Tales from the Trail

Helping Haiti: the nightmare scenario

QUAKE-HAITI/About the only thing that has gone right in the Haitian earthquake is the weather.

The dry, warm nights have been kind to the multitudes of homeless, injured and terrified Haitians sleeping out in streets, parks and pavements all over the nation. Not to mention the ever-growing legion of foreign rescuers, aid-workers and journalists who — like the locals — fear sleeping indoors because of still-rumbling aftershocks.

Apart from that, it has been a sheer nightmare for millions of Haitians, and for aid-groups wanting to help them, after the worst disaster on record in the Western hemisphere’s poorest nation. No one knows the death-toll, and many bodies still lie untouched in the street, but clearly thousands, or tens of thousands, have perished. The Red Cross here estimates 45-50,000 dead, and 3 million injured and homeless.

It could not have happened to a more vulnerable nation.

Battered by storms in recent years, and still suffering from a long history of political turmoil, Haiti has struggled in the past to cope with far lesser disasters. Its government has precious few resources and the collapsed roof of the white presidential palace in downtown Port-au-Prince symbolizes its impotence. And of course many officials and policemen are too busy hunting for friends and relatives of their own, and picking through the rubble of their own homes, to turn their attention to any sort of nationwide rescue effort.

Local aid groups are decimated too. Many organizations — including the United Nations, which has 9,000 peacekeepers here — have suffered damage to their buildings and lost personnel, equipment and supplies. That makes it far harder for the many foreign groups piling into Haiti with lots of enthusiasm to help, but no one to work with.

Haiti … Too Much Suffering

QUAKE-HAITI/Having hurtled by car through the Dominican Republic to the ramshackle Haitian border, I and four other foreign journalists were desperate to reach Port-au-Prince by nightfall. So after exchanging Ramon’s beaten-up taxi for the the back of a modern pickup owned by one of Haiti’s elite families, our speed stresses were soon put into terrible perspective.

Just a mile or two into Haiti, a group of people stood disconsolately by the road, trying to flag down any vehicle that would stop, and pointing to the collapsed face of a nearby quarry. “There’s someone inside there,” one of them said, pointing to a pile of rocks.

Before we had time to even consider helping them, our car — like all the others in the convoy — had sped off, kicking up dust. The Haitians driving myself and four other foreign journalists into the earthquake zone took the morally nightmarish decision for us. After all, they had their own missing friends and family to find fast in Port-au-Prince.