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Small survivors of the January 12 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

These pint-sized survivors were rescued from the general hospital in Port-au-Prince, Haiti where they were found abandoned after the January 12, 2010 earthquake which reduced an entire wing of the public hospital to rubble.

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By the way, If you want to read about my experience doing relief work in Haiti you can read my posts City of Displaced Souls about my first two weeks in Haiti after the earthquake and The Broken Heart of the Caribbean written as I was leaving Haiti, after 6 weeks.

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I am writing to you from Haiti, the broken heart of the Caribbean. First of all I want to thank you all – for your thoughts, prayers, meditations, good vibrations, donations, and endless support. My friends and family back home have kept me informed of your words of encouragement and kept my spirits up with anecdotes of local generosity and solidarity.

Things are getting better, but life is far from easy here. Last night it rained and, from the shelter of our tent, my friends and I thought of the hundreds of thousands sleeping on the dirt under nothing more than a ripped sheet. How can they maintain health and sanitation in these conditions?

Incomprehensively, the earth has started to shake again: 3 times yesterday. People have been through so much already and it seems so unfair that the earth would torment them further. The terror lurking just beneath the surface of brave Haitian faces will bubble over if the quakes continue. I fear for the sanity of this struggling nation.

Children playing in a makeshift camp in Port-au-Prince

It is true that the emergency is over (we hope) and that life is starting to return to normal (if it could ever be normal for the city to be littered with refugee camps where families live in 4m² lean-tos made from sticks and sheets or (if lucky) tarpaulin and line up daily for the ration of rice and water that will keep their family alive today), but the suffering does not disappear when the news cameras do.

The adrenaline is wearing off and now the grim reality is setting in: a city of homeless and hungry; a city filled with grieving mothers, brothers, daughters, and friends; a whole generation tormented by nightmares and holding their noses to shield from the smell of hidden bodies decaying in broken homes. Who will help heal the emotional and psychological scarring?

This week a woman gave birth against her will. She had lost her mother, father, and husband in the quake. They told me that throughout her labour she was screaming at her baby not to come out, not to come into this horrible world. The midwives were begging her to push but during each contraction she tried desperately to hold her baby in. 12 hours later her baby was born and a little flame of hope flared in her eye. New life has that effect. That’s why I try to visit our neo-natal ward each day – those tiny, moon-eyed babies, unscarred by the trauma of the quake, give me hope that life will one day be good again.

A young girl feeding her baby sister in St. Damien Hospital

The point is that it is easy to forget what is happening here once the news coverage dies away. I want to thank you all for everything you have already done for Haiti and encourage you to keep it up. The work to recover and rebuild is just beginning – people need tents to protect themselves from the rains that are starting to fall; they need to remove the rubble of their demolished homes, reclaim the bodies of their loved ones and give them the dignified burials they deserve; they need to plan for a new home and a new future; they need food – not just today, not just this week, but every day until the economy can recover and until their souls and bodies begin to heal; they need medical care and sanitation; education (so many schools have been left as nothing more than rocks and rubble); psychological and social support; clothing; and all the building blocks of life. Please do not desert them now, please keep them in your prayers and give what you can.

This will be my last week in Haiti. Malaria sapped the last of my energy and energy is something you need in abundance to work effectively here. A new wave of volunteers are arriving, including someone I can train to manage the logistics, the donations, the volunteer arrivals and departures. Next week I return to my kids and my work in the DR, back to my “normal” life, but I will always carry Haiti with me in my heart. This experience has been both the hardest and most rewarding of my life. I feel privileged to have been welcomed by Haiti in her time of need. I will not forget Haiti. Will you?

Thank you for all you have done for Haiti, and all you will do.

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I have been in Haiti for two weeks now (is that all?) and it seems like I should try to let you know where I’m at (physically, emotionally, mentally). Do I even know?

I am just sitting here with my friend Sally, telling her how I want to give an update about what is going on with me, but that I don’t even know where to begin. I give info updates all the time, I can spurt facts, but how to I even begin to reveal what is really going on in my head and heart? “Tell them how much we cry,” she says.

We cry all the time. Even when there are no tears we are crying. Sally wrote an email to her friends yesterday and she said she finally knows what it means when people say their hearts are bleeding. Our hearts are bleeding. Our souls aching.

*Sigh* and begin…

Earthquake damage in downtown Port-au-Prince

As you know, on Tuesday evening 3 weeks ago today Port-au-Prince, the capital city of Haiti was rocked by an epic 7.0 earthquake. Hundreds of thousands of souls were displaced from their bodies that day. For millions more, life as they knew it ended.

Take my very good friend, Frank. He was walking to University when the quake hit. He describes the earth beneath him thrashing left and right, watching brick walls bend like they were paper, and then buildings start melting all around him. This is just before sunset. Stunned, his friends and he walk for an hour through the dark of the ruined city to arrive in Petion-ville the area where he lives and works (correction, lived and worked, past tense). On the way, an aftershock of 6.1 hits. More buildings tumble. People are wailing prayers. Strangers are holding hands for courage. They walk on. He arrives home to find that his building has collapsed on his basement home. He has no way of knowing if his loved ones are inside. He visits the old hospital where his close friends live and where he works every day. It used to be a 6-storey building. There is nothing but rubble. Over the days that follow he searches for friends and family, pieces together information, tries to delve into the rubble, listening out for SOS calls that never come. His brother had been gravely ill. He is certain he was at home when the earth shook. He hears his sister was seen half an hour before the quake in the local market buying food for dinner, a dinner she was probably cooking when the earthquake hit. He searches and hopes each day, breaking down each time the earth moves again, which is many times each day. Finally, after a week, he is certain they are gone. Already an orphan, he has now lost his 3 younger brothers and sisters, whom he raised for the last 10 years. His brothers and sisters, his children, his best friends. Their bodies still lie decaying beneath the fallen concrete of his former life. He sleeps with hundreds of strangers on a public plaza. All his possessions gone. Almost all of his loved ones lost. Imagine. It is beyond imagination. But Frank has to wake up each morning and face it as his reality. This is his story. Just one of hundreds of thousands (probably millions) that may never be told. Just one.

When the earthquake hit Haiti it shook me to my core. Never had a tragedy been so personal. I ached for the people of Haiti – for my friends, my co-workers, and all those still unknown to me. Days passed before I knew the fate of Frank and other friends. The fear of grief ate away at us in those days, hoping that it wouldn’t be our loved ones that were lost, but knowing that there was no escaping the scale of this tragedy.

We felt so useless in the DR. We wanted to be here, helping, digging, supporting our friends, whatever was needed. But it was still unclear just what was needed. We started to do what we could – fundraising, communicating, buying supplies for the hospital. I barely slept that first week, so frantic, so desperate to do something, anything, that could help ease the pain… but knowing there was nothing that would sooth this grief.

Then my friend Sally called and said she needed me in Haiti. I said I would leave that night. Happy to be called up but sick with fear. I was not afraid for myself. I was afraid that I wouldn’t be strong enough to face what I would be called to face. But I knew I would come, of course I would come here.

And I came. 2 weeks ago.

Patients in makeshift wards outside St. Damien Hospital

After 12 hours on a bus from the Dominican, we finally arrived at St. Damien hospital, the NPFS free Pediatric hospital in Tabarre, on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince. The gardens, parking lots, hallways, and internal courtyards were all filled with groaning, bleeding, stinking patients. Grotesque wounds. Stick fractures. New amputees. An overpowering smell hung low on the whole compound – a heady mix of piss and faeces and gangrene and chlorine and fear.

I put up my defences, unfocused my gaze, tried to breathe through my mouth, and just got on with it. That first day I ran errands for Sally and tried to be useful despite not having any idea what was going on and only speaking a handful of words in Creole.

Frank came to the hospital and that night we lay in a corner of the garden and talked. We cried together. I had held it in all day but I couldn’t keep the bottle sealed, even though I knew he needed me to be strong.

We slept on the roof of the 2 storey volunteer house and woke up the next day to the building shaking in a 6.0 aftershock. We raced down the stairs and fell into a shaky, crying mess as soon as it ended. Our friends Philipe and Frank (both Haitian) decided then and there that we should not sleep in a building. We have been sleeping under the stars ever since. The earth kept shaking for another week. So many aftershocks I was afraid to take a shower, in case the building collapsed. I began to feel the earth shaking when it wasn’t. Everyone else felt the same. The only way we knew which aftershocks were real was by comparing sensations, although when a big tremor hit the whole hospital would start to wail and evacuate themselves from the building. After every aftershock the tension in the air would rise, headaches and anxiety became the norm.

My second night I crept away from my ‘family’ to bawl under a tree. I didn’t want to make anyone feel any worse than they already did, but I needed to release the suffering I was holding inside. Everything I was seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling was all being stored in a little grief warehouse. Every few hours I had to dispatch the surplus, in private if possible.

I almost didn’t make it through the third day. I cried so much. I felt as if my heart was breaking. I felt as if I would lose my mind. I’m serious. I actually heard one reporter who was working with us did lose his and had to be sent home to a psychiatric hospital. My friend Patricia saved me, just by letting my cry and making me laugh that night. I wonder if she even knows what she did for me?

That night was a turning point for me. My darkest moment. I have got a little stronger each day since then. Now I can see the suffering without owning it (well, most of the time). I feel stronger now. I was strong enough (emotionally) to finally see the real devastation last week. We drove through downtown Port-au-Prince and the town of Leogane (more or less the epicentre of the quake) to deliver shelter and supplies to a ruined orphanage in the mountains in the south of Haiti. What I saw will never be able to be understood, except by those who have seen it too. No words can explain, no images can do it justice. Leogane is completely destroyed. 90% of the buildings collapsed. The cemetery is ringed by a mass grave. They just dug a trough, bulldozed in thousands of bodies, and covered them with rubble. What else could they do?

What is the official death toll now? I don’t even know. I have no time to follow the news. A week ago they said 110,000 buried. That is only a fraction of the lives that have been lost. They are only able to count the bodies that they have retrieved. Whole families are trapped in their fallen houses. Half of the city is nothing more than a sea of concrete, the hillsides striped with rubble landslides. How can they even count? It will take years to clean up the rubble. Will they be finding bodies and bones a year from now? They told me of one supermarket that collapsed in which they estimate there are still 400 bodies inside. 400 bodies! In one building! And not a one of them in the official death toll.

One of hundreds of tent cities in Port-au-Prince

And then there are the survivors… where will they go? Hundreds of thousands of homeless sleeping in the streets, in the plazas, on the doorsteps of shops, in the fast-food outlets. Hundreds of makeshift camps in and around the city – people sleeping on the road under the stars, or in huts made of sticks and bedsheets, in camps with hundreds or thousands of other homeless, without food, water, medical treatment, or sanitation. What will become of them? We are trying to help – distributing food, water, tents, medical care – but there is so much need, so many people who are needy. Everywhere you go in the city you see signs scrawled by some desperate hand – “Please help us, we need water, food, shelter” in as many languages as they can recall.

And yet there is hope. And yet there is love. The wards of our hospital are filled with small children with missing limbs and sparkling eyes. The earth has stopped shaking and people are starting to move forward, as best they can. People are hungry, but also humble. I have made so many new friends here. People approach me daily – on the street or in the hospital – to thank me for coming to help them. People laugh and play and share what they have. The Haitians I have met are so strong and so kind and so loving. They are fighters. They will survive this. They are used to surviving. Their lives have been one tragedy after another – hurricanes, dictators, genocide, corruption, starvations, unemployment, and now the earthquake to end all earthquakes. They know no other reality, which is so unfair. But they will survive, and they will teach us. They are teaching me already – about compassion, about love, about my own humanity. They are inspiring me.

Like Frank, who told me that he will make his life count, that he must do something wonderful in this world, to make the deaths of his entire family mean something in the end. He tells me something good must come from this. He is so courageous. Haitians are courageous. They are teaching me to be just a little more courageous.

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