Reality in Haiti is Even Worse Than it Looks

Reality in Haiti is Even Worse Than it Looks

Flying in on a cargo plane, two Global Television journalists and I (with Canwest News Service) arrived in Port-au-Prince less than 24 hours after the earthquake hit last week.

Having just got back, I am seeing for the first time the television and print images that have been appearing on your television sets and in your newspapers.

As shocking as these images may appear, they do not portray the magnitude of the tragedy that has happened — and the degree to which the Haitian people are suffering.

When looking at images from the disaster, we need to multiply by ten times our reaction of horror … because when the reality of the event is before your eyes, as it has been before mine this past week, only doing that can give you a true picture of what is going on in a place that has become hell not far from our shores.

We don’t even know yet how many people were killed in the quake, which gives you an indication of the utter chaos — notwithstanding the best efforts of foreign governments, aid agencies and Haitians themselves to help the hundreds of thousands of people in deep psychological and emotional pain.

The searing images that rest with me include those of hideously wounded children. As a father of three little ones myself, I cringed at the sight of these youngsters, their tiny bodies covered in open cuts and gashes, their faces displaying their deep inner sadness and incomprehension.

At one field hospital we visited, badly injured children made up most of the line of people awaiting emergency aid. Some had been brought in wheelbarrows, others carried there on mattresses or boards.

Two Peruvian medics were working feverishly to see everyone in the crowd, who stood patiently in the baking sun.

“Tell the world we need supplies,” shouted one of the medics. She had not a second to talk to me, but needed desperately to get that message out as she also tried to calm the boy whose broken leg she was plastering.

Her table of operation was a long splinter-ridden bench, its faded blue paint flaking off. Dust hung in the air, kicked up by people up and down the block.

The boy was moaning in pain, and his father squeezed his shoulder — that was all he could do to comfort his suffering son.

Yet what I have just described is just one little snapshot of an event that is being played out thousands of times across the city, and beyond.

Another image I retain is also about the injured. It’s how people themselves had tried to treat their wounds before any treatment whatsoever was available.

Cardboard folded lengthways served as a splint for the broken leg of one girl. The wounds of other people were bandaged with whatever cloth had been available … much of it dirty, amid the scarcity of water.

Many of the bandages failed to cover the entire wound, leaving it open for the ubiquitous flies to land and spread filth and disease.

There are also the images of the makeshift refugee camps — the parks and empty lots within the city where untold numbers of homeless have made a shelter out of sheets tied to poles.

In these camps, families are living one on top of the other. As they struggle to survive, many are also grieving the loss of loved ones.

Yet despite the appalling hardship, how impressive it was that these concentration camps — because that is what they are — have been so peaceable. They are a real testament to the patience and resilience of the Haitian people.

Many people sought to know where their government was, and for a symbol of how this tragedy overwhelmed Haiti’s leaders, look no farther than the ruins of the Presidential palace, whose formerly impressive dome now sits toppled like children’s building bricks knocked over.

Of course, there were also the horrendous images of the dead; the piles of bodies that remained in the streets for days. Covers over many were often too short, and the sight of victims’ feet sticking out from one end made me shiver. There were the tiny bundles, which you knew meant that a child lay beneath.

But nothing surpassed the sight of a group of bodies just blocks from the presidential palace. Like soldiers fallen in battle, they lay haphazardly on top of one another, their stiffened limbs pointing in all directions, their faces for the most part blood spattered.

There are reports of sporadic unrest among Haitians, but notwithstanding the country’s violent past, the behavior of these people — our neighbours — has been exemplary. The nights are certainly dangerous times, but they are also a time when crowds come out to walk around the streets in song … singling alleluia and praises that they are still alive.

Through it all, the aid planes have been arriving one after the other, and in more recent days, ordinary Haitians have been getting back to scratching out their livings.

The streets have begun to show signs of commerce and other activity; finished are those early images of people walking around in a daze.

Canada has sent in forces to join those of the United States, and help from other countries.

But it will be many years before Haiti returns even to what little it had before. Think of the cleanup needed at 9/11, then multiply it thousands of times.

We have a human obligation to help anyone in distress around the world. But we also know the Haitians; they are part of our family in the Americas. In some parts of Canada, they are even our neighbours, our fellow workers. So we have to find a way to turn this tragedy into a lasting recovery — it’s the least we would do for any member of our family.