Haiti: A tale of two disasters

by Chris Zamani M.D.

Haiti is a nation that has served as an important example for both the forces of liberation and the forces of oppression since its inception as the first Black republic in the modern world in 1804. What was true then and is even more true today is that the power of example has never been underestimated by the forces of colonialism and imperialism.

Why is this? It is simple; when it comes down to the bottom line, individuals, communities and even nations must give their consent to be controlled. Those that refuse to be exploited at the hands of others and are willing to stop at nothing to make this determination a reality will never be oppressed.

This is the example that Haiti gave to the world in 1804 as 500,000 African slaves organized themselves to defeat Napolean’s army in a massive successful slave revolt that established the Haitian republic. As a result of this act of collective determination, the Haitian people were made to pay reparations to the French slave owners for “depriving” them of their property and profits.

Since that time, the forces of imperialism, represented largely by the U.S., French and Canadian governments and the United Nations, have never failed to make an example of Haiti by showing the world what happens when a group of Black people organize to liberate themselves from oppression. Haiti has been subjected to numerous invasions, occupations, military coups and brutal dictatorships which have had one overwhelming result: the impoverishment of the majority of the population.

Nonetheless Haitians remain a proud, stoic and determined people in spite of 200 years of attempts to destroy their spirit of liberation. It is important to understand this background before one can really understand the dynamics that are playing out in the post-earthquake environment in Haiti.

The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund (HERF), the Prisoners of Conscience Committee and the SF Bay View were able to send a medical team consisting of one doctor (myself) and three nurses. Three media trained personnel were also a part of the team. The HERF medical team provided a modest amount of medical aid in two locations within the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince.

We served in a tent city in the Delmas area of the capital and at a curb-side clinic in the slum area of Cite Soleil. It was in these two locations that we found a very different level of resources and engagement by international relief workers and foreign missionaries.

In Delmas we stayed in a house run by American missionaries that was adjacent to a large open space where a tent city had been established in the aftermath of the earthquake. There were about 1,300 people living in this tent city at the time we were there. Most of the tents were high quality large canvas tents that had been donated by an international organization, although there were still many makeshift tents made from tree branches and bedsheets.

Inside the missionary house there was a well stocked pharmacy with a wide variety of medications, medical supplies and surgical equipment. There were at least a half dozen nurses as well as other international volunteers working in agriculture that were based at the house.

We saw patients in an outside tent and were dealing mostly with wound problems such as wound infections and wounds that were not healing but had areas of dead skin and muscle. These wound complications had developed after people had received amputations in unsterile conditions for crush injuries sustained during the earthquake. Occasionally we also treated some sexual infections, tuberculosis and intestinal worms. We thought that these conditions represented some of the worst – and then we went to Cite Soleil.

Cite Soleil is a poor slum area within the capital that was surrounded on three sides by military bases. There were many differences that we witnessed from the situation in Delmas, where we had been in previous days.

In Cite Soleil we saw many tent cities composed of makeshift tents constructed out of sheets, tarps and plastic garbage bags. There were no large canvas tents. We did not see any water tanker trucks nor did we witness the presence of any international aid workers. Absent were the missionaries and the foreign agricultural workers.

There was no home we could stop by to get medical supplies, no well stocked pharmacy, no designated area to provide medical care. In fact we pulled over to the side of the road, pulled out our two crates of medicine, and after sitting on a brick on a street corner we were open for business.

Within 5 minutes we were surrounded by people, mostly parents and grandparents bringing their young children in to be seen by a doctor. Ninety percent of the patients here were between 15 months and 7 years of age, and all except for one came with concerns about sickness that had nothing to do with the earthquake.

Here in Cite Soleil we were seeing conditions such as intestinal worms, malnutrition, dehydration, fungal skin infections, viral diarrhea and bacterial eye infections. These were conditions related to poor sanitation, lack of access to clean water, not enough nutritious food and overcrowding. These were diseases of poverty.

I highlight the differences between these two areas of the city where we provided medical care because there was no legitimate reason for the disparity that we witnessed in the distribution of aid. Already upon arrival at the airport one can see tons and tons of supplies sitting idle along the runway. These supplies included water, food, medicine, tarps, tents, fuel and other critical supplies that were in need all around the city and the nation.

While millions of well meaning individuals around the world had donated money totaling hundreds of millions toward humanitarian relief, the only item that was well distributed on the ground in Port-au-Prince were soldiers and their weapons. The other thing that was well distributed was misinformation.

Mainstream media leads us to believe that the soldiers were there for security in a violent and chaotic environment. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We never witnessed any act of aggression; to the contrary, the people demonstrated many times their willingness to share what little they had with others around them. There were rumors going around that there were too many doctors there, which may have been true in the few places that the U.S. military decided to set up places for people to get medical help, but in most places not only was there no excess of doctors but there were no doctors at all.

Haiti for me is thus a tale of two disasters on multiple different levels. First it is a tale of an earthquake that happened and what we were being told that was in stark contrast to the truth. It is a false tale of a nation devastated that had turned into an orgy of desperation-fueled violence, all despite the valiant efforts of the U.S. military-missionary apparatus who had swooped in to distribute millions of dollars in aid to all without fear or favor.

Then there was the real tale of a nation devastated, where millions of people are struggling to survive through cooperation and prayer while the U.S. military has established an occupation of their country and where missionaries hand out food, water and medicine to a few people in need while taking pictures of themselves smiling with a naked child within their embrace amidst a sea of poverty. Where hundreds of millions of dollars are unaccounted for and tons of relief supplies sit stockpiled at an airport under the watchful eye of soldiers.

This is also a tale of two disasters in that some areas of the city received much attention and a modest level of assistance from the international community, while other areas of the city remained invisible under a calculated blanket of neglect – these largely being areas that supported Jean Bertrand Aristide. Aristide was the poor people’s president who was kidnapped in a 2004 military coup supported by the Haitian elite and the CIA who opposed his policies aimed at empowering Haiti’s poor majority.

Yes, Haiti … a tale of two disasters, and two opposing examples – one set by a people determined to free themselves from the yolk of slavery, exploitation and oppression and the other example set by the imperialists as a warning of what will happen to those that dare to grasp their own destiny and establish freedom for their descendants by any means necessary.

Dr. Chris Zamani can be reached at czamani@hotmail.com.

Haiti: Rising from the Ashes (Extended Preview) from MerKaBa Films on Vimeo.

Haiti: Rising from the Ashes documents the coalition efforts of a Haitian and Black group from America team sponsored by the Prisoners Of Conscience Committee and HERF. The team is comprised of medical personnel, journalists, and filmmakers providing aid despite the blocking efforts of the United States, French, Canadian, and Brazilian military. Duration: 13min extended preview. Feature Film due to be released June 2010.