Since 2009, when I first started traveling to Haiti, I have had more than a few glimpses into the gruesome effects of poverty. The first time I walked through the halls of the general hospital in downtown Port au Prince, I stopped short of knocking into a cart of dead children, recognizable by the tiny hands sticking out from under a sheet the size of a newspaper. I have handed out bags of government-issued rice to a roaring crowd of hungry refugees, surging in a swell of anger and despair. I've loaded bodies, sometimes four at a time, into body bags as part of an effort to provide a proper burial to carcasses rotting in the hot, nightmarish city morgue.
By far the most infuriating tragedy I have witnessed in Haiti is a child succumbing to cholera after a sudden and merciless sickness that wrings the body of fluids and, eventually, life itself. I am branded by this memory. The little girl (I can only guess she was three, small for her age like most kids here) was one of 500,000 sick from a disease raging through the country like wildfire. Volunteer doctors, on yet another 24-hour shift, scrambled to drill holes in her bones, her veins too collapsed to accept IVs. As she wailed in agony, I looked down at my sneakers, which I will dip in chlorine on my way out of the tent where she will die, and cursed the capacity for human stupidity that allowed this to happen to this child, as beautiful and fragile and trusting as Haiti herself.
By now, a year and a half after cholera appeared in Haiti, the first time in a century, it is widely accepted that the Nepalese UN soldiers brought the disease to the country due to sheer inept sanitation management. To put it simply, they allegedly let their contaminated shit run into the water source for the entire nation. And so, a country already savagely crippled by the quake was thrust into yet another crisis all because a group of soldiers, sent to maintain stabilization, was never tested for a highly contagious deadly disease endemic to their own nation. It was a staggering example of dangerous laziness, on par with tossing a lit cigarette while pumping gas.
Despite this pathetic failure to enact simple preventative measures, the UN tried everything to wiggle out from underneath the thumb of justice, even as outraged Haitians rioted outside their headquarters. Even their own UN expert report issued last May cited "overwhelming" evidence that the cholera originated in South Asia, and posits two different ways that waste from a UN base likely leaked into Haiti's largest river system. Their fault is established fact at this point, and yet 7,000 people are dead and the UN has yet to issue an apology, or prioritize prevention of another outbreak.
Haiti is the third-largest UN peacekeeping operation in the world, though the country hasn't seen a war in our lifetimes. Their mission in Haiti, known locally as MINUSTAH, has an annual budget of 800 million dollars, and yet, shockingly, there has been no large-scale reallocation of funds to cholera treatment and prevention. Providing clean drinking water for all Haitians -- the only way to control the epidemic -- would cost 746 million to 1.1 billion dollars. It would take only 18 days of their operating expenses to fund a cholera vaccination campaign that would cover the entire country. It seems obvious that this should be an immediate mandate for the UN, but, according to human rights lawyer Brian Concannon, director of the institute of Justice & Democracy in Haiti, "The UN fills many important roles that no other organization could fill, but one thing the UN does not do well is respond fairly when it does something wrong." Such a sordid reputation is dangerous in a country whose survival depends upon the peaceful cooperation of foreign aid organizations and the local population.
Concannon is representing Haitian survivors of the epidemic in their case against the UN. They are asking for an apology as well as the infrastructure necessary to control the epidemic, and compensation for the victims and their losses. Concannon is one of the many experts appearing in a documentary I produced, premiering at Tribeca this week, called Baseball in the Time of Cholera, which follows the effects of the outbreak on a young Haitian athlete named Joseph, and the scandal surrounding the UN's involvement. Joseph, an enthusiastic Little League pitcher, has found a foothold in life as he rebuilds a sense of normality with his family after the earthquake, only to be shoved back into the pit of chaos by a sudden foreign sickness that kills his mother, Marie Claude.
Directed by David Darg, and Bryn Mooser, both aid workers living in Haiti, the film is uniquely personal in its perspective and bold in its assertions, and is an important piece of advocacy in the struggle to stop another devastating outbreak of cholera as the rainy season descends this month. We made this film because it is simply not an option to let the 7,000 men, women and children killed disappear into the cold swamp of statistics. I felt gutted by helplessness watching a small child die of cholera, but with this film, and with our collective voice, we have a chance to save thousands of lives by forcing the UN to make clean water and sanitation their priority in Haiti.
To sign a petition adding your voice to the call for action, go to www.undeny.org.
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