Haiti and “the bad dream of newspaper headlines”
By Tom Brown
MIAMI – Since my return from Haiti, many have asked me what it was like that first week after its devastating earthquake. Here are but a few impressions:
What were the 9,000 United Nations police and troops already stationed in Haiti supposed to be doing there in the immediate aftermath of the quake? It flattened the headquarters of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti, known by the acronym MINUSTAH and killed dozens of U.N. employees, including the mission chief, Hedi Annabi.
But the Blue Helmets were still visible everywhere, clutching assault rifles as they lumbered around the capital in convoys of heavy white trucks. I never saw any of them wielding picks and shovels. Rather than helping or trying to rescue the living, they clogged chaotic, rubble-strewn streets with more traffic.
“You can’t spell unhelpful without UN,” one Haitian told me angrily.
What about Berly Renfort and others like him? A bright 21-year-old I met just after the quake, he looks and sounds like comedian Chris Rock but also has a good command of Creole.
Born in Haiti but a resident of South Florida, he was deported recently after a run-in with the law. Renfort told me he would rather spend 10 years in Miami’s Krome Detention Center than another day in Haiti. But he also said there was hope — if U.S. President Barack Obama could lead the reconstruction efforts himself. Of Haitian President Rene Preval, Berly said, “Who is that guy? Where is he, in hiding?”
For my part, I have some hope for young Berly and others like him, if U.S. officials reached out to him, offering incentives like a return to the United States if he pitches in to help pull Haiti out of its misery. Renfort and thousands of Haitian-Americans like him could prove to be valuable. To start, they could serve as interpreters, construction workers or community liaisons for U.S. troops and others trying to distribute aid in the shattered country.
Many journalists may feel like the ghost of Graham Greene is looking over their shoulders as they seek to chronicle the suffering in a seemingly hopeless country. Greene helped put Haiti on the map, after all, when he wrote about the horrors of rule under Papa Doc and the dreaded Tontons Macoute in “The Comedians,” which was published nearly half a century ago. In “Ways of Escape,” one of his memoirs, Greene wrote that “Haiti really was the bad dream of the newspaper headlines.”
As night fell on my last night in Haiti, a high-pitched scream cut through the din of the traffic. It came from a half-naked boy, no more than about 8 years old and was the most bone-chilling sound I’d heard in my week covering the earthquake. The barefoot boy seemed to be running aimlessly, as he raced past crowds of stunned-looking people on nearby street corners. No one reached out to stop or embrace him, or to find out what was wrong, as he disappeared in the darkness still wailing.
Photo credit: REUTERS/Marco Dormino/UN/MINUSTAH/Handout (Haitians wait in line to receive food and water distributed by Brazilian U.N. peacekeepers in downtown Port-au-Prince January 22, 2010.)