Haiti: from injustice to catastrophe

Paige Wilhite Jennings, who used to be a researcher on Haiti for Amnesty and a former UN human rights observer there, contacted me this week.  She is now settled in Northern Ireland, but the tragic events in Haiti moved her to write these words, which are also published today in a slightly different form in the Belfast Telegraph (but not available on their website).

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These days, no one with eyes or ears can be unaware of the catastrophe that has befallen the benighted Caribbean nation of Haiti. The earthquake struck the capital and environs just before 5 in the evening, collapsing shoddily-built concrete buildings and crushing families in their homes, government and aid workers in their offices and even, since Haiti is as lacking in schools as it is in everything else, the evening shift of students in their overcrowded classrooms. 

Twenty seven of the country’s 30 senators are believed to have died under the wreckage of the Parliament building. Half of the capital’s 2000 police officers are reportedly unaccounted for.  The worst affected, though, were the most vulnerable, those in the makeshift, cobbled-together shacks in the slums that teeter precariously on the denuded mountainsides around Port-au-Prince, without electricity, sewers, roads or any other city service. The earth moving was like a blanket being pulled out from under them, making them career down on top of each other in an avalanche of dust and rubble.

Survivors say that what they heard in the aftermath was, first, screaming and crying.  And then, as night fell and people gathered together in the middle of the streets in fear of falling masonry from the aftershocks, came singing: the Haitian people, together in the pitch dark, in sorrow, pain and fear, reminding themselves and each other that they were still alive, and that they were not alone.

Sounds that were conspicuously absent included the noise of sirens; of helicopters; of help.

The world responded; and in the days that followed, it proceeded to watch in pain and dismay as Haitians – at times through tears, at times angrily, always doggedly – dug through rubble with their hands, trying to reach their loved ones.  There was no heavy machinery to shift the earth, no electricity by which to search once darkness fell.  And more and more people died under the rubble, or from injuries that could have been treated, had there been doctors, or nurses, or medicine.  UN peacekeepers already on the ground were occupied in a desperate effort to dig their colleagues out from under their collapsed headquarters; and foreign emergency teams sat, angry and frustrated, in the neighbouring Dominican Republic, waiting for access. Meanwhile flights of aid were turned back due to bottlenecks at the Port-au-Prince airport.

How could this happen? How could any government be so manifestly, utterly lacking in the capacity to come to the aid of its dying people? How could the world’s aid agencies, some of them already with workers on the ground, have been so slow to arrive, just when every minute counted? 

The answer is simple.  The Haitian state failed its people last Tuesday, and in the nightmare days that followed, because it has never, in all the country’s fraught, brutal, history, done anything else. It has never been at the service of its citizens; its institutions and structures have never been a protection, but rather a means of extracting every penny possible from its ever-growing, ever more impoverished, citizenry. The international relief effort stalled, just when time was of the essence, in the chaos and confusion born of the state’s endemic, longstanding, continual failure to provide the bare minimum for its people: safe roads and buildings, minimal health care, clean water, access to food.

One week on, according to news reports, aid is finally starting to flow at more than a trickle. Rescue teams have deployed and have managed, unbelievably, to claw back a few lives from under the mounds of concrete and earth. Dry white ‘high energy biscuits,’ and some containers of drinking water, are beginning to reach people who have not had a meal or anything clean to drink in nearly a week, and some of the wounded are finally receiving help. Meanwhile, dead bodies are being collected by the truckload and emptied into mass graves at the Titanyen dump, once the notorious killing ground of Haiti’s brutal dictatorships: painfully ironic to many Haitians, but a necessary step to safeguard public health.

But once the immediate relief effort is completed, the world cannot simply move on. To do that would be to virtually guarantee a repeat of Haitian trauma on our television screens in years to come – for more than buildings need to be rebuilt.  A state needs to be constructed, plank by plank, person by person.  Its public servants need to be trained and guided in what it means to govern.  Only that  way will Haiti’s brave, resourceful, creative and longsuffering people have the leaders they deserve – only that way will they never again find themselves singing alone, in the dark.

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