Haiti Watch: There Are No Loaves and Fishes in This Purgatory

PART TWO of Day Two in Haiti

Writing all of this down has become a dreaded chore every evening, but this is why writers travel—to put experiences into words that describe something the reader cannot see with eyes that are too distant. The first sentence is mightier than the proverbial sword if it can attract attention or elicit curiosity. This writer feels spent tonight, and the mind wanders to loved ones who are missed, hands one would like to hold, friendships that need repairing, and a dog that craves petting back in Florida.

A soft rain has just begun to fall, but it is a terrible event here in Petionville, Haiti. There are 5,000 people with no shelter, food, or sanitation on Highway 1, about an hour from here. Babies are sleeping in dust that is turning to mud alongside mothers with shriveled breasts who are offering the infants paint chips mixed with dirt because they believe it is nutritious. It is all they have.

Meanwhile, clients come and go from this whorehouse where the writer has her bed, and the people shouting and partying on the streets could care less about the 5,000—let alone the 1,000,000 homeless here in Haiti. The rain is pounding harder now.

Something is very wrong. God is not paying attention.

But the writer has begun with the wrong story. The road to the 5,000 began in Miami last Wednesday— and it is not the story that the writer promised to Dick and Sharon and the LA Progressive. Since it is long past time for the telling of the promised story, the writer will try.

The story begins, like all stories do, with serendipity, a chance encounter, and a door that one may choose to open or ignore—doors more often than not open to reveal paths that take one out of one’s comfort zone and safety net.  Mark Moore was the key to Haiti.

During a lunch break at a conference at Miami’s Sofitel Hotel, Mark asked to sit at the writer’s table. He had just returned to the States from Haiti, where he is a partner in a security firm. He also runs a small non-profit and happens to be married to a Haitian woman.  The white tablecloth was already rumpled from notebooks and maps when Mark sat down with his plate of poached salmon. The writer’s map of Haiti slopped into his salad. No matter.  Huge hands picked it up and he declared it “a good map.” Mark asked about the scribbled phone numbers and arrows written in the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. The writer, who had never been to Haiti, explained that they were contacts and story ideas offered by human rights organizations and web readers at the LA Progressive.

Mark’s fingers traced a crescent shape over the map from north to south–from Jacmel to Cap Haitian–and he agreed that the areas the writer had targeted looked good for learning and story telling. Then, he uttered a request. There is a woman named Ginette (he spelled it Jeannette) who was badly injured in the January 12 earthquake. She is related to his wife and he feels she has not had proper orthopedic aftercare for her broken nose, suborbital and arm fractures, and a crushed pelvis. American doctors swooped into Haiti and saved many lives, but time ran out on their clocks, they punched out, and hundreds of patients are still housed in wards at St. Nicholas Hospital in the city of St. Marc.

“Are you traveling with a doctor?”

“Yes, but he is an Emergency Room doc, without extensive orthopedic experience.”

“Will you go? Please.”

“Of course.”

And so, finding Ginette became the primary mission of the journey to Haiti, and the writer believed that it would truly be the most difficult task she faced. The door opened and the safety net fell away.

This is the place where the telling becomes difficult.  On the road to find Ginette, and during the days since the journey to find her began, sights, sounds, smells, experience, and revulsion have replaced the urgency to tell her story. There are hundreds of stories to tell, and while one is trying to explain how we found Ginette, the others shout for attention and the mind can no longer sort the images, one from another. So, now the reader knows.

We found Ginette and she is OK. She is broken in some ways, but she will live to remember being covered in concrete and wood.

Rain beats on the window now, and other buried images are screaming for attention. They must wait.

Ginette

On Day Two we joined our fixer, Andre, and drove up the coast along Highway One to the coastal town of St. Marc. The rubble and despair of Port-au-Prince was left behind. To our left was the passage through the Caribbean Sea known as the Canal de St. Marc—to the right the Matheux and Montagnes Mountains. Along the way we buried a boy and noticed some blue tarps tucked into a dusty plain. The tents seemed unremarkable upon our first passing.

The remarkable boy is still screaming. But, the writer must ignore his memory.

Driving into St. Marc, a sign offered a greeting. “Welcome to St. Marc for all the injured people from Port-au-Prince.” The sign is the key to all of the stories. When the 7.0 quake hit for 34 seconds at 4:53 pm eight weeks ago on January 12, it destroyed the entire infrastructure for three million people.  The injured had to be moved out of the city to rural areas to obtain care. St. Nicholas Hospital in St. Marc did its best to care for those it received and is still doing so.

As we searched for Ginette in the labyrinth of wards, 300 people waited in the courtyards for the opportunity to see one of four rotating Haitian doctors. 500 people languished as in-patients. The administrator told our doctor that the hospital had no antibiotics. The doctor offered his supply of medicines that will last for about a week, and pocketed a list of urgent supplies that will cost $93,000 to obtain. St. Nicholas needs Santa Claus.

The good news is that Ginette is doing well and has made a new friend whose name is Ketna. Ketna is in bed number 30 in the orthopedic ward and wanted us to take her photo with her sons. When Ginette saw this happening, she called for one of the boys to lift and carry her so that she could be photographed with her friend. She looked like a rag doll as the boy lifted her. Ginette had become so big in the writer’s mind that it was a shock to see how frail and very small she really is. That she survived when her house fell on her is a miracle. God pays attention to some, and that is the lesson that Ginette offers.

But God is ignoring the 5,000 who became visible upon the return to Petionville.

“What is that?”

Thousands upon thousands of meager tents appeared as if in a mirage as the angle of the sun changed. A sign read, “We need help.” The doctor stopped. But we were only three, and 5,000 had seen no one since they were moved from the open spaces in Port-au-Prince four weeks ago. The wind whipped the plastic non-shelters mercilessly in the 90-degree heat, and dust clogged the nose and blurred camera lenses. Still, one must try. Always try.

The doctor said he would see immediate problems, and within minutes mothers and babies formed a line. How did they know? It was as if the winds carried a whisper of hope through the camp.

An older man stood quietly nearby. Whenever he stepped forward, the doctor and the writer said, “babies first.”

“Will you treat an old man?” It was a humble request.

Babies seemed to be crying everywhere. Not fussing, but the kind of painful crying that makes the listener’s ears hurt.

What about the old? They should not be forgotten. The writer nodded him forward, and did not like the responsibility of triage.

The man opened his shirt to reveal a scrawny ribcage on a body that looked fit but hungry. He was in a lot of pain and the diagnosis amounted to a stress ulcer. It sounds small compared to the dead and dying, but searing pain in the stomach is pain all the same. We kicked ourselves that we did not think to bring medications for posttraumatic stress.

And so it went. Stress illnesses, infectious diarrhea in the infants, colic, asthma from the damn dust, dehydration from the sun, mothers with withered breasts who have nothing left, and the rains had not yet hit. This was two days ago at this writing.

Imagine hearing a doctor telling a young mother with a listless infant that she must drink more water, when there is little available. The mother explains that she is hungry, someone stole her tarp, she is sleeping outside, and that is why she cannot make milk. The doctor says she will make milk if she drinks. It is all he has to offer.

There are no loaves and fishes in this purgatory.

Today, March 15, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will deliver remarks to Haiti earthquake task force volunteers “to express the U.S. Government’s appreciation for their help” during the earthquake crisis.

U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Kenneth Merten and the staff of the U.S. Embassy in Port-au- Prince will participate in the event via digital videoconference.

georgiianne

“More than 1,800 Department of State employees from the Foreign Service, Civil Service, and Department Contractor Companies, many of whom will be in attendance in person or via videoconference on Monday, volunteered in the six different State Department Task Forces that were in play during and after this disaster,” Clinton’s press release said.

Forget the kudos, leave Port-au-Prince, and see what is happening an hour away from your videoconference, Ambassador Merten.

Bring water. Just because the media has left does not mean all is well. There is no recovery here. Your Haitian patient has flatlined, Madame Secretary.

Georgianne Nienaber

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Published by the LA Progressive on March 15, 2010
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About Georgianne Nienaber

Georgianne Nienaber is an investigative and political writer. She lives in rural northern Minnesota, New Orleans and South Florida. Her articles have appeared in The Society of Professional Journalists' Online Quill Magazine, The Ugandan Independent, Rwanda's New Times, India's TerraGreen, COA News, ZNET, OpEdNews, Glide Magazine, The Journal of the International Primate Protection League, Africa Front, The United Nations Publication, A Civil Society Observer, Bitch Magazine, and Zimbabwe's The Daily Mirror. Her fiction exposé of insurance fraud in the horse industry, Horse Sense, was re-released in early 2006. Gorilla Dreams: The Legacy of Dian Fossey was also released in 2006. She spent much of 2007-2009 doing research in South Africa, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Georgianne was in DRC as a MONUC-accredited journalist, and has been working in Southern Louisiana investigating hurricane reconstruction and getting to know the people there since late 2007. She is a member of the Memphis Chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. Georgianne is currently developing a short story collection set in Louisiana, and is continuing "to explore the magic of the Deep South."