On the first anniversary of the Haiti earthquake, I travelled to the Leogane region of Haiti, the center of the earthquake’s devastation. I went as the guest of an Israeli NGO called Tevel b’Tzedek (The Earth, in Justice) founded in 2005 by Rabbi Micah Odenheimer to promote social and environmental justice in the world. With the support of IsraAid a team of Israeli volunteers travelled to the region soon after the earthquake. Uri l’Tzedek, a
Tag: Haiti Earthquake Relief
On my first unsupervised trip on the subway to the city with high school friends to see a White Sox game, we were approached by a con artist. A group of suburban white kids decked to the nine in Sox paraphernalia, we were an easy mark. The point of the con is to find the most gullible in the room and distract them by focusing attention every which way but the ball itself. The best con artists will also let out a small victory now and then to get people to up the
As frustrated Egyptian youth flood the streets in peaceful protest of the country’s current leadership, and Hillary Clinton addresses Haiti’s uncertain political future, I see the potential of youth to shift the culture of leadership, around the world and in Haiti, from the inside out.
Just two weeks ago, I was sitting on a rickety bench inside a shipping container. It was the converted camp manager’s office near the entrance of the Mega-4 Camp in Delmas, Port-au-Prince. A year later, about 6,500 earthquake refugees still call this place their only
On the anniversary of their earthquake, Haitian men, women and children are more likely to tremble anew with fear and contend with reawakened physical, emotional and behavioral symptoms. Chronic headaches and stomachaches that had subsided over months are now returning with renewed force in those living in their own homes as well as in the more than a million demoralized tent dwellers. Sleep, increasingly restless, is more often riven with nightmares of family members buried in the rubble. Children whose beds were dry are once again wetting
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I am back from a recent trip to Haiti. Haiti is a land of healing and hurt, openness and oppression, cooperation and competition, restoration and resistance. It is a study in contrasts.
Stepping into the American Airlines arrival section of the Toussaint Louverture International Airport was a foreshadowing of the irony found in Port-au-Prince. Broken ceilings, missing planks, exposed wires, scratched immigration desks, and a lack of workers — symbols of the disorder that is rampant. There is a crush of people surrounding the too small conveyor belt set to deliver the suitcases from the belly of the plane. An oppressive heat overtakes the building. Cab drivers, seeking fares, flock like geese upon potential passengers. Welcome to Haiti.
Upon arrival a choice must be made. Do I choose to underscore the positive or the negative, do I come to lend life or bring darkness into a country that already glows dim?
My arrival was on the heels of Hurricane Tomas and reports of the worsening cholera outbreak. I was desperate to be in Haiti. The time had come. The call was loud and clear. The opportunity was like no other.
In my January 13th post, I lamented the state of Haiti. My soul wailed for the future of the country. I was the Haitian-American who had never been to the country of her parents’ birth, who loved it by pure instinct. Today, I love the country because its problems and people convicted, challenged and changed me in the midst of the profound chaos. To go to Haiti is to commit to help change the country as the country changes you – you come back to America better.
The sorrow is immeasurable. The streets are in shambles. The tents are unlivable. Children are adults before their time; street smart, they walk along the roads with an air of lost innocence. They no longer cry, not for the cameras, not for the group of Americans or any foreigner. Why should they reveal the depth of their souls to me a stranger, when they have stopped revealing it to themselves?
I went to Haiti with OnCall Medicine with a Mission. To respond to the call to go to Haiti, or places like it – the Congo, Sudan – places of yet untold grief and misery is not comfortable and cozy. In Haiti you face a test of character. Your eyes are confused by the sights — sights of starving children, parents in turmoil, grandparents desperate for their lives to continue to count for something. “Is anyone listening,” the people wonder. Confronting me in Haiti were situations beyond the circumference of the borders and boundaries that I have known in America.
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It is time. Before I went to Haiti, I slumbered. My sleep was sweet to me. I did not know there was a need for awakening. It’s time. Time to get up. Time to rise. Time to shine. Time to do something. Not anything — something. The urgency, for people, for humanity, was not as pressing in my mind or soul before I went to Haiti. Here in America, forgetfulness is beginning to take hold. We think things are being taken care of because money has exchanged hands and been debited from accounts. We think something is being done because we have dutifully written checks for those poor, miserable Haitian people. We think we have done something, allow me to tell you there is still more to be done.
I woke up in Haiti, to the sounds of the earth. The rooster crowing, people singing hymns at the four AM church service down the road, and sounds of darkness. Darkness has a sound in Haiti. It has a pulse. It is alive and dead. It contradicts itself. In Haiti, one witnesses the overcoming power of light. The unbearable lightness of a word, deed, smile or in the easy laugh of my companions as they treated children in the medical clinic.
Laughter accompanies tears in Haiti. In Ayiti, the place of my parents birth, I was born anew. Born to the possibility of restoring the places long forsaken, born anew to grace, gentleness, and mercy. In Haiti, I was receptive to the heritage of wonder that has been passed down to me. My time in Haiti was not only about the diseases among the people, even though I went as part of a healing mission. My time in Haiti was not only about the physical hunger the people are experiencing — even though I saw a baby so malnourished that the roots of her hair are white.
It is time for sackcloth and ashes. It is time to mourn the devastating loss of humanity in Haiti. It is time to mourn the fact that people are living in tents with mud as their floors that we would not allow our precious Park Avenue poodles to step in. It is time for the people to regain their privacy. It is time for publicity. It is time for us to demand that something be done. It is time.
Shed tears for Haiti. Shed tears this Thanksgiving. Shed tears for the young. Shed tears for the old. Shed tears. Though I speak of the destruction I witnessed, I know that there is coming joy. I know there is a day roads will be fixed and the streets surrounding Champ des Mars will be drained of its polluted waters. Joy chases sorrow. One day joy shall overcome sorrow. Shed tears.
It is time. It is time for tears to be shed. It is time for something to be done. It is time for Red Cross and other aid agencies, which took money to help to do something in the tent cities that have a few hundred to a few thousand people. Where are they? It is time to let our light penetrate the darkness; it is time to wake up. It is time to rise. Now is the time to shine forth in Haiti. Now is the time to do something. Not anything — something. Now.
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When I landed in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, just days after the massive January 12 earthquake, I witnessed a scene of unimaginable destruction. The quake shattered the capital and neighboring cities, killing more then 230,000 people and leaving 1.3 million children and adults without food, water, medical care or shelter.
Ten months since this tragedy changed the lives of millions, the country is struggling to re-emerge. Lives were saved in those early days and since, and I have seen progress made over time — though the pace of recovery is not nearly fast enough for the people affected by the quake and for those trying to help them.
We need to make a greater difference in the lives of Haitian families. Structures, such as the Interim Haiti Reconstruction Commission and multidonor trust fund, are now finally in place to move things forward. But we need to acknowledge that all parties — Haitian leadership, the UN and other multilaterals, donor governments, NGOs and others — must do more, better and faster if “build back better” is to begin to reflect reality.
The scale of displacement of people and destruction of property was immense; the task of reconstruction is complex with many interests involved. That said, what should be paramount — but has become lost in the longstanding issues regarding land tenure, inequality and lack of funding — is the urgent plight of Haitian children and families unable to help themselves without the assistance of others. Only a small percentage of what we know can and should be done has happened. The reasons for the glacial pace of recovery are complicated, but they should not be insurmountable if we make the plight of those whose lives were turned upside down by the earthquake our overriding priority.
Save the Children and many other humanitarian organizations moved within hours after the quake to aid this ravaged country. Our work — to provide shelter materials, food, water, latrines and health services — helped save many lives. Yet today we are still operating in emergency mode, spending precious funding on continuing services in camps and on responding to the subsequent crises brought about by Hurricane Tomas and the outbreak of cholera.
Instead we should be joining forces with other partners in a bold, comprehensive and Haitian-led effort that moves people out of camps, promotes economic growth, and addresses their basic health and education needs.
About 80 percent of Haitians lived below the poverty line before the disaster. Many displaced families had rented their homes and now have to wait until affordable housing is rebuilt. Others lost their jobs and assets and lack the money to start over again. Still others remain in camps to maintain access to health care and other services that were never available to them prior to January 12. All wait in miserable conditions for others to take action.
We all must make it possible for tens of thousands of Haitian citizens to re-establish and improve their lives. It should not take months for donor nations to release promised funding and provide the technical assistance and manpower required to break the logjam of inefficiency, indecision and inadequate resources and move forward with a comprehensive plan to resettle those that have been displaced..
My great hope is that, with a newly elected government, Haiti will summon the commitment and find the support to bring about dramatic and urgent change for quake-affected families. We all — donors governments, international humanitarian agencies, local non-governmental organizations and the Haitian government and its people — must shift our efforts into overdrive to work together and do what we know is possible and critical. International focus must be maintained. Donors should reconvene with the new leaders of Haiti as soon as possible and ensure the flow of assistance continues, but does so in a way that enables Haitians to move from the crowded camps and rebuild their livelihoods and in doing so, their lives.
As we near the one-year anniversary of this terrible event, we must recognize that not nearly enough has been done to alleviate the misery of Haiti’s people and help them — and their country — overcome the trauma of this crisis. We should understand why recovery has not moved quicker, but not use that as an excuse for further delays. And most of all, we should not forget that real human lives are at stake.
We have the knowledge and means to help Haiti create a better present and a brighter future.
I began this year hurtling through life. I had a book to write, a sort-of memoir. I was supposed to be sitting with it, thoughtfully pulling together what I’d learned about America as a hard news television reporter. But on January 12, the earth shook in Haiti, a lot of people died, and I began a race to tell a story so horrible I would sometimes blink my eyes hoping to readjust the focus so the images would not be so clear.
I had to put the book project down. I shoved aside the deadline to make way for doing a string of stories on the desperation of Haiti’s orphans and ultimately a documentary on the same topic. There is something about this kind of heart-pounding reporting that makes me feel so alive. It’s that sensation of being told something remarkable and rushing off to tell it to everyone who will listen. Something terrible has happened. Send help.
The kids I met there were so haunting I went back twice more, even after the documentary had aired and the crisis was fading from public view. The book deadline was still there, but I just ignored it. I raced by airport bookstores, looking away from the smiling faces on the newest journalists’ book covers. I didn’t get the titles. So many of them sounded so didactic and angry, screaming condemnations of where America is going, selling the latest roadmap to the right direction. I had nothing to add to that conversation. I just had a deadline.
So I started to write late, in the midst of another documentary project, stressed and uncertain how my reporting travels could inform America. Yet I was surprised how easily and quickly the words came. There is no need for another hardback screaming indignantly about the lack of American direction. I wrote about where we have been. We have been to a shaken Haiti and a waterlogged New Orleans, to the depths of a recession and the heights of racial tension. We have seen the worst possible moments flash by and gotten up and rushed off to help – without the aid of governments or the call of duty. I don’t need to tell anyone where we are going as a country or where we should be going. We always just get up and go.
I arrived in Haiti just as I’d arrived for so many similar assignments before – just after the storm had passed, hoping to get word out of what’s in store. There were Americans already on the ground, dressed in the uniforms of Americans on the move: t-shirts and blue jeans. They had the same look as the folks who had taken to the streets to urge calm after race riots, the same people who paddled through muck to reach people on rooftops after hurricane Katrina. The same folks who sign up for Teach for America or take in foster kids or worship a God who urges them to pass around the collection plate for people they’ve never met. Those are the people I wrote about — not the folks griping about what isn’t getting done or how they are so misunderstood.
I turned in my manuscript hoping that this kind of reporting isn’t out of fashion. Don’t we still expect journalists to tell stories about other people and not just dwell on themselves? Since when did reporting become another Outward Bound experience? Isn’t the reporter there to report? I barely turned my book in on time for all the things that got in the way. But that’s okay by me, even if it was likely a bit unnerving for my editors. I was off doing my day job. I was telling the story of America at work. And when I got back I had a mountain of evidence for what became the thesis for my book: “Bad things happen until good people get in the way. I learn this life lesson …almost everywhere I go in pursuit of the next big story. People have an incredible potential to do good and make good and seize good from bad if they will only make the choice to do it.”
See more of Soledad on CNN’s In America page.
This Blogger’s Books from
The Next Big Story: My Journey Through the Land of Possibilities
by Soledad O’Brien, Rose Marie Arce
I read recently that the rubble that has been clogging the streets of Port-au-Prince since the earthquake in January may finally begin to disappear: A private company has secured a multi-million dollar contract to start carting off mountains of collapsed buildings. Thank god.
In the nine-plus months since that devastating day, the debris strewn across Haiti’s capital has served as a reminder of all that was lost–and a major impediment to the city’s recovery. The crumbled concrete has sat in heaps for so long that erosion has begun to soften its edges, scouring away the memory of blocks and mortar.
“Do you think it will just become part of the landscape?” asked my husband when I returned from Port-au-Prince last week and described how little had changed since my previous visits with Oxfam in January and May. This time, the mounds seemed even denser, and layered with the detritus–shredded plastic, flecks of paper, citrus rinds–of a city crowded with people who have no permanent place to live.
It’s the impermanence and uncertainty of each long day, and the one that’s to follow, that must be so wearing for people and that compels them, maybe, to stock up on bits of comfort and security in any way they can. On the flight down, I sat across the aisle from an old man with a Haitian passport who was wearing what I thought was a tall hat. When I looked closer I realized it wasn’t one hat but six–two woven, two black, a white one, and one covered in camouflage. He had stacked them on his head for safe transport back to a sun-pounded place where any relief from the heat that requires electricity, like fans or air conditioners, is in short supply. At least hats keep the sun off.
The man sat quietly. He seemed almost grave–and intent on his mission. Were the hats for family members? For friends? For sale?
I lost track of him in the crush of passengers pushing to get off the plane. I don’t know if anyone was there to meet him at the airport, if his hats found other heads the moment he stepped into the tropical sun. But later I heard a proverb that made me realize just how precious every one of those hats is in a city boiling with mounds of gray rubble: Depi tet pa koupe nou espere met chapo.
The literal translation for those words is “as long as our heads aren’t chopped off we will continue to wear hats,” but it’s their meaning that gave the six-hatted man such dignity: “As long as you’re alive there’s still hope.”
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On January 12th, 2010 the world’s eyes were fixed upon Port-au-Prince, Haiti. In the aftermath of the 7.0 earthquake came a roar of outside support; Haiti cried and the world listened… albeit briefly.
Many activists and aid workers worried that the relief efforts would subside when the related news cycle ran the end of its course. Sadly, their worries were not unfounded, and in many ways their worries can be an indictment of our media driven culture as a whole and not just as it relates to this one earthquake and the relief response. Our most-used media is becoming more and more socially driven, in part this opens the playing field and encourages democracy, but it comes at the cost of homogenizing the news into a series of google and twitter driven call and respond “trending topics.” Humanitarian aide and it’s media support can’t be reduced to an allotted news trend cycle, physical aid and it’s supporting media needs to be a sustainable lasting effort that does not blink until all of the needed work is done. The immediacy and accessibility of new social media may have allowed Wyclef Jean to almost instantly raise $9 million through his Yele Haiti Foundation, but as the tide of media coverage ebbed so did some of the support to Haiti from governments and NGOs. What we see now, nine months later, is a smaller group engaged in the relief efforts; only the idealists, the determined, and the fiscally invested have buckled downed for the long haul in Haiti. A mere 2% of the devastation has been cleaned up since the quake, and none of the 1.1 billion dollars pledged by the U.S. government to be used towards rebuilding has actually made it to Haiti, unfortunately the problems on the ground did not go away with the news cycle.
On January 12th, film maker Dustin Miller was sitting at home behind his computer when the social networks lit up with hyperactive, truncated snippets of news about what was unfolding in Haiti. As half of a two-person film production company called Flesh Profits Nothing Dustin steps outside the confines of 140 characters and shortened hyperlinks to place emphasis on the personal side of stories, to lend an eye to color saturation, storyboard, frame and lens. Unlike that of the micro-blogisphere the media that Dustin works with is less immediate, far more deliberate, and cultivates lasting memories. With clients ranging from Dane Reynolds, Mikey DeTemple, Kelly Slater, the Hobgood brothers and the association of World Professional Surfers to more socially conscious and weighted content in “The Heart Screened T-Shirt” a film about a family who adopted three sisters from Liberia, and regular video content work for To Write Love on Her Arms a grassroots network of peer-based support for survivors of self injury, abuse, and addiction, Dustin Miller and Eric Hires (the other half of Flesh Profits Nothing) are both artists as well as story tellers, painting visual stories about real life people in surreal circumstances. Motivated by faith and a passion for life and justice Dustin and Eric aim to capture some of their more complicated subjects in an aesthetic that people will be moved by and also easily understand. When the news of what was happening in Haiti came across Dustin’s computer screen he knew immediately that he had to do something and that his art would be a part of it. In less than three weeks Dustin, Eric, and their friend, mixed media artist Nathan B. Lewis would find themselves in Port-au-Prince and Petit Goave, Haiti with cameras in hand, their aim would be to show the faces, spirits, and very personal stories of the people buried beneath the headlines. Beneath the over-arching news segments were people of spirit whose personal lives were uprooted like quake-shook telephone poles, or whose loved ones were crushed or became memories like the imprints left behind in the place of so much of Port-au-Prince’s lost architecture.
From the reels shot during the weeks that Dustin, Eric and Nathan spent on the ground in Port-au-Prince and Petit Goave, Haiti comes “35 Seconds,” a 13 minute collection of visually-loaded short stories from the lives of nine people who were knocked down, buried alive, mourning the loss of family, and one celebrating the recovery of her daughter. Shot entirely in Creole with English subtitles “35 Seconds,” “tells the story of a mother who held on to her daughter so tightly that she tore her clothes, an uncle who returned home to find his nephew dead, a man who saw “buildings dancing” and then fall flat, and a woman who was trapped for two days with five of her friends and was the only one to make it out alive. It tells the story of a young man who lost his penis, a mother who did not put her baby down for a nap that afternoon, and a little girl trapped under her house for four days.”
In “35 Seconds” the story of the nine Haitians impacted by the 35-second-long quake that forever scarred their lives is paralleled with an analogy of rebirth and renewal after hardship. With “35 Seconds” closing story set at Rue Des Miracles (The Road Of Miracles) a family recalls waiting four days to uncover the body of their daughter from underneath the rubble of their house, they had already prepared a casket and a change of clothes for her funeral, when they hear a scream. The family who had been preparing for a funeral immediately felt a renewed joy.
When buildings toppled and lives were buried, broken and lost it was a dire tragedy that impacted the people of Haiti in the most direct way. It also was a tragedy that struck at the hearts of people around the world who watched from afar and suffered inside. However, out of that darkness shone a light of renewed volunteerism, selfless action, solidarity, and love. It is this love that we need to expand upon, it is this rebirth that we need to cultivate like a garden after a winter’s thaw, and in solidarity we must start asking serious questions about third world debt like that which is imposed upon Haiti. We must petition our own government to forgive Haiti’s debt so that they can rebuild, sustain, and seek their own self-determination.
“35 Seconds” is both a story and an invitation, and invitation to become part of the renewal. As I write this Dustin, Eric and Nathan are planning their anxious return to Haiti; this time they will focus on supporting Haitian mango farmers and the surrounding communities they sustain. Most of us reading this whether it’s on our laptops, iPhones, in our offices, or via social media websites have some degree of privilege, we can easily re-direct that privilege to the people who still are in need in Haiti. Below is a list of organizations and people just like Dustin, Eric, and Nathan who have taken their privilege and used it to better the lives of those affected by the earthquake, I invite you to do the same.
“35 Seconds” will be screening at the Contemporary Art Center of Virginia, in Virginia Beach through November 7th, 2010. To book a screening of “35 Seconds” please contact Flesh Profits Nothing.
These groups make up a fraction of the amazing efforts on the ground in Haiti, please share these links with others, and please get involved!
The Lambi Fund of Haiti supports sustainable agriculture in post earthquake Port au Prince.
Care Humanity Love and Devotement is dedicated to providing grassroots healthcare in Haiti.
Partners in Health is working to build a teaching hospital in central Haiti.
Haitian Women For Haitian Refugees advocates for the empowerment of displaced Haitians.
One Hundred For Haiti supports the work of Dr. Jacques Denis’ free medical clinic.
Images from 35 Seconds – Short Stories From Haiti, provided by Flesh Profits Nothing
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Come hell or high water, India and Pakistan’s leaders continually nose-thumb one another. Each snub is met with a counter-snub; every kindness by suspicion and prickliness. Memories of ghosts past inspire cold shoulders today. Would the enemy crow about its magnanimity for all time to come? Might acceptance of help be construed by the other as weakness to be parlayed into future gain? Or, worst perhaps of all, would public opinion shift and make redundant much of the carefully-constructed paraphernalia of conflict?
Pakistan started getting inundated in late July. Only two weeks later, on August 13, with much of the country deluged, did India extend an offer of $5 million in aid. Predictably, Pakistan stonewalled. Both countries had swallowed pride before to accept assistance in kind after massive earthquakes, but taking pity money now was stooping just too low. And, funnily enough, the man who wrote the check, India’s Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, did not once bother to commiserate with his neighbour in his Independence Day address two days later. Instead, like a stuck record, he once again cautioned Pakistan against fomenting terrorism in his country. For a man being hailed globally as a model of grace and humility, this was no shining moment.
Hackles raised, Pakistan dug in. Already paralyzed by bomb blasts, ground war, air strikes, a plane crash, and with a huge chunk of the country now deluged, was the country in any position to terrorize anyone? Moreover, its image in the West as the house of terror, a portrait etched to perfection by India, was already coming in the way of flood relief. A new imbroglio was thus created. Only a phone call from Manmohan Singh to Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani of Pakistan and a nudge, oops, more like a shove, from the Americans were able to resolve it. Gilani acquiesced in the subcontinental fashion, wherein ‘yes’ is often mouthed when ‘no’ is actually meant, and seemingly sealed the deal by sending choice mangoes to Singh.
While the mangoes were no doubt delicious, the money itself was presumed to be rancid. Gilani’s government went into contortions. Well, like bitter medicine, it had to be taken, but how to imbibe it? Direct ingestion would churn the stomach too much. Finally the via media of the UN was suggested and accepted without fuss. This time round India loosened its purse-strings by upping the offer to $25 million, and Pakistan showed tact in not balking.
The India-Pakistan side-show had once again stolen the thunder from the main task at hand, to get the world to come to Pakistan’s aid quickly and generously. Reams of global newsprint and gobs of cyberspace instead focused on the countries’ visceral mutual dislike, which always seems to make for fascinating copy and against whose powers even force majeure withers away. Noted commentators on both sides got into the act. Oh, how low can we go to accept money soaked with Kashmiri blood? We must not allow them to grandstand before the world. To show how caring they are and how much better off Kashmir would be with them.
The other side pulled no punches either. The money would go to the Taliban, who in turn would storm in on horse-hoofs and balkanize India. This must surely be the most potent $5 million in history! Others cussed at the churlishness of the Pakistanis. Look at them, beggars affording to be choosers, and when we extend a hand, instead of grasping it gratefully, they slap it. All they think about is Kashmir, Kashmir, Kashmir.
All the while the lives and livelihoods of millions were being washed away. Helping Haiti had become somewhat de rigueur for the world. So many global celebrities got into the act that fundraisers were held as far away as India. But even a candle isn’t being lighted by the country, at least visibly, when it comes to Pakistan.
Granted that public giving in response to disasters is somewhat removed from the subcontinental psyche. What after all is the government for? But many Indians hail from across the border and ramble on and on about a shared heritage and pleasant memories. Wagah, the India-Pakistan border post, has no dearth of candle-lighters ushering in peace. Bear-hugs and lavish meals abound whenever cricket teams and fans cross over. But if a crisis of such magnitude doesn’t shake people’s apathy, of what good is all the faux amity?
Or, perhaps Indians have decided it best to shy away from all things Pakistani? If Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan could have brickbats rain on him for innocuous comments made in favor of Pakistan earlier this year, imagine what fate could befall on lesser people. Some of India’s Muslims must surely want to mobilize relief for what in many instances are families and friends in the proximate country. Bucking the majoritarian trend can often invite peril though.
Global warming is hot but its effects have remained so far in the speculative domain. Many experts are now talking about a causal link between climate change and the devastation wrought in Pakistan. Sure, the river Indus is long and mighty, but no less so are its counterparts in India, the Ganges and the Brahmaputra. Who can say where nature will go awry next?
While the UN plays an intermediary role, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is conspicuously missing in action. The body has been reduced to issuing banal statements once in a while. At best, it has served to bring India and Pakistan together when at their antagonistic worst. South Asia is no stranger to natural calamities. Why doesn’t SAARC establish a relief corpus to be funded by member countries and others? Much of the unseemliness witnessed recently would then be avoided. And, enemies in need might just be able to become friends.
Port-au-Prince, September 2 — Haiti is, as a friend of mine put it years ago, a place for big questions. I’ve been trying to understand it for nearly thirty years, and its politics, history and culture have many twists and turns that are still opaque to me. At the same time, it’s a place whose truths and foibles are different from those of your country or mine only in being more obvious, more in your face. Anything that’s true of Haiti is true of the world as a whole — and that’s a truth that’s not complicated at all, only hard to swallow.
For me personally Haiti feels like home, because I was sixteen years old the first time I set foot here. It has taught me much, if not most, of whatever I now know about the world, and my early experience of Haiti suffused my later responses to very different countries, particularly during the five years I lived in Asia in the 1990s. I saw chronically desperate Cambodia, and tortured Burma, and deforested Thailand, with the eyes of one who had seen Haiti. In a phone conversation in 2004 Tracy Kidder, author of the celebrated book Mountains Beyond Mountains, told me something I implicitly understand and relate to: “I’ve learned so much about the world from Haiti — some of which I almost wish I hadn’t learned.”
Two things have been on my mind since Ben Owen, Pete Sabo and I arrived here on August 25th. One is how, not quite eight months after the January 12 earthquake that killed perhaps 300,000 people, life here seems to have returned to something like normal. I hasten to add that that doesn’t mean everything’s fine — it’s not. Normal in Haiti is far from fine.
But my friend Gerald Oriol Jr., of Fondation J’Aime Haiti, notes how the tent cities that have taken over virtually all open spaces in Port-au-Prince have settled into a version of regular neighborhood life, with cybercafes and hair salons. “It’s funny how an abnormal situation can be normal,” says Gerald, who belongs to Haiti’s elite class. “The only people who are truly shocked right now are people like me. But for the poor, things were so hard for them already that it’s just another way to organize themselves. Maybe it’s even better for them now.”
“The other difference is that many of them lost family and friends,” I pointed out.
“Yes, of course,” agreed Gerald. “I know a guy who lost his five children and his wife. But materially they are no worse off.”
The other thing I’ve been thinking about is the disturbingly weird coincidence of the two countries that are most important to me personally being struck in the same year by appalling disasters. The outpouring of generosity towards Haiti after the earthquake was extraordinary and welcome, but it will remain meaningful only if Americans continue noticing Haiti and, beyond giving money, make the effort to understand its situation. The earthquake was a natural disaster, but it didn’t happen in a geopolitical vacuum. This country, these people, that we cared so deeply about in January and February — who are they, and what are they all about? Haitians are more and other than charity cases. They’re human beings with a culture and a politics and a national history closely intertwined with our own. We owe it to them and to ourselves to know them.
I came here because I share the human tendency to forget, and I want to do my part to work against it. But just as I was preparing for this trip in late July and early August, I was distracted by the floods in Pakistan, about which suffice it to say that they’re proving as devastating in every way as the Haitian earthquake, with the difference that Pakistan is a nation of not 8 million but 170 million people. It’s also a Muslim nation with nuclear weapons, but that’s not the point. The point — which I fear many Americans have ignored or denied — is that Pakistanis are people who are suffering and will continue to suffer, as food shortages caused by the destruction of crops ramify through Pakistani society over the coming months and beyond.
My question for Americans is: If we failed or refused to understand at the time it happened that the flooding was not some divine comeuppance safely distant from us, but an immense human tragedy, will we understand a year from now when, God forbid, the ricochets from it hit us closer to home?
Many Pakistani friends of mine responded immediately and with real sympathy, concretely expressed, after the Haitian earthquake. Todd Shea claims that, of the 200 or so physicians from North America who volunteered with him in Haiti, most were Pakistani. We have a golden opportunity to show similar human concern for Pakistanis, now and later.
An August 23 note from Uzma Shah is typical of the many messages I’ve received since publishing my previous article “Pakistan Floods: Why Should We Care?”: “It’s hard to see pictures from Pakistan, and I can’t help but choke back tears when I see all that desperation. And amidst all the furor about all things bad and hard about Pakistan and ‘Islam,’ it’s comforting to read your article . Because at the end of the day, we are all human, living in one world, sharing the same life.”
It’s dismaying to me that I’ve gotten very few such messages from non-Muslims.
This post originally appeared at EthanCasey.com
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