March 6, 2010
-- Evenings in Haiti arrive early. It is already dark by seven o clock and there is little noise in the camps. It is the silence of a land devoid of electricity or radios and guitars. Every now and then flames burn brightly from a little fire scattered through the tents. The enormous outpouring of sympathy from all around the world does not seem to have reached this part of Dumornay, a Christian community that had previous thrived under the guiding hand of Bishop Peter Dorcilien. When the earthquake came on that fateful day in January, it nearly killed his wife, Gladys who was trapped in their house. The building they lived had also been a school looking after the educational needs of about 150 of the community. Fortunately, the disaster struck at twilight and the schoolchildren had already gone home. It lasted only forty seconds but it followed many of the children to their homes and after the cloud of dust had settled over their Tabbarre parish many had died. Many of his parishioners later described to me the moaning sound of the rubble that was left behind. The moaning lasted about three days and then it stopped to be replaced by a putrid smell. In those early days funeral pyres were made of old car tyres in the capital and bodies of loved ones were thrown onto them as there was no more place in the cemeteries and no-one could afford the hundred dollars burial fee. Old shopping trolleys and wheelbarrows doubled as hearses and that was only for the dead. The living praised the Lord they were alive and held back their tears while the injured had to be cruelly cut from the rubble with whatever instruments were at hand. Often a butcher’s knife or a crude hacksaw became a surgical instrument of mercy and the newly freed amputees were brought to already crowded hospitals like St. Damien’s Paediatric where Dr. Gautier and Sister Magda attended patients from sunrise to sunset slowly getting their way through the immense lines of broken bodies entering the triage area.
St. Damien’s is a children’s hospital that is part of Nuestros Pequenos Hermanos (Our little Brothers and Sisters) International (NPH). The local workers of the hospital, including Irish nurse Gena Heragty, Director of Special Needs Programs worked from early morning to dark in those early days tending to the needs of the populous. As evening fell the hospital workers made their way back to the surrounding tent cities as most of them slept there as they had no homes left to go to. I was kept informed of what was happening by a Dublin friend Peter Gannon who had worked with NPH as an NGO in the period just before Christmas. Some of his medical friends informed me the biggest health risk was actually respiratory infections and requirement for vaccinations. He also told me that people should remember that over half the population of Haiti did not have access to clean drinking water before the earthquake happened. I was also aware malnutrition was endemic and nearly a fifth of a million people had HIV/AIDS. The average life expectancy on the island was 44 and the annual income just over $650.
I know from working in previous disaster zones the three things that survivors immediately need are food, water and shelter. The next things they require are sanitation, antibiotics and mosquito nets. The World responded in kind but in a totally disorganised fashion. I watched as hungry people gathered around a food truck only to discover it was a forty-foot container of bandages from New York. Worse still, they were bandages for burns victims and it had cost over five thousand dollars to ship them and then pay to get them over the border from the Dominican Republic. The saddest part was to watch the 150 hungry people who had gathered have to carry them into the grounds of the school of Miracle Restoration so another home cold be found for them before the hundreds of cardboard boxes became soaked in the oncoming rainy season. Not one complained, each carried their load with dignity, in the knowledge that maybe the next container carried food for them. But the next containers brought more bandages although on the third day busted cartons of bottled water and bags of rice arrived to be distributed to the community. The dignity of the Haitian people is overwhelming. They carried it with them on the slave ships that brought them from Africa to this god forsaken island, they carried it when their French masters beat them on the sugar plantations, they carried it through the bloody uprising of 1791 and again when they were forced to pay reparations to their former slave masters and colonisers. They carried it when they went to bed each night in ever emerging shanty towns made of cardboard, wire and tin. Then came the years of the Duvalier family dictatorships, the tonton macoutes and the more recent corrupt government of Jean-Bertand Aristide. I stood outside the walls of his graffitied house in La Plaine and wondered what he now thought of it all as he sunned himself on some distant South African beach.
For a while I sat with Richard Morse, owner of that famous Hotel Oloffson forever immortalised in Graham Greens ‘The Comedians’. We discussed the politics of the day and how each regime seemed to eventually become worse than the next. At night, Richard played in a voodoo-band called RAM. He gave me a copy of his latest CD Kite Yo Pale and told me there was little to fear from the voodoo religion. He explained to me it was like an extension of what was there already. He said “Protestants have God and the Trinity, Catholics have God, The Trinity and the Saints and Voodoo has God, The Trinity, the Saints and the spirits”. Vodouisants believe in a supreme being called Bondye, but also worship many lesser spirits, as the loa. These African religions were carried across the Atlantic in the minds of the Haitian ancestors and when it came in contact with Roman Catholicism, their supreme being became infused with our Judeo-Christian God and the loa became the saints. I had encountered it when I worked as a ships surgeon in the Caribbean but suddenly it held no fear for me. These gods of Baron Samedi and St. Jacques seemed no more threatening than the stories about spirits that I and heard from the local Barkindji aboriginal tribes in the Australian outback. In fact I later used two of his tracks Chita La and Erzuli O on some YouTube videos about my experiences in Haiti.
Later in the day I met Hugh Brennan, a construction engineer working with Haven, an Irish philanthropic organisation building homes and communities for the Haitian people. Haven works in Haiti by training, up-skilling and employing local Haitian people to build the homes all year round. In this way, they hope to create jobs in a country where unemployment stands at more than 50% and opportunities are few. The reason for our meeting is to try and get Haven to provide some means of sanitation to the forgotten shanty town of Dumornay. Hugh is very positive, business-like and is willing to train the camp inhabitants to provide for twenty four toilets and give the 16 labourers required $5 per day. The problem is the shanty town has been established on land belonging to the US Embassy and the leaders fear that the newly built infrastructure may be perceived as starting a claim and force them of the land and be treated like squatters. Here, before my eye is the very ideological microcosm of world political order, which stifles progress like none other. Who controls the people and for what benefit to whom? Will the main country of capitalism subject to market forces and take back the land from the penniless resident or will social idealism prevail and mercy being shown to a people that have nothing but the mixed images of Jesus and Baron Samedi in their heads?. The next day, the local dilemma still exists as I make my way back to the airport to Miami.
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Dr. Patrick Treacy is Medical Director of Ailesbury Clinics Ltd. He is Chairman of the Irish Association of Cosmetic Doctors and Irish Regional Representative of the BACD. He is a Medical Advisor to the UK's largest cosmetic website Consulting Rooms.