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Kieran Fitzgerald Headshot

Notes on Haiti

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The boy wears blue jeans, dark glasses and an earpiece connected to a cell phone in his pocket. He is no more than nine or ten. He leans against the side of a white UN jeep in the shade of a tall oak. Behind him, a group of younger boys, some barefoot, watch our interaction. He tells me his name is Jackson. We talk about his family, his favorite music. When I ask if I can take his photo, he smiles and shakes his head -- no. I ask him why not, and he replies, in perfect English with a light Creole accent: "Because you are going to take the photograph back to the United States and use it to make money."

I am standing in the middle of a camp of 55,000 displaced people who live in tarpaulin tents and corrugated tin huts and other temporary structures spread across a sloping hillside that was once the only golf course in Port-au-Prince. Our small group, which includes my father, Michael Fitzgerald, and Esther and Flora Hewlett, landed in Haiti that morning. We were met on the tarmac by Sean Penn, whose non-profit J/P HRO (Haitian Relief Organization) took over management of the camp at the Petionville golf course shortly after the January 2010 earthquake that killed an estimated 316,000 people in and around Port-au-Prince.

We have come, as many have come over the past year, to learn and to contribute in some way to the ongoing relief efforts.

I would like to explain this to Jackson. I am not a photojournalist. I am not going to publish his image and profit from it. If anything, my photos will be used to increase awareness of the challenges still facing his country -- which has been largely ignored by the American media since the earthquake -- and to try and raise money to meet those challenges.

I would like to tell Jackson that he has no reason to be suspicious of me.

But though I am new to Haiti, what I have seen in only a few hours has made it unequivocally clear that, in fact, Jackson has every reason to be suspicious of me, and anyone else brandishing a camera, promising money, and professing good intentions.

Driving out of the airport, the road was immediately flanked with makeshift tent cities. Thousands and thousands of tents packed side by side, some still made of the sheets and sticks used for shelter directly following the earthquake, some lined up single file along the road's median. No one oversees these camps, we were told. There are no drainage or sewage systems, no running water, no lights, no security, no clinics, no schools. These people are on their own.

Of the estimated one million Haitians who remain without homes, the majority live outside camps monitored and managed by international aid organizations. Of those lucky enough to live in a managed camp, only 40 percent have access to running water. And yet, by May of 2010, the international community had raised enough aid money to give every displaced family in Haiti a check for $37,000.

So where was the money? The $37,000 checks? The $1.4 billion in donations from American citizens alone? If the reality on the ground in Haiti was so completely and glaringly at odds with the pledges and promises the world has made, what could I possibly say to a 10-year-old boy that would put him at ease about my motives? Wouldn't it be as bad, and possibly worse, to say I worked for the Red Cross as to say I worked for Esquire magazine?

I shoulder my camera and say goodbye to Jackson and rejoin the group, who have gathered around a small security compound. Petionville is fortunate to have a detail of Haitian police on call 24 hours a day and, if needed, a back-up force of UN soldiers. Rape, theft, and violence still occur, but rarely by comparison to other camps and the more dangerous areas of Port-au-Prince. In slums like Cité Soleil and Bel Air, which have been struggling with gang violence since long before the earthquake, we are told it is uncommon to find a girl who has not been raped by the age of 13.

In my dizzied state -- as I try to take in a new culture, a new country, and a hundred new and downright surreal statistics -- a rough sketch of Haiti's current status begins to emerge: there are few reconstructed residences because only 5 percent of the rubble has been removed; there are residences left standing which may or may not have running water and occasional electricity; there are camps you would prefer to live in -- Petionville is the largest and widely recognized as the most efficiently run -- which offer medical facilities and basic sanitation; there are informal camps, like the ones we saw near the airport, which you would prefer not to live in but you might have to because the managed camps now limit their numbers and turn people away; and then there are slums where, though they might have been virtually unaffected by the earthquake, living conditions remain so poor that you would rather upgrade to a tent.

This is just housing. What about the cholera epidemic, which has claimed over 4,000 lives? What about the political storm brewing over alleged fraud perpetrated by President Preval in the ongoing elections? What about infant mortality -- Haiti has the highest rate in the Americas? What about the extreme danger of rape, compounded by the fact that that most of the city has no electricity at night and there are hardly any streetlights? What about the dearth of police -- only 8,000 nationwide serving a population of 10 million? What about AIDS? What about the crippled agricultural sector? What about the decimated fishing industry?

Fish? said our driver, Junior, when I asked him about Port-au-Prince harbor. What fish?

Truly, the mind buckles in this place.

I drift off again to take photos of three young women hanging laundry over one of the many lines crisscrossing the camp's paths and drainage ditches built up with sandbags. At Sean Penn's request, engineers from the 82nd Airborne Division constructed dirt roads, a drainage system, and a series of retaining walls to help minimize the mudslides that come with every rainstorm. Without their efforts, the camp would not have survived the 2010 rainy season. Hurricane Thomas mercifully passed too far off to inflict serious damage. Everyone knows that the camp cannot survive a direct blow from a major hurricane. They are in a race against time and weather to find permanent housing for 55,000 people in a city largely buried in rubble.

When I return, Esther and Flora are kneeling by a little girl who carries an empty plastic bottle in each hand and is crying loudly. One of the Haitian volunteers for J/P explains that the girl's father sent her for water but the truck with bottled water hasn't arrived in camp yet, and she says her father will beat her if she returns with empty bottles.

We radio to the small house at the top of the hill that serves as both camp headquarters and staff dormitory. Rooms have been partitioned to fit more people, and the domed tents of medical volunteers fill the yard. Among the many reasons that J/P has become the model relief organization for the Haitian government and the international community alike is that it spends so little on overhead -- only 4 percent, as compared with 25 to 60 percent for other NGOs. That means nearly all of its budget can go toward the work at hand, which includes everything from bulldozing rubble to make way for reconstruction, to flying helicopters with cholera medication into rural areas, to operating the camp's own clinic and schoolhouse.

The radio crackles to life -- water is on the way. The girl dries her eyes when she hears the news. On this afternoon, she won't be punished. A staff volunteer arrives in a four-wheeler to take her to the water truck. We stand in the soft light of late afternoon watching her go. A couple of westerners in travel clothes, shifting uneasily between a sense of relief at knowing the girl won't be beaten today, and a much greater sense of futility, knowing that in the days and weeks ahead, long after we're gone, her father may continue to abuse her and there will be nothing we can do.

When you dash in and out of people's lives, whatever assistance you offer is always limited, and sometimes entirely hamstrung, by the complexity of a new and separate reality. If I am grasping nothing else, it's that Haiti's reality is very complex.

At 11 a.m. the next morning, our Jeeps pull onto the shoulder of the road that skirts Cité Soleil -- a shantytown of 400,000 people originally designed to house sugar workers in the 1960s. A police truck parks in front of us; two paramilitary policemen step out. They wear helmets and bulletproof vests and carry pump shotguns. Together with our drivers, Edner and Junior, both formerly with President Aristide's private security detail, these men will provide protection for us during our brief visit. Brief -- not so much because of the danger to us as Westerners, but because of the far greater danger to our drivers and the police themselves. Edner and Junior have had many friends gunned down here.

Guided by a local community leader, we weave through streets and alleys lined with patchwork buildings made of rusted tin and concrete and mud bricks and tires and cardboard. Trash is everywhere. Stinking and smoldering in the midday sun. The refuse of decades without sanitation. Heaped against houses, snaking through shallow gutters, and in some areas, stretching into veritable fields with swampy pools and black hogs rooting around. We see women and children with lye smeared under their noses so they can tolerate the stench. Among our group, there is little talk. The thought we all share doesn't need articulating: no human should have to live here.

Seeing Cité Soleil makes manifest the conclusion to which all statistics point: Haiti is not recovering from an isolated disaster; Haiti is in a state of perpetual disaster. Support is needed at every level of society, and in every aspect of infrastructure. Additional band-aids of post-earthquake cash do not, and cannot, suffice.

Over the course of our remaining days, discussion revolves around this issue of comprehensive aid. Sean Penn refers to a hand-in-glove approach: immediate survival and economic sustainability must be addressed at the same time, with a strategy that coordinates both humanitarian relief and job creation. Currently, governments, NGOs, and other organizations take too narrow a focus. They provide tents for temporary shelter, but don't clear rubble or fund reconstruction. Or they want to invest in the country's long-term future but don't want to deal with 'temporary' issues like camps for IDPs (Internally Displaced People).

That night at dinner, the author and US-Aid employee (and whistleblower) Timothy Schwartz explains that this kind of 'either/or' thinking is just one of the many reasons the international community remains so appallingly ineffective and inefficient in Haiti. Couple that with poor communication, lack of transparency, lack of accountability, corruption, and self-dealing, and you get the beginnings an answer to my original question -- where is all the money going?

Later, I ask Tim whether he will ever return to the U.S. He shakes his head -- no. "I've lived here for 20 years," he says, "I'll never leave this island. I love it too much." The same is true for Sean Penn who has decided to move to Haiti and continue his work with J/P. If there is reason to hope in Haiti, beyond the sheer stamina and spirit of the Haitians themselves, it is the equally inspiring devotion, candidness, and commonsensical approach displayed by people like Tim and Sean.