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Numbing Numbers

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By Peter Costantini - Seattle

To get a feeling for the magnitude of the suffering in Haiti, you have to try to fit some context around those hallucinatory strings of zeros. Keep in mind that they are all estimates, though, with big variations between different sources.

The January 12 earthquake probably killed over 200,000 people, as many as the short-term deaths from the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. Haiti's population, though, is only 9,000,000.

The temblor seriously injured 600,000 people, Inter Press Service estimates. That's about the population of the city of Seattle. It pulverized much of the government, education and health systems, infrastructure and economy of the poorest and most environmentally ravaged country in the hemisphere. Flattening 75 percent of the capital city, according to the French newspaper Le Monde, it left some 2,000,000 people homeless, of whom 800,000 have yet to find temporary shelter more than a month after the quake - the equivalent of San Francisco out on the street.

Over half of Haitians were already undernourished before the quake. Now, with parts of the countryside overwhelmed with refugees from the city, Director-General Jacques Diouf of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation told IPS that "Haiti is facing a major food crisis".

Coming hard on the heels of four devastating hurricanes in 2008, the catastrophe culminated a half-century of trashing and looting by the Duvalier dictatorships and a succession of military juntas, and a century and a half before that of debt peonage to France wrapped up by twenty years of occupation by the U.S. Marines.

It numbs the mind to try to imagine how anyone can begin to dig out from under such a crushing pile of rubble and history. But many of Haiti's citizens and much of its diaspora have met atrocious adversity with energy, generosity, ingenuity, and a determination to build something better on the ruins. When the numbers stop making sense, it helps to sit down and talk with one of them.

I met Hervé Junior Bijou at a coffee shop on a tree-lined avenue in Seattle. When I came in, he was drinking coffee with his friend Tony from Martinique, and playing with his baby daughter, whom he had brought along in a stroller. He spoke intensely with an attorney's precision and a community organizer's urgency, alternating between English and French.

Bijou grew up in Jérémie, a small city at the tip of Haiti's southern peninsula about 120 miles west of Port-au-Prince. In 2006, he graduated second in his class from law school. Experiences volunteering in the prison system led him to co-found a non-profit group to offer legal assistance to detainees in his hometown.

His wife, Sujata, has worked in international public health in Madagascar and Haiti. She and Hervé were preparing for a trip to Africa early this year.

When the disaster struck his home, Bijou was stuck on the far side of the continent. But he quickly refocused his energies into helping his family and community. At first he planned to go to Haiti, but then decided to stay in Seattle to coordinate aid and do public education. "I wasn't happy with how aid was being distributed in Haiti," he told me. "You have to get the permission of the U.S. Army, and everything takes too long. So we decided to do it ourselves."

Hervé and Sujata formed a non-profit organization, MaHa-LiLo. The name stands for "Many hands, light load", a popular Haitian proverb ("Men anpil, chay pa lou" in Kreyol). A friend with Mustardseed Ministries, a non-profit group in Indiana with whom they are working, is in Haiti providing emergency health care and trying to organize the transportation of two containers of medical supplies into the country. Both groups are coordinating the distribution of aid through Foundation of Hope for Haiti, Inc., a Haitian non-profit group.

For the Bijou family, the earthquake came in the midst of a life-threatening crisis. Bijou's younger sister in Jérémie had almost died from a neurological problem before the disaster. She was scheduled to travel to Port-au-Prince for urgent surgery. But the hospital where it was going to be done was destroyed by the earthquake, and the road to the capital was full of cracks and impassible.

Her mother made the dangerous trip by boat. But she couldn't find any doctors willing to do the operation. "We're at the end of our rope," he said. "We don't know what to do. We wanted to take her directly to Florida, but there's a U.S. Navy destroyer blocking the coast to prevent people from leaving."

Although his hometown was not badly damaged physically, Bijou said, it is facing a refugee crisis and resulting food shortages. Because so many roads and transport vehicles were destroyed, many people had left Port-au-Prince and surrounding areas in an armada of small boats, many of which sank. Survivors landed on the shores of Jérémie and other towns with nothing. Around Haiti, the countryside is crowded with refugees from the city, overloading the houses and resources of rural residents.

Right now, he said, there's an urgent need to get aid to the smaller towns outside of the metropolis. While most of the aid stays in Port-au-Prince, hospitals in other parts of Haiti are overflowing, unable to handle the influx of sick and injured people fleeing the city.

"Food is very expensive," Bijou said. "Water is gold. There's a health crisis caused by all the rotting corpses buried in collapsed buildings. We've got to get all the aid we can to the smaller cities and care for the wounded there. The transport of aid has got to become more decentralized. Everything used to come through the capital, but now the head is cut off."

Bijou is critical of the performance of the Haitian government so far. "I understand their situation: their ministry buildings are destroyed. They need the means to act but they have nothing. But you can't just stand there with your arms crossed."

The government should be dealing with things like recovering bodies, he believes, and setting up information centers so that families and friends can find each other. "It's now or never to gain the confidence of the population. Haiti is a sovereign country. The government ought to be making decisions. It ought to be more engaged in the reconstruction and organization of the country. But it seems to me that it has just passed the responsibility to the U.S. military. Now it's a pure and simple occupation: the presence of a foreign army and the absence of a local government."

In the current dire situation, Bijou believes it would be a bad moment for the return of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a controversial figure among Haitians. The former President was removed from office in murky circumstances that some consider a coup, and lives in exile in South Africa. "If the population revolted against him, it had good reason," said Bijou. "He killed a lot of people - whole families disappeared. I have friends who lost family members because of him. Morally, this is not the moment to reopen those wounds and throw politics into turmoil. We don't need any more blood or chicanery. I know that constitutionally he has the right to come back, but if he loves the country he won't."

photo credit: Peter Costantini - Ti Rivyè