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Dr. Joia Mukherjee Headshot

History May Be Haiti's Greatest Resource

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Haiti was founded by a righteous revolution in 1804, the first black republic, the first to force Emperor Napoleon to retreat, the first to break the chains of slavery, the only to aid Bolivar in his struggle to liberate Latin America. It is the response of the powerful to that history that has impoverished Haiti. Feared by Jefferson for their successful uprising; extorted by France in 1825 for 150 million French francs to compensate France for losing these once chatteled people (a debt the Haitian people finally finished repaying more than a century later); occupied by the U.S. military to stifle European influences in Latin America; disrespected in their quest for democracy by dictators and coup d'états backed by Western powers, the free people of Haiti have been continually crushed with the enormous debt that attempted to re-shackle them.

Why does this history matter in the face of the current tragedy? Because this history and the constant fight and struggle of the Haitian people for justice and dignity are their greatest resource. It is this history that makes Haiti mighty -- mighty without wealth, without natural resources, without arable land and without arms.

As Medical Director of Partners In Health and one of millions of people profoundly connected to the people of Haiti, I left my home and my three-year-old son in Boston on January 13, the morning after the earthquake struck, for Port-au-Prince. Upon arriving, my colleague David Walton and I saw 800 patients at a public clinic in Cité Soleil with staff from the Haitian Ministry of Health, Haitian volunteers and Médecins Sans Frontières staff. With all the pain and suffering, hunger and fear, the courtyard remained a series of orderly tents where people waited patiently for the surgical help they needed that was, in most cases, days away.

I saw the thousands of people encamped on the Champs Mars, and they were singing -- singing to God, singing to each other, singing to their children, singing as they bathed their loved ones in a make-shift bucket. They were working -- digging by hand through the rubble to pull out their families, their friends, their neighbors, to dust off a shirt, a pot, a book. They were walking -- to volunteer at the hundreds of grassroots community "shelters" where youth are still trying to bring medicines, water, solidarity, hope; to the provinces far away with every worldly belonging on their heads, hips, and back; and to collect meager food or water.

In every corner of the city I traveled -- and I traveled to many during my 10 days in Port-au-Prince, often at one, two and three in the morning -- I did not see a burning tire or a gun drawn. This is not a war, it is a tragedy. The response must be based not on militarism but on solidarity. Solidarity is written on the Haitian flag. L'Union Fait La Force -- together we are strong.

My second night in Haitiat midnight, I went with Loune Viaud, PIH's Chief Operating Officer in Haiti, to the Hopital Université L'Etat Haitian to meet with the director, Dr. Lessegue, who has worked at this impoverished public facility that produces some of the best doctors and nurses in the world. He was still, at hour 50 after the first shock, working. As we walked in the dark, moonless night, through the courtyard where 1,500 severely wounded people were waiting for surgery -- sleeping, surviving, dying, without power or water, with scant medicines or staff -- we found the hospital's Chief Administrator, Nurse Thompson, a Haitian nurse with advanced training and more than 20 years at the University hospital. She was kneeling on the rubbish strewn aground in the sea of the needy, starting an intravenous line in a small child as an auxiliary nurse held a cell phone open for light.

That, for me, was the first time tears flowed. As much for the deep humility and solidarity in this small moment as for the apocalyptic tragedy that has struck the people of Haiti: my people, our people, free people, mighty people. As we come together to heal and rebuild this nation, we must restore it not to where it was, impoverished and neglected by the attempted suppression of the Haitian spirit, but to its rightful place: rich, proud, unique, one of the most important countries in the history and heart of all humanity.

Amidst the rubble of the houses, schools and in front of the once grand National Palace stands Neg Mawon -- the symbol of Haiti. Neg Mawon means at once -- the marooned man, the runaway slave and the free man -- testament of the complex history of the Haitian people stolen from Africa, marooned on an island and liberated though a brave and radical revolution. Shackles broken, machete in hand, the free man blows a conch to gather others in his fight for the freedom and dignity of all people and for the self-evident truth--that all men are created equal. Neg Mawon is the symbol of Haiti's greatest resource -- her indefatigable people, a people profoundly and proudly woven to their history. A Neg Mawon toujou kanpe, Neg Marron pral toujou kanpe. Neg Mawon still stands and will always stand. We too must stand with Haiti and, through solidarity, work toward the future the Haitian people deserve.

Joia Mukherjee is Medical Director of Partners In Health, Director of the Institute for Health and Social Justice at Partners in Health and an Attending Physician at both Brigham & Women's Hospital and Massachusetts General Hospital.