'Here I sit under my palm tree': A Canadian photographer reports from Haiti

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A 25 year old who was crippled with a severed spine three weeks ago, he's been lying in a hospital waiting for this Medevac to Dominican for a surgery with hopes of giving him use of his stomach for a wheelchair.  Credit: Graham Lavary.

I guess the pivotal issue here is not so much the scope of the quake and resulting damage, or the poverty that has either been an immediate consequence of it, or the underlying destitution that has existed for decades in Haiti. Nor is it the fact that I'm sitting writing this on the beach where the Kennedy's used to vacation -- at an old Club Med some 50 nautical miles from Port-Au-Prince.

I guess it's the familiarity of it all now. It's truly the same broken record I've seen playing in so many other places around the world. The contrasts here are extreme in almost every measurable way, and many that can never have a quantifiable comparison.

I tried to pay particular attention to my impressions of Haiti prior to my arrival, as once a person ends up in these situations it's remarkably easy to forget what you thought before -- as was the case to some degree in Afghanistan -- at least for me. You adapt to the scene you're seeing, and I think perspective is lost as a result.

Adaptation would be another common theme here, and in places like it, as the people have adapted to their current state of affairs with little apparent trouble. "Little trouble?" Yes, that's right.

I know it's hard to grasp those two words in this context, given the images on television, in my own camera, or the first-hand reports on CNN and the CBC, but people living in these places are constantly adapting to any number of difficult circumstances, the vast majority of which go well unnoticed by most of us as there is little return for media outlets on distinctly un-sexy stories of hardship.

Life is hard, the folks here know this -- we forget. That is not to discount in any way the extreme strife this event has thrust upon the people of Port-Au-Prince (PAP), as it is extreme.

A great many people here are dead, maimed, or have lost everything, it is truly a tragic event in every sense of the word, but already we're losing interest in this particular story. The heart wrenching scenes of desperation as people hunted for loved ones, and the race to save lives played out on TV 24/7 like some perverse reality show.

The back patting by ex-presidents and VIP's in front of a sea of cameras at the PAP airport, and the novelty of it all in the days after the quake hit are long gone with the reporters who covered it -- replaced by excavators digging through endless piles of rubble, countless bodies rotting in the blazing tropical sun, eaten by every manner of animal and insect. It doesn't even smell that bad anymore. The real work is set to begin here now, but what is the "real work," and does anyone back home care?

The Medevacs departing to the Dominican Republic are subject to a reverse triage of sorts, a system where the sickest are left for fear of contamination. The pace is agonizing and the need almost endless. We flew with a 26-year-old man paralyzed from the chest down for three weeks now -- laying with no dignity on a stretcher at a hospital -- they got him to Santa Domingo just two days ago. The relationship between Haiti and Dominican is not good, it is one filled with hate, racism, and paranoia. There is help coming from that side of the border, but it is a trickle at best.

One helicopter pilot who's been here since the early days of "effort" put it this way, "Sure, we're ‘helping,' but it's not the right kind of help." Cue the broken record of western aid missions...

To walk the streets of Port-Au-Prince, you'll see all the usual tropical fruit for sale, people selling freshly butchered goat, beef, and chickens. There are eggs, Nestle products of every description, and shoes, and books -- lots of books.

The Haitians have dealt with poverty for a very long time; they are good at surviving, as are the Afghans, Africans, and Asians... as are people everywhere when required to do so. It's just the requirement to do so that needs to be re-assessed.

There are few, if any scenes of small children bloated with chronic malnourishment. Yes, there are tent-cities popping up all over the city and beyond as a great many structures are no longer safe to inhabit, but again, this is part of life when you live in a so-called "third-world" nation. Of course, people still live in many condemnable homes -- there is nowhere else.

Had this quake struck Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic with equal force, I suspect the scenes would be a great deal different. How could they not be in a place with building codes, civil services, and of course money, lots of money? The scale of this "disaster" is not solely the result of the quake -- it goes way beyond that. There is history here, and that history has not been kind to Haitians, nor will it treat them well in the future. I'm having a difficult time seeing how they will emerge from this better off, despite the international involvement, the spending of tens of millions, and the cancellation of their national debt.

There are very few civilian helicopter operators down here working for the aid effort, an American I spoke to said in the wake of the Katrina debacle in New Orleans, there was no way the U.S. Gov't was going to under-react on the next available humanitarian effort. While I find it hard to use the words "over-react" in a context like this, I do see his point. The reactions, while well intentioned, don't seem to be taking into account the need of the local people, or the context in which they live. We've all seen it before, notably with the Asian Tsunami when organizations had to plead with people to stop sending blankets and food, they needed different supplies.

I've begun to question who the help is really for, the Haitians who desperately need help, or the helpers who need to feel like they're doing something, anything. From our governments and militaries, to NGOs and church groups, to me. Just who are we trying to make feel better? Back to that broken record...

We were all happy to leave Haitians in poverty for decades before this quake, and now in our rush to render assistance, there has been precious little thought into how that assistance will impact the country in the years to come when this has faded into a distant memory for all of us. By ignoring the fact that a great many residents are already coping with what's been dealt to them, we are creating a new dependency instead of allowing Haitians to take ownership of their situation. Ownership is vital for success, for all of us in whatever we do. We relay witty anecdotes to each other about our children not listening to parental advice, having to learn on their own the "hard way." At least parental advice is universally well intentioned, international politics is a far dirtier sport.

But we will leave here, and we'll take our mountain of gear, all our people, and the stuff we do leave behind will surly break in fairly short order -- therein lies the rub. What do they do then? The same thing they've always done, just try to survive with what they have.

The hills here are barren and arid, deforested over the centuries for the timber that was exported for our use, then by the locals who needed wood to cook with. It's bears a closer resemblance to Afghanistan than it does to the Dominican Republic, which is of course on the same island... There is no mistaking the border here.

A Canadian Forces Colonel we talked to was extremely frustrated that "we are applying first world standards to a third world country" when trying to render help. He has equipment producing thousands of gallons of water each day, water that is many orders of magnitude better in quality than what is available to the locals. However, it doesn't meet Canadian potable water standards so they are not allowed to distribute it to the people of Port-Au-Prince who so desperately need it. The soldiers turn away people arriving with buckets; they take their water instead from the streams that are polluted in the extreme, creating yet more health issues in an already devastated city.

Instead, we are airlifting and trucking countless pallets of bottled water -- millions of one time use plastic containers brought in from abroad that will almost instantly become yet more useless litter. Somebody thinks this is a good approach. I'd like to meet that somebody.

Separating the layers of poverty and need is vital, yet so many westerners who are here to help have either never seen this type of thing before and are completely overwhelmed, or they are part of large organizations, churches, or the military which by nature bring a certain disassociation. Addressing acute need for a disaster is dramatically different than addressing long-term poverty, the approach has to be different, and measured.

Failing to measure our response, and to think through the type of response is creating more dependency and simply prolonging the chronic condition of need. The cycle will just perpetuate itself forever. People far wiser than me know this, people in power know this, yet it continues. The salient question is "why?"

Moving on...

We accompanied a food drop aid mission to a village 25 nautical miles from P-A-P, where we were told, "nobody had even been [there] yet, and they were desperate." It was with a civilian helicopter company from the Dominican, in concert with a U.S.-based church organization.

We landed in the soccer field of a U.S. Christian mission, and were met by a nearly fanatically hysterical woman from Kansas who ran the mission with her husband. She was crying so hard she was convulsing, but managed to apprise us of the situation in the village where "thousands were starving and had no homes anymore -- they are rubble. The children..." I looked around a bit, and so made my first mistake of the day.

Running Haitian children

The mission was secure behind barbed wire fencing, and as we drove through the gate into the village she broke into a fresh set of convulsions pointing to all the children -- there are MANY children -- who "had nothing to eat." Over her shoulder, seemingly unnoticed and not 30 feet from the gate was a woman selling piles of oranges, mangos, and papaya at a stand next to a wall that had fallen down -- she had simply moved her stand 10 feet to the right. "But how could this be," thought I? A lady selling potatoes and eggs was another 50 feet down the lane...

Upon further inspection, one or two homes revealed themselves to be in a sad state, but overall I was shocked to see most everything standing, despite varying levels of structural integrity. We had been told it was not the case, it was a "disaster area" after all...

This was yet another situation where context was ignored entirely by "us." There was no respect, no credit given, and consequently no understanding of the local population or their needs.

The people outside the wire were going about life, as they do every day. I asked a young boy of 15 about the quake, and he said it "shook a little bit, but they were fixing homes now, it's OK." Was there loss of life? Yes, but there's not much time for dwelling.

Had the hysterical missionary bothered to speak to this boy, or if she had, did she listen?

It is unfortunate that "help" has to so often arrive in these places in the form of missionaries, distinct from the local religious communities. It is a model that is not positive; it is a model that creates as many problems as it solves, it is a model that misses the all-important question "why," and it is one that sets up yet another detrimental power dynamic that further subjugates local populations. For this opinion I cannot apologize, I have seen it too many times now, in too many places.

As a side note, there is a substantial paranoia from Haitian government officials about the U.S. military presence here, and with good reason. They are trying to maintain control of their country, and given the recent history of intervention here, they are wary of where this may go. Military officials from the U.S., Canada, and other nations see obstruction of aid, the Haitians see control potentially being lost. The relative perspectives are vitally important.

Loading donated food into a Helidosa Long Ranger.

Eventually the helicopters carrying the food arrived. Two Bell Long Rangers carrying about 2,000 lbs of rice, peas, bottled water (Again, really?), and various items between them. It should however be noted that, in order for two small helicopters to bring in a paltry amount of food, there were three helicopters full of press flown in first, TV crews from the Dominican and us. 

So, here I sit under my palm tree typing this, amidst a motley crew of pilots, aid workers, soldiers, and U.N. personnel all frantically fighting for precious bandwidth on their laptops. Sitting at a resort not 30 minutes by helicopter from the devastation that is PAP. The big issue here is the price of lunch, with one American manager feeling he'd been "soaked for $17." Sometimes, it's just a shake of one's head, other times it's tears.

This is the world we live in, one where it's OK for "us" to have, and "them" to have not. For us to help in a way that is more about "us" than it is about "them." A world where "we" continue to refer to the have-nots and oppressed of the world as "them," like they've done something unsavory to bring this upon themselves, like we bear no responsibility in the equation. The religious among us find solace in "God's plan," a phrase I hear with frightening regularity, and the rest of us just choose not to look too closely when we sit at all-inclusive resorts such as this one all over the world. There is a price to be paid for that $300/week all-in resort, but it is not we who pay it.

Until "we" start referring to all human beings as "we," this sordid state of being will persist.

Graham Lavery is a Powell River, B.C.-based freelance photojournalist and helicopter pilot. He returned from Haiti on February 14. He covered Afghanistan in 2008. The original blog can be found here, and his Haiti photos can be seen here.

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