Scenes of natural disaster and human suffering have filled the television screens of the western world for the past week as rich countries band together to offer assistance in the aftermath of one of the worst humanitarian disasters since the Asian tsunami of 2004.
I visited the northeast of Haiti in December of 1998.
I remember the border checkpoint with the Dominican Republic, its more prosperous neighbour. The Haitian side of the bridge was blocked off with a fence of slatted wood. A Dominican solider trained a machinegun and an uneasy eye on the shouting people crushed up against the fence by the sheer weight of desperation pressing in behind them. Each time the gate was opened to admit a new entrant, several more tried to shove their way through, only to be beaten back by men with clubs.
I remember how the climate changed the moment we crossed the border. It was as though the world really were divided by a line on a map. The Dominican side had been lush and green, but the land on the Haitian side was burned yellow by the sun. The vegetables in the markets were shriveled and stunted compared to the rich bounty of the country next door. There were hardly any trees. Even the temperature was ten degrees hotter. The man beside me said, “They even cut down the fruit trees to use them for cooking fuel.” Such was the poverty that the short term benefit of a few twigs for a fire outweighed the long term benefits of a mango tree which would produce a lifetime of fruit.
I remember roads so corrugated that it took over an hour to travel less than 15km. The car lurched and rolled like a ship under heavy seas, and several times I was pitched completely off my seat.
I remember visiting a two-room home in a village, where the parents slept in a bedroom closet and the 5 children slept on a bare dirt floor. The walls were made of sticks plastered with mud, covered by a palm thatch roof. The man smiled and said, “At least we have a house.”
I remember a small market in a village, where the road was lined with squatting people selling piles of food from blankets spread on the ground. No one had any money, so every transaction was a trade. There were herbs, dried rice, grains, and fish smoked so thoroughly even the flies refused to land on them. That and peanuts, piles and piles of peanuts. A man told me the ground in Haiti was so bad in places that only peanuts would grow there—the last crop to take hold before the land became completely sterile.
I remember a disposable cup filled with the worst rum I’d ever had. It was poured directly from a red gasoline container, and it tasted of hot plastic behind the alcohol’s harsh burn. It had been brewed in someone’s back yard. I sat there waiting to see if I’d go blind from a bad batch. And then I accepted a second cupful rather than turn down their sincere offer of hospitality.
Finally, I remember a voodoo ceremony. The pounding of drums and rhythmic movements that drove the dancers deeper into trance. The smell of sweat and swirling bodies. Strange tricks of the light, and an old man who held flames against his face, licking the burning torch before biting the end and spitting out the embers.
Haiti is a country where life is hard and mercy is scarce.
It is by far the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and it’s sitting just outside our back door. It’s been that way for a very long time but few people bothered to notice.
Will the massive global media coverage in the wake of this latest disaster do something to change that?