That is what this is. That is what Haiti is. On every level. In every way. From the Haitian people. To those who were compelled to come here. All the way down the rabbit hole - to me.
Standing in the rubble that was once Port Au Prince and Leogane (the epicenter of the original earthquake) you are instantly struck by what those in the media could not capture and our Western sensibilities cannot address. I tend to enter a 'situation' with a "you know what they should do" mindset. The places I have been fortunate enough to travel to have reduced this knee jerk response to a certain extent but Haiti might have changed it for good. Changed me - for GOOD.
Landing in Dominican Republic at night was like stepping out into a dream. No sense of time or place. Driving through city streets - not sure what is on either side of you. It could be the ocean. It might very well be a cliff. A late dinner with most of the team I traveled with in DR Congo last Spring (Margaret Aguirre, International Medical Corps' Global Communications Director and film actress Sienna Miller) and we head back to the hotel. The next morning we wake up late and rush to the airport...the wrong airport. A reminder that when traveling what can go wrong - will. Journey on.
Chaos reigns at the airport in Port Au Prince. Pickup trucks back up to open bay doors where handlers throw your bags with impunity into a traffic jam of bodies trying to exit gates that are dressed with people in need. Begging for something to make life...livable. I am a filmmaker here to document the long term response of International Medical Corps - a global non profit that provides health care training and relief and development programs in some of the worlds' toughest environments. They arrived less than 22 hours after the disaster and they have been here ever since. We find a sufficient berth to make our way into to the street and see our ride. IMC travels in convoys. There is safety in numbers and because people can always squeeze into one vehicle if the other breaks down. It is standard operating procedure and another one of their lifesaving methods. Aid workers are often targets of violence. Three have been kidnapped in the past week here in Haiti.
The destruction is everywhere and it is hard to absorb. It feels like it could have happened five minutes or five years ago. But the sight of those who rummage through the wreckage remind you - there are people in there. Hundreds of thousands of them.
One of my favorite parts about traveling with IMC is that they employ the locals and none more important than the drivers. They get you everywhere. They navigate the traffic and streets like they went to school for it. Avoiding pot holes that would have swallowed you up. This time we have Steeve. He is 27 years old and learned English by watching television and listening to music. He is always in an oxford and slacks and always rocking out to hip hop. Steeve was at school for thematics when the quake hit and had to jump from a balcony to escape a collapsing building. Unable to locate a friend, he and a few others went looking for and found him. Trapped. For ten days they passed him food and water with a rope. Eventually, nobody took the food.
IMC has set up a guesthouse in one of the structures still standing. It is compound like. High walls, metal gate, armed guards. But inside it feels a bit more like a college fraternity. People live out of duffle bags, even those on six month rotations. They have 39 full time staff and approximately 59 rotating volunteers. Everyone is from a different country but they all have one thing in common. They LOVE what they do.
The courtyard is a tent city. Not only because there are not enough rooms to house everyone but aftershocks are still prevalent. There was one last night. We throw our stuff inside and are out the door to our first location.
The morning after the quake, a Port Au Prince local, Joseline Marhone, opened an emergency clinic under a grove of trees adjacent to the wreckage of the Church of St. Pierre in the St. Louis area of Port au Prince, just a few miles from downtown and began treating the injured. Several of her medical students quickly joined her. A tent was erected, canvas sheets were put up and mattresses were hauled in to create a 13-bed in-patient section to the clinic. She sleeps in the pharmacy, which is outside. Her dinner table is an Igloo cooler and her bed is a worn out piece of foam. She tells me this with the most beaming smile you have ever seen.
At night we gather on the terrace, download our days and unwind with drinks and dinner. Exhausted, I climb into my tent to try and get some sleep. The sound of chickens who do not know what time it is, gunshots and screaming babies serenade me.
Early the next morning we take a long drive out through Leogane, a town by the sea. That is where we board a small motor boat to visit one of IMC's seven mobile clinics. Before the quake this area had never received any kind of medical attention due to the steep hillside - making it only accessible by water. They have a field clinic set up steps from the beach which is outfitted with medical supplies. They even provide mental health specialists for those with psychiatric needs. It is a sight to see. We feel welcome. I thanked them then and I thank them here.
Dina Prior is IMC's country coordinator. Her job is to get them up and running in the hours after a major disaster or emergency. Imagine that. Trying to coordinate, triage and implement a scalable RESPONSE in the midst of a communication blackout, in a city still shaking and still on fire. That night at the guesthouse she details for me the the first days after the earthquake...A rock star in every way and she also makes a mean gin and tonic.
There is an amazingly lighthearted nature to the staff. Perhaps a primal response to the intensity of their days. The fight and then their flight. Save a life and pal around. All in a days work here.
Today we went to the general hospital downtown. The buildings remain uninhabitable so IMC has set up tent clinics for every issue imaginable. TB and AIDS patients, an intensive care unit and a pediatrics ward just to name a few. Within the intense heat of the ICU an alarm sounds - a young woman has flatlined. A doctor raced to her bedside and immediately began chest compressions. Nothing. More doctors. More compressions. Still nothing. A defibrillator and adrenaline injections. The tall doctor presses with all his might. 20 minutes later - when many thought he should have given up, she responds on her own. It was his first day on the job. The RESPONSE of IMC to save this girls life left me in awe. Although her blood flow was maintained by the chest compressions brain damage might still be a result of her temporary death. The irony of tomorrow's health care vote is not lost on me. Every life deserves a fighting chance.
In the afternoon we go to an internal displacement camp of approximately 40,000 in an area called Petionville. We went to visit actor and activist Sean Penn who is focusing his attention on these people alone. A gigantic task and an admirable one. He is using his own financial resources to deliver a RESPONSE that is effecting change for thousands of individuals. Unfortunately the camp is setup on a hill so when the rains come it will not be sustainable. Before we meet up we are given a tour of this makeshift community by Pastor Sincere. Yes, really. The people stop you. The people thank you.
I am overwhelmed by their RESPONSE.
Sean passes by in a small 4×4 vehicle and gives us a lift to where he has created a modest living area for he and his team. On our way back he stops and interacts with many of the camp residents. They know him. They like him. There are no cameras here. This is not a photo op. This is who he is. He says something that sticks with me. "The Haitian people are punished for their strength." It is true. You sense it in every Haitian you meet. They are STRONG.
Thing is, nobody is strong enough to protect themselves from the upcoming hurricane season. Housing for both IMC and the Haitian people is temporary. When the storms come...
Driving back to the guesthouse I see the remains of a four story building being supported by a single pillar - stressed and angled into the rubble. A man leans against it taking refuge from the hot afternoon sun.
That is what Haiti is. On every level. In every way. Our long term global RESPONSE to his precarious position will determine his future - and Haiti's.