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.


  1. If we are to help the people of Haiti, let us do so let us work, send funds,
    and materials. Let us not parade or play games with people in need.
    This is what happened in New Orleans, money was sent and spent but most of the people got crumbs from the loaves of bread that were meant for them.
    Let New Orleans be a lesson plan for all people not to follow in Haiti.

    God Bless Haiti and New Orleans

  2. Haiti had a quake. Chile had a quake. Troops were sent to Haiti to maintain order. Haiti is plagued by crime and corruption suffering 32 coups during its existence. The dispatch of troops to Haiti has been heavily criticized as “occupation.” Haiti has no army, this is why foreign troops were required. The president of Chile held off for two days in using troops to maintain order and prevent looting. Looting was rampant throughout the quake zones in Chile. The citizens of Chile criticized President Bachelet for not immediately sending in the troops.

    So, do you want troops sent in to maintain order or do you want looting? It doesn’t seem from where I’m standing that anyone can do anything right in your eyes.

  3. I have been to Haiti 24 times since I first set foot in that lovely country in 2001. I began to organize trips and tours to Haiti last summer, 2009. I understand completely all the complaints you have. I have voiced them myself. However, nothing says something louder than putting one’s money where one’s mouth is. If we want the oppression to stop, we must build the capacity of the Haitian people to corner their markets and become owners of their businesses and promote themselves and make profit from their beautiful island before the likes of Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines take over.
    Please assist the people of Haiti by funding the project that several of the mayors in the Northern part of Haiti, around Milot and the great fortress, the Citadel Lafferier.
    If you would like to make transformation a reality in Haiti. Please return my email and ask for the attachments to the project. Grassroots assistance will provide grassroots upward mobility. Without this approach, bottom up developement, Haitians will never have a chance to keep their sovereignty.
    Thanks for listening,

  4. John Mulligan,
    You don’t know what the hell you are talking about. Haitians were reported by numerous sources as being “self-controlled and peaceful” throughout. As I said above, I have been to Haiti 24 times in the last 8 years. I have walked the streets of Port au Prince alone at night and all over the country. I have partied where I was the only white person within miles and I have never experienced racism. You BSers who have never been to Haiti, quit believing everything you read! If you read the figures from every study done about crime in the Caribbean, haiti is at the bottom of the list for percentages and numbers in all areas. Even in the midst of 2006, which was the worst year for kidnappings in Haiti, Jamaica had 4 times as many kidnappings. But, where do people go to vacation? They go where the media tells them to go. Why? Because they are sheep. No, you would never consider yourself to be a sheep. You are too, bah, intelligant for, bah, that. You have done so much, bah, to go out of your comfort zone and discover a world that someone has already convinced you is a certain way, bah. Your reality is already made up for you and you don’t question a thing about it, bah, bah, bah…
    Wake up and smell the roses that control your input and output. Garbage in and garbage out.
    Three years ago I intended to bring 30 Haitians to Canada or the United States to do an educational course. These are people who are from the middle class of Haiti. They have steady jobs, have comfortable places to live, and ‘regular’ families. But, the USA and Canada refused to let any of them have a visa. I turned to Jamaica, because the course was being offered there’ and all of them were permitted visas. When I told them why they were being denied access to the USA and Canada, essentially I read the travel warnings posted by the USA State Department, they had a fit. They didn’t ever realize that we think of them as dangerous.
    I was totally embarrassed. You, John, should be, too. Someone once told me, “Of what you don’t know, don’t speak.” I will add, “Unless you speak to ask questions.” You haven’t walked in Haitian shoes and you haven’t the least bit of nerve to try. You haven’t walked in an Iranians shoes and you haven’t the nerve to try. You, like I used to do, sit on your ass, drinking your beer, pontificating like some jackass learned intellectual, spouting out what you have ‘heard’ and ‘read’ and not even checking to see if those jerks who are, themselves, pontificating, have walked in the others’ shoes or have an agenda that would make them spout their nasty lies.
    Please, John, and all of us, give other people a break. We deserve it.
    Come to Haiti with me, John. It will cost you $1,500.00 and your life will never be the same, in a very good, good way. I will take you to beautiful beaches and beautiful mountain streams and, yes, to poverty with happy children and sturdy, hardworking men and women. Come, John. Then, you, too, can educate the less fortunate Monday morning quarterbacks.
    Thanks for listening, if you did,
    All of them did the course and returned to Haiti to live there lives. They are doing great things there in there homeland.

  5. John,
    Here is another account for you to fathom.

    Updates from Port au Prince

    Port au Prince, Haiti, March 7 , 2010-

    Breaking the cycle of disease by closing the nutrient cycle:
    SOIL and the sanitation crisis in Port au Prince

    Dear friends,

    I am sorry that I have been out of touch for the past several weeks. Every day is like a lifetime and at the end we just collapse into bed after a cold shower, and in the morning we sit up and look out at the camp spread before us and the whirlwind begins again. But most of us have managed to hold on to our sanity, tethering our minds to our work. As the weeks go by the city begins to look more familiar, the shattered buildings have become a part of my mindscape and there are moments when I barely notice them. People wind through the traffic jams and the streets are lined with vendors, people who have left the camps during the day to return to their old sites along the street, sitting in front of their crumbled homes selling fried food and soaps. Children run around the camps in packs and their laughter filters through my pillows.

    As the weeks drag into months I remain in awe of the ways in which people maintain their dignity, I am amazed by the discipline and kindness of hungry people. I think of how hunger can affect my own mood and wonder if I would be as compassionate and full of humor if I had not eaten for days. Despite the deepest resilience there is an anger brewing, a frustration with the fact that aid is not moving fast enough and as we move into the rainy season tens of thousands of people will be stranded without tents. Haiti has struggled with poverty for centuries but it was not a nation of homeless people. Haiti was a country held together by family and community and very few adults slept on the street. Before January 12 no one would have considered camping in Port au Prince, now over a million people sleep in the streets every night, forced to lay aside their fears as they drift off to sleep in a sea of neighbors and strangers.

    For nearly 2 months Nick and I slept behind Matthew 25 house in the middle of a small tent city of some of our dearest friends, volunteers and doctors, adjacent to a camp with about 1400 people sleeping in it. Every night I left my purse next to my bed, and being myself I often left it out there in the morning when I went for coffee. In 2 months I never had a single thing stolen nor felt unsafe in any way. I even became accustomed to the evangelical woman with a megaphone who begins circulating around 4:30 am. I am used to the pace of life here, the easy smiles and the tough stares, the animated arguments and voiceless interchanges, but I will never cease to be impressed with the grace of the Haitian people, even in the face of inexplicable suffering.

    Time passes and we have continued with our relief efforts though our strategy is shifting. We will continue to give food and water for the coming month, but we are also beginning to focus on sanitation solutions that could help prevent the spread of disease as the situation in Port au Prince shifts from emergency to recovery. Nick and I began attending the sanitation cluster meetings during our first week in Port au Prince, to get a better sense of the various actors. Just as people never slept in the street before the earthquake, there was no active interest in sanitation in Haiti prior to Jan 12. For centuries Port au Prince’s human wastes have been dumped into the ocean, rivers and fields without treatment. Before there was no question of where our wastes were going, and now the halls of DINEPA (the government direction of portable water and sanitation) are flooded with representatives of all of the world’s big organizations, everyone clamoring to get a handle on the sanitation crisis that has been unveiled by the earthquake.

    Prior to the earthquake Haiti had by far the lowest sanitation coverage in the hemisphere and heavy child mortality due to water borne disease. In a city of more than 2 million people, hundreds of thousands never had access to a toilet and were forced to go to the bathroom in plastic bags or in nearby ravines. The sanitation crisis did not come from the earthquake, the earthquake only exacerbated it, as people spilled into the streets so too did their secrets, and when you don’t have a toilet, sanitation is a secret. Now the spotlight of international attention is directed on Haiti and it is impossible to ignore the increasingly dire sanitation crisis. Given that more than half a million people are displaced, there is a need for a minimum of 10,000 toilets to safely serve a population of that size. Two months after the crisis there are less than 3000 toilets in place in the camps and many of those that have been installed may be damaged in the coming rains.

    In Petionville the two main squares are now home to over 13,000 people and only 15 portable toilets. Imagine if there are 866 people per toilet and 720 minutes in the day, that would mean that for everyone to use the toilet once a day there would be less than 1 minute per person. Also at the rate the toilets are being used, they need to be emptied every day and there are currently not enough desludging trucks in Port au Prince to service all of the toilets being installed. When the toilets are emptied they are taken to a new site set up by the government which is in the middle of the city dump. To get to the site you pass through piles of burning garbage the size of football fields. Hundreds of people come to the dump every day to scavenge for pieces of metal, and firewood. At the end of the steaming garbage there are 4 pits, dug shortly after the earthquake. The sludge from the toilets is dumped into or near the puts where it is mixed with all kinds of garbage and medical wastes. Now only 1 month after the holes were dug they are full and every day the amount of human wastes coming out of the camps is increasing.

    SOIL is a small organization and we do not have the capacity to make an impact in terms of number of toilets, but we are innovative and we are planning on being in Haiti for the long haul. So we have chosen to focus our efforts on piloting ecological technologies and helping as best we can to coordinate between other large agencies to increase the efficiency and cultural appropriateness of service delivery. This week we began a project in collaboration with OXFAM – GB to construct 50 urine diversion toilets, 100 arborloos and construct a pilot composting site for Port au Prince. We will be working on this project for the next 6 months while continuing to move forward with our sanitation work in the north. We hope that our pilot work and our dedicated networking will help to create sustainable sanitation systems in Haiti. We are committed to breaking the cycle of disease that happens when people come in contact with untreated human wastes by rebuilding the nutrient cycle. By recycling human wastes through composting, the pathogens die off and the nutrients can be reused to enhance agriculture and feed people, breaking the disease cycle and closing nutrient cycle.

    With the rainy season just weeks away, organizations focusing on health in the camps have warned of large-scale risk for outbreak of diarrhea due to the high density of the camps, the lack of proper waste management services, and poor sanitation services. The pace of aid is slow and the level of dissatisfaction is understandably growing. Sometimes frustration washes through me and I remember what Rea always says to me “se’m pa janm dekouraje” which translates to “my sister never give up”. If Rea can stand strong and keep fighting, fiercely moving through the dust of the crumbled buildings, then surely we can all find the strength to keep moving forward.

    The rain began to fall a few days ago and I could feel the city shudder. As the rubble runs down the main streets and the latrines fill we feel even more committed to our work. I drift off to sleep at night, willing my heart to slow after the madness of the day, before I sleep it returns to the rhythm that reminds me that there is nowhere in the world I would rather be. Many organizations filled with good hearted people will come and go, restricted by security rules and short term contracts, but SOIL will stay and we will do our best to be the glue that holds together all of the incredible souls, Haitian and international, who are working for reconstruction and a sustainable future.

    To maintain our immediate relief and sustainable sanitation work we need your support. Everyone has been so generous and I know how difficult times are for all of us. We ask you to continue to supporting our work on any level that you are able. Your love and donations can make a difference.

    With love from Port au Prince,

Leave a Reply