found a severed hand in Petitionville. Wealthy merchants are kidnapped in their own offices. UN tanks roll through Petionville, shouldering aside the Mercedes and the BMW's.

Imagine Boca with its parade of very wealthy people, little sidewalk cafes where one can sip exotic teas and fragrant coffees, and an armored UN tank grumbling its way through Mizner Park. Imagine living in Boca, walking your Bichon Frisé with its jeweled collar on the scrubbed sidewalks, and seeing a severed hand in the gutter.

That is Haiti today.

What will it take for Haiti to turn from a state of anarchy into one where we can go about freely into the slums and do our jobs? I don't know. Maybe Sister Mary Bazooka is the answer. But the armed rebels have 50 caliber machine guns capable of blowing holes in overhead aircraft. So what do we give our fearless, feisty Irish nun who just wants to help the poor? Maybe an armored tank. I can see her now, rolling through the muddy streets, tossing out bags of rice to the hungry, her rosary dangling from the gun turret as she steers through the slum, warbling "Danny Boy."

An armored tank won't help her cross Rt. 9 in Cite Soleil, where gangs battle each other. There's a ditch across the roadway leading to one section, where armed gang members stand guard. Upon their leader's orders, a makeshift wood bridge is brought across, allowing a vehicle's entry. You have to call the leader by cell phone and get permission. There are many such checkpoints throughout the city controlled by armed rebels.

News reports say a bright, talented grad student at Notre Dame didn't get permission. Jean Joseph Dorvil is presumed dead after being shot Saturday when he failed to stop at one of these notorious checkpoints. He was administering a program to research and eradicate lymphatic filariasis, a disease that causes elephantiasis. Like many diseases of the past, LF is more common in Haiti than the U.S.

Jean Joseph was only 29. There are countless others who are nameless in the media, children, women, teenagers, men, all mourned only by their families. There is no functioning hospital in Cite Soleil. No aid agencies working. Only bullets and barricades. And still, the poverty goes on. The hunger continues. Imagine walking through the slum, trying to find food for your kids, dodging bullets and then one hits. Your life ends on a blood-soaked mattress in a cramped, airless hovel, your only crime being you were in the wrong place at the wrong time. And you were born a poor Haitian.

I can't imagine what it must be like for my friends in Haiti, living in constant fear. Always wondering if your drive through the city will turn into a minefield, with gunmen firing randomly, rocks being thrown or the famous Haitian roadblocks of burning tires. I can't imagine being C, running to the grocery store for food because she worries she'll be barricaded inside her home.

I remember what this hurricane season was like, four hurricanes marching in a conga line to Florida. Being so weary and fraught with tension from living in a state of constant uncertainty. Stockpiling water, food, batteries. And not knowing if my house, my neighborhood, my work place, will survive or the landscape of everything familiar to me will drastically change or be destroyed.

I remember the tension, the awful stress that gripped me, and the relief as hurricane season finally ended.

In Haiti, the hurricane season is not ending. Not when there are UN armored tanks patrolling the streets of wealthy neighborhoods. Not when armed gunmen rampage through downtown. Not when we arrive in the city to do our work, and are forced to turn around for our own safety.

In Haiti, hurricane season will be with them for a long, long time.


Good Shepherd said...

I wondered if you had word on what happened to the two Canadian women who were with Jean Joseph Dorvil.

Bonnie Vanak said...

They're supposed to be fine and back in Canada, according to what I read.

As an aside, the area where we were headed, Cap Haitien, did have a huge protest yesterday. 10,000 people peacefully demonstrated against Aristide. The first peaceful protest since he left. Peaceful, a word that gives me great hope that we can return next month.

Thanks for your question!

Bonnie Vanak

Bonnie Vanak said...

whoops! I meant to write, 10,000 people held a peaceful demonstration "FOR" Aristide's return. Guess it's time for me to lay off the eggnog when I write bloopers like that!

bonnie vanak