Spa treatment or desert retreat?
With so many possible locations from which to choose and no worries about stretching the 401K, where’s an embattled leader to settle in retirement?
He departed Haiti in 1986 aboard a U.S. Air Force plane, winging to stage-managed exile after weeks of pressure from the Reagan administration.
There was a tremendous outpouring of goodwill and money for Haiti after the quake, which prevented a further humanitarian catastrophe. But so far, nine months after the capital was devastated, progress in “building back better” seems painfully slow. Rubble still chokes the narrow streets of Port-au-Prince, and 1.3 million people occupy every available scrap of land in tents awaiting resettlement, or even just a government plan on what to do with them.
There’s something weirdly symbolic in the sight of thousands of homeless Haitians massed in a sprawling tent city bang in front of the collapsed icing-sugar white presidential palace.
They’re here because it’s the biggest open space in the capital, but it somehow looks like an appeal for President Rene Preval to come out and speak to his people and reassure them that he stands behind them, that together the country will get through the catastrophe caused by Tuesday’s earthquake.
Four days after Tuesday’s earthquake the Haitian flag that once fluttered above the National Palace still lies in a wilted heap over the toppled white ruin. In the park opposite, men and women strip to their underpants to bathe in a large fountain and scrub their clothes. The hang their laundry on the park rails.
Garbage is scattered everywhere and the smell of urine and excrement is getting worse.
Far from coming to address them, Preval is holed up in the judicial police headquarters near the airport, mumbling that he can’t do much when half the government’s offices are destroyed and he doesn’t even have a cell phone signal.
Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of Haitians who lost their homes and families have been left to fend for themselves, with no food handouts and no proper medical treatment. In many cases, they are seriously injured.
Foreign rescue workers are battling round the clock digging for survivors. But in the absence of a working government, the disaster relief teams who are supposed to be delivering food, latrines and medical supplies are still mostly dithering about sorting out logistics.
From the shambles outside the presidential palace, you wonder if anybody is in charge at all.
“The country is not working right now. It’s not even eating,” remarked Louis Widlyne, one of the countless people sleeping on a sheet that marks out his living quarters in the park.
A police officer called Joe was more sympathetic. He had received no orders since Tuesday’s disaster, but decided on his own on Saturday that it was time to go back on the beat.
“Preval should have come and spoken to his people, but he hasn’t,” he said. “He is like that. It’s just the kind of president he is.”
As a ragtag group of Haitian rescue workers tried to dig a dead man from underneath a collapsed telecoms company building in Port-au-Prince this week, the firm’s owner told me how the 40-year-old security guard had been a cherished employee.
Only a short time before, Tarek el Bakri, a Lebanese businessman who lived at the top of the now perilously slanted building, had paid for the funeral of the man’s grandson, so much was he part of the family. Now he was paying workers to free his corpse.
The workers yelled and squabbled about how best to get at him — only his arm, shoulder and head were visible — without causing the structure, which had desks sandwiched between its layers, and a car crushed underneath, to collapse further.
A water mains had burst, causing a small fountain to spray out near the dead man’s head. At one point an excavator churned toward the site, but the workers waved it away.
The man had three children, el Bakri told me. He was crushed along with two cleaning staff. In all, Bakri lost 11 employees in offices across the city, as well as his own home.
He said he was the only one pushing for the bodies to be pulled out. He hadn’t heard anything from city officials about what he should do. “In any other country people would gather together to help each other,” he said. “Here you are on your own. Nobody cares.”
When I returned a day later, the man’s corpse was still there. His dark skin dustier than before. The fountain was still spurting.
I remembered then what el Bakri had told me: looters squeezed in to steal all the office computers and cell phone stocks well before anybody had tried to free the victims.
Last night, I slept on the floor with the cries of the wounded searing through the night air across the hills of Port-au-Prince. Every so often, there was an outbreak of wailing and shrieking, when someone died. Sometimes, prayers were sung and chanted. We are all becoming inured to the pain – I found myself longing for earplugs.
Former President Bill Clinton, who is helping to coordinate global relief for Haiti with former President George W. Bush, says the quake-stricken country could bounce back much more quickly than people might think.