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Kouraj cherie: Dispatches from Port au Prince, Haiti

January 28, 2010

by Sasha Kramer

Songs of grief and solidarity

A mother embraces her injured son. Love and mutual support among survivors, not violence, characterize Port au Prince since the earthquake, despite the desperation. – Photo: Win McNamee, Getty
Port au Prince, Haiti, Jan. 17 – Apologies if these notes seem unpolished. That is because they are. We barely have time to write and internet is patchy, so I will do what I can to get out information but I don’t promise eloquence.

Love to you all and know that we are safe and taking precautions. Thank you to everyone who has sent words of love, encouragement and support.

Last night we (myself, Cat Laine, Paul Namphy, Wisnel Jolissaint, Lisius Orel and Baudeler Magloire) arrived in Port au Prince just before sunset. As we came into the city with our truck piled full of water, gas, shovels and food, we got a flat tire. The news reports of looting have been so exaggerated that we were concerned that a mob of people might come take everything before we even made it into the city.

I am pleased to report that, as per usual, reports of violence in Haiti are largely disinformation. Yes, we did hear shooting late last night, and yes, we did see a fight over a mattress at a camp in the city but our overall impression has been sheer amazement at the solidarity displayed by communities.

We drove into the city past the airport and along Delmas 33. Initially it looked like about one in five houses had sustained damage and perhaps one in 20 had completely collapsed. However, as we got father in towards Delmas, the damage looked much more severe with perhaps one in five buildings completely collapsed.

The first night after the earthquake on Jan. 12, people slept in the streets and sang songs of grief and solidarity. – Photo: Reuters
I have never seen anything like this. Honestly, it is hard to even feel. People have not even begun to mourn, as everyone is still in a state of crisis. As we drove by the police station on Delmas 33, we saw someone carrying a severed foot of a police officer out of the wreckage. I barely even blinked. Everything is so surreal.

We went straight to Matthew 25, a guesthouse which remained relatively untouched by the quake. We went to locate our friend Amber who has been helping to coordinate volunteer efforts.

We are so grateful for the way in which we have been received by the guesthouse. They immediately allowed us to remove all of the materials from the car and invited us to sleep in the backyard – no one is sleeping inside, as the aftershocks have continued over the past few days. I was amazed to run into our dear friend Ellie Happel at the guesthouse. She flew in from New York the day after the quake to help with relief.

Once we had unloaded the car, we all went with Marcorel to see his family in Jake. When we arrived, it was already dark and there were people sleeping everywhere in the streets.

As we waited for Marcorel to make his way through the camp to locate his family, we saw several young men from the neighborhood setting up a large light rigged to some batteries. As light flooded the crowd of people they burst into song. Songs of solidarity, songs of grief, songs of thanks that they had survived.

We followed Mako through the blankets and makeshift tents to where his family – eight brothers and sisters and his mom and dad – huddled together on a pile of blankets. They were so happy to see him and we all piled into their bed and Ellie, Paul, Cat and I were each handed a baby. The singing continued in the background as Marcorel’s family told the story of where they each were when the quake hit.

After leaving the camp, we visited the site where Caribbean Market once stood. As I stared in disbelief at the pile of concrete and twisted shopping carts, I remembered my many trips to this market over the years. I remember that Caribbean Market was the first place that I visited on my own in Port au Prince, cautiously walking through the streets in 2004 by myself, not speaking any Kreyol, knowing only the market. To see it in ruins was unimaginable. American FEMA firefighters were still picking through the rubble. They said that they were still hearing voices inside and that they had been working for 30 hours without a break.

By Jan. 13, the day after the quake, people were already setting up camps of makeshift tents in parks, soccer fields and other open spaces – pieces of cardboard serving as mattresses. – Photo: Getty
Around 8:30 we headed back to the guesthouse, where we were incredibly blessed to have access to power and fruit. I could barely blink my eyes, the lids so heavy with exhaustion and shock. After several coordination meetings, we finally tumbled into sleep, all of us gathered in the backyard under the stars, sleeping to the sound of the songs of grief.

Please keep sending your love and prayers. Also you can help us by getting your friends to sign up for the SOIL group on Facebook and follow our posts. Also any fundraising help is deeply appreciated and will go 100 percent towards disaster relief. You can donate online at www.oursoil.org.

Kouraj, cherie

Port au Prince, Haiti, Jan. 19 – This afternoon, feeling helpless, we decided to take a van down to Champs Mars, the area around the palace, to look for people needing medical care to bring to Matthew 25, the guesthouse where we are staying which has been transformed into a field hospital. Since we arrived in Port au Prince, everyone has told us that you cannot go into the area around the palace because of violence and insecurity.

I was in awe as we walked into downtown among the flattened buildings in the shadow of the fallen palace. Amongst the swarms of displaced people, there was calm and solidarity. We wound our way through the camp asking for injured people who needed to get to the hospital.

Despite everyone telling us that as soon as we did this we would be mobbed by people, I was amazed: As we approached each tent, people gently pointed us toward their neighbors, guiding us to those who were suffering the most. We picked up five badly injured people and drove towards an area where Ellie and Berto had passed a woman earlier.

When they saw her, she was lying on the side of the road with a broken leg screaming for help. As they were on foot, they could not help her at the time, so we went back to try to find her. Incredibly we found her relatively quickly at the top of a hill of shattered houses. The sun was setting and the community helped to carry her down the hill on a refrigerator door. Tough looking guys smiled in our direction calling out, “Bonswa, cherie” (Good evening, my dear) and “Kouraj” (Courage).

In one of the makeshift clinics – this one outside the Villa Creole Hotel in Petionville – the injured wait for medical attention. – Photo: AP
When we got back to Matthew 25, it was dark and we carried the patients back into the soccer field-tent village-hospital where the team of doctors had been working tirelessly all day. Although they had officially closed down for the evening, they agreed to see the patients we had brought.

Once our patients were settled in, we came back into the house to find the doctors amputating a foot on the dining room table. The patient lay calmly, awake but far away under the fog of ketamine. Half way through the surgery, we heard a clamor outside and ran out to see what it was.

A large yellow truck was parked in front of the gate and rapidly unloading hundreds of bags of food over our fence. The hungry crowd had already begun to gather and in the dark it was hard to decide how to best distribute the food.

Knowing that we could not sleep in the house with all of this food and so many starving people in the neighborhood, our friend Amber, who is experienced in food distribution, snapped into action and began to get everyone in the crowd into a line that stretched down the road. We braced ourselves for the fighting that we had heard would come but, in a miraculous display of restraint and compassion, people lined up to get the food and one by one the bags were handed out without a single serious incident.

During the food distribution, the doctors called to see if anyone could help to bury the amputated leg in the backyard. As I have no experience with food distribution, I offered to help with the leg. I went into the back with Ellie and Berto and we dug a hole and placed the leg in it, covering it with soil and cement rubble.

By the time we got back into the house, the food had all been distributed and the patient, Anderson, was waking up. The doctors asked for a translator, so I went and sat by his stretcher explaining to him that the surgery had gone well and he was going to live. His family had gone home and he was alone, so Ellie and I took turns sitting with him as he came out from under the drugs.

I sat and talked to Anderson for hours as he drifted in and out of consciousness. At one point one of the Haitian men working at the hospital came in and leaned over Anderson and said to him in Kreyol: “Listen, man: Even if your family could not be here tonight, we want you to know that everyone here loves you. We are all your brothers and sisters.”

Cat and I have barely shed a tear through all of this – the sky could fall and we would not bat an eye – but when I told her this story this morning, the tears just began rolling down her face, as they are mine as I am writing this. Sometimes it is the kindness and not the horror that can break the numbness that we are all lost in right now.

“Listen, man: Even if your family could not be here tonight, we want you to know that everyone here loves you. We are all your brothers and sisters.”

So don’t believe Anderson Cooper when he says that Haiti is a hotbed for violence and riots. It is just not the case. In the darkest of times, Haiti has proven to be a country of brave, resilient and kind people and it is that behavior that is far more prevalent than the isolated incidents of violence.

Please pass this on to as many people as you can so that they can see the light of Haiti cutting through the darkness, the light that will heal this nation.

We are safe. We love you all and I will write again when I can. Thank you for your generosity and compassion.

Fear slows relief efforts

Port au Prince, Haiti, Jan. 22 – To our dear friends and supporters who have been so present through this difficult time, I feel like I have a wall of love and protection around me knowing that you are all holding Haiti in your thoughts and prayers. I apologize for not having written for the past few days. It is partly that life here is so hectic and fast paced and partly because I find that writing about the situation brings all my emotions to the surface and brings me to a vulnerable space that can be rather overwhelming. That said, I so want to be able to share with all of you what we are experiencing and the important difference we have been able to make as a result of your generosity.

The endless but orderly lines that form wherever aid is being distributed should convince aid workers that they have nothing to fear from the people of Haiti, even though many, when this photo was taken Jan. 21, had gone without food or water for days. – Photo: Reuters
When I first arrived in Port au Prince, I spent a day at the U.N. compound by the airport where NGOs, doctors and soldiers swarm around talking on satellite phones and running from meeting to meeting. I learned about the massive amounts of food aid that arrived in the first week and was stockpiled at the airport. I learned of the aid trucks filled to the brim with supplies blocked at the border and sitting idle at the ports.

Since that day I have not returned to the aid compound and have chosen instead to go into the streets, into the camps where people hide from the sun, huddled together under tattered tarps waiting for the food that has yet to come, into the alleyways littered with the rubble of fallen dreams and the spirits of those we have lost.

I know that some of these stories of aid not reaching the victims are beginning to filter into the international media, but I wanted to see if I can shed some light about why this is without casting blame. Everyone who has come here is devastated by this disaster. Everyone wants to help. But the slowness in distribution is not a question of intentions; it is a question of long standing fears and the security structures put in place in response to these fears.

A few days ago, I got an email from Nicolas Kristof of the New York Times asking me to comment on the supposition made by many – not Nicolas himself – that Haitians have received large amounts of aid money over the years and have somehow squandered it. I responded to him by talking about fear, this same fear that is slowing the distribution of aid during this crisis.

For centuries Haiti has been portrayed as a dangerous country filled with volatile and threatening people, unsafe for foreigners. This supposition, this fear and misunderstanding, has very deep implications for foreign aid and cross-cultural understanding.

I have been amazed to visit friends working with large NGOs in Port au Prince only to learn that they are forced to operate under security restrictions that prevent any kind of real connections to Haitian communities. One friend showed me the map, used by all of the larger NGOs, where Port au Prince is divided into security zones – yellow, orange, red.

Red zones are restricted. In the orange zones, all of the car windows must be rolled up and they cannot be visited past certain times of day. Even in the yellow zones, aid workers are often not permitted to walk through the streets and spend much of their time in Haiti riding through the city from one office to another in organizational vehicles.

The creation of these security zones has been like the building of a wall, a wall reinforced by language barriers and fear rather than iron rods, a wall that, unlike many of the buildings in Port au Prince, did not crumble during the earthquake. Fear, much like violence, is self perpetuating.

When aid workers enter communities radiating fear, it is offensive. The perceived disinterest in communicating with the poor majority is offensive. Driving through impoverished communities with windows rolled up and armed security guards is offensive. And, ironically, all of these extra security measures actually increase the level of risk for aid workers.

As I said, this wall of fear is not a new phenomenon and it has had very serious implications for the distribution of the millions of dollars of aid that have been flowing into the country for the past 10 days. Despite the good intentions of the many aid workers swarming around the U.N. base, much of the aid coming through the larger organizations is still blocked in storage, waiting for the required U.N. and U.S. military escorts that are seen as essential for distribution. Meanwhile, people in the camps are suffering and their tolerance is waning.

Over the past five days, I have been grateful to work with a small organization unhindered by bureaucracy and security restrictions. I am so thankful to work with a courageous team of Haitian community leaders and a respectful and fearless group of Americans.

Aid coming through the larger organizations is still blocked in storage, waiting for the required U.N. and U.S. military escorts that are seen as essential for distribution. Meanwhile, people in the camps are suffering and their tolerance is waning.

Thanks to the generous donations of our supporters, SOIL has raised approximately $30,000 for immediate relief efforts and we are committed to providing that relief as quickly as we can get the money into the country.

The most striking thing I have noticed while visiting the many camps throughout the city is the level of organization and ingenuity among the displaced communities. Community members stand ready to distribute food and water to their neighbors. They are prepared to provide first aid and assist with cleanup efforts. All that they are lacking is the financial means to do so.

When the quake struck, people’s savings were buried under the rubble of their former homes. Banks are closed and no one has been able to access their accounts. Food and water are available for sale in the streets but no one is able to purchase them.

SOIL helps communities build toilets that transform waste into fertile soil. This one is near the historic palace San Souci in Milot, Haiti. – Photo: SOIL
Our hope is that SOIL, AIDG (Appropriate Infrastructure and Development Group) and other small organizations will be able to help provide communities with the means to meet their needs in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, bridging the gap during the time it takes for the larger organizations to mobilize.

I am honored to know a network of brave community leaders throughout Port au Prince whom I met during my human rights work from 2004 to 2006, and our team has spent the past several days visiting the camps with them and helping to distribute the resources that we have at our disposal. Each day we have been purchasing water trucks to deliver to camps that have yet to receive water, giving money to community organizers who are then able to purchase food from local businesses and distribute it to the areas most in need, bringing doctors and medical supplies into zones of the city that have none, providing our generator to community cyber cafes so that people are able to contact their families, driving patients from the camps to medical clinics that can receive them.

The magnitude of this tragedy is unimaginable and we are aware of our limitations and our inability to help touch more than a small percentage of those affected. While it breaks my heart to think about those we cannot help, it also fills me with hope to see the impact that we have been able to make. Each day I am awed and humbled by the dedication and compassion of my colleagues, both Haitian and international, and touched by the outpouring of love and support that we have received from around the world. Please keep your love and donations flowing and we will do everything in our power to funnel that love and aid to the communities that need it the most.

Acknowledgements

I want to take a moment to identify some of my committed colleagues who have been invaluable partners during this crisis. Thank you first to the dedicated staff and coordinators of Matthew 25, especially Sister Mary, Patrick and Vivian, who have graciously received us in their home and taken incredible care of us. Thank you to Cat Laine and Peter Haas of AIDG who have been our closest partners in this effort, Ellie Happel and Roberto Francois who came to Port au Prince several days after the quake to lend a hand, Amber Munger and Melinda Miles who have been tirelessly coordinating among the smaller NGOs to develop a coalition, Nick Preneta and Jessica Lozier, who left their jobs in the U.S. to return to Haiti to help SOIL and AIDG with our relief efforts, Leah Nevada Page and Michael who flew in from Spain 30 hours after the quake to lend a hand.

Thank you always to the SOL team – Josapha Augustin, Baudeler Magloire, Eveline Augustin, Marc Orel, Rosie Joseph, Erinol Frederick, Francius Estimable Dauphin, Nica Lagredel, Paul Christian Namphy, Wisnel Jolissaint and Nadine Mondestin – for their guidance and hard work. I thank the SOIL team back home – Sarah Brownell, Kevin Foos, Moira Duvernay, Ashley Dahlberg and Jennifer Benordan – for their love and advice.

Thank you to Rosemond Jolissaint, who will be leaving for the U.S. for a fundraising tour in the coming days, and thanks to our colleagues who are organizing his tour: Jimmy Felter in Washington, D.C., Erica Simon in New York City, Jennifer Benordan in San Francisco and Barry Kramer in Los Angeles.

Thank you to the wonderful students who have visited us in Haiti over the years and are now providing support in every way possible from organizing fundraisers to sending out emails to our list – Ann Marie, thank you! Thank you to Peggy and Phillip of Caribbean Express, who have been helping us to get money into the country through their airline. Thank you to my mother, who has been helping to respond to my important emails and working to get money and support through to us and of course the rest of my family who always hold me in their hearts.

And, most of all, thank you to our grassroots partners in Port au Prince without whom we could never do this work: Rea and Dodo Dol, Paul Loulou Chery, Guinette Apolon, Lisius Orel, Fritz Pierre, Daniel Tillias, Jean Ristil Jean Baptiste, Lavarice Gaudin and the members of AVJ, Asanble Vwazen Jakè (Jakè Neighborhood Association).

And my deepest gratitude to you, our international supporters. We love you so much.

Sasha Kramer, who received her Ph.D. in ecology from Stanford University in 2006, co-founded and directs the grassroots Haitian organization Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods (SOIL), a non-profit dedicated to empowering communities, building the soil, nourishing the grassroots. She wrote these dispatches from Port au Prince between Jan. 17 and 22. To follow her updates, join the SOIL group on Facebook and encourage others to join as well.

SOIL has decided to devote 100 percent of all donations that come in the next month to disaster relief. If you would like to support SOIL’s efforts, please consider donating or helping to organize a fundraiser in your area. No donation is too small to make a difference. You can donate online at www.oursoil.org and follow our blog on the webpage as well. Checks payable to SOIL can be mailed to SOIL, 124 Church Rd., Sherburne, NY 13460.

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