Haiti: The View From Here

Greetings from the UN compound in Port-au-Prince.

I'm here working as a cameraman for Mihalis Gripiotis, a friend, who is the foreign correspondent for Greek Public Television [basically the Greek BBC]. We flew into Santo Domingo 36 hours after the earthquake, where we arranged for a car to take us to the Haitian border, and then hired a pickup truck to get into Port-au-Prince. Apart from the camera equipment, we brought clothes, water, and a bag of energy bars, which we lived on for a few days just fine. Luckily we met a Greek national who has an office at the UN, where we now sleep and have access to basic food and water. [I'd like to say, for the record, that a UN Press Pass and a CamelBak are the two most valuable items on earth. No contest.] It's a gift to have a working computer in front of me, and I really need to try and organize some thoughts into writing, to try and chronicle at least some moments of the past few days.


Everyone's seen the gruesome images on the news, and I guess I could try to get creative and come up with some string of awful words to describe the state and conditions of the city and its people, which would not suffice, so there's really only one way to describe it: fucked. It's completely, unbelievably fucked. The whole country is outdoors. Everyone is afraid of another quake, or unseen damages to their homes from the first one. Riding in the back of a hired pickup from the Dominican border, for the first 20 miles, you forget for a moment what lies ahead. The countryside is beautiful, the weather is pleasant, as the very rural outer areas were unaffected. Then slowly the road becomes more crowded, you see more people walking, then people walking with their belongings, clothes, mattresses, water, gasoline, and then before you realize it, the road is completely clogged with hundreds of people: jammed into and on top of every type of vehicle, most wearing masks or bandannas for the dust, and endless stream of people walking in between the cars, in both directions. You would think that the traffic would be in one direction, toward safety or some logical destination, but there's no hint at all -- perhaps half are fleeing and the other heading into the city to check on family, but there is no sign -- both sides of the road in equal massive disarray.

With the condition of the roads and amount of vehicle and foot traffic, naturally the truck took forever to make its way into the city, so ever since, we've been hiring local kids with motorcycles to take us around -- it's the only way to get any decent amount of footage -- we weave in between the traffic, see something compelling [which of course is everything], jump off, do an interview if possible, get footage, keep going. When I saw the news footage before coming down, it looked like news footage. That is, linear: here's the destruction, here's the wounded, it's under control, or on it's way to being under control. But what struck me is that the images you see on the news, when you're here, are the images you see everywhere. Every block -- collapsed buildings, every street -- refugees, every gas station crammed with people shouting and jockeying to fill up makeshift gas cans. And yes, the fallen bodies with faces covered with rags or cardboard, everywhere. It doesn't end. At times you feel like you're watching a horror movie, and then you feel like you're in a horror movie, and then you snap out of it and keep going. The key word is movement. The contrast of the living is in their constant movement. The only cars and motorcycles that are not moving are waiting for gas. The only people who are not walking are those who cannot walk, and the dead. It seems that everyone keeps moving at all times, if only to avoid having to stop and look around.

All the press is set up at the airport, which is a patchwork of satellite dishes and camera crews from all over the world, trying to send footage with the satellite providers who themselves are franticly trying to set up and maintain their equipment, and book the time slots for the various news feeds. So for a couple of days, the airport becomes home base. We still return every day, multiple times, to send footage and for Mihalis to go on camera to Greece live via satellite, after which we go back with cameras into the city.

Today we went to the main hospital where --------------- actually, I was about to describe it just now, but I'll just go back to the word "fucked", and try to focus more on the relief effort and skip the gore. The reigning story right now outside of Haiti is how bureaucracy is stalling the aid from getting to the people and I don't know the details or the rumors, all I know is the view from here: every single able body working as hard as they can. I mean, everyone, the locals, all the foreign aid workers, it's nonstop.

The airport runway is maybe the busiest piece of land in Haiti. The first day, there were many private aircraft coming in and out, [I even saw a learjet land and offload supplies, which I heard was owned by a wealthy Dominican who kept making runs back over the border with supplies], but the larger UN and military planes have now become the norm, offloading supplies and evacuating refugees.

The need for law and order, the military priority, cannot be denied. We went to a food distribution area today, thousands of people separated in lines of women, children, men, and without the presence of the Argentine UN forces, it would have been chaos -- which it already was. It's day five, people are getting more and more desperate, and the vast scale of the tragedy is unimaginable: today, food was personally distributed to 200,000 people out of more than a million who have been affected and in need.

What is the measure of success here? How the hell do you get over a million people fed, and then expect to feed them every day, except as best as you can? Then you have the first few days of search and rescue, exhausted medical resources, and of course just the collection of the dead on the streets -- the public health priorities all seem to edge each other out in level of importance. The handling of the relief operation is certainly not beyond criticism, but I think the negativity in the press, which has its valid points, is a bit obtuse.

We rode through the center of town to interview a Greek citizen who works at a large local cell phone company, which, like everything else, is in the process of rebuilding. They had their own security force: armored cars, bulletproof glass, bodyguards for the engineers, everything. While we were there, we got a message to take a different route back to the airport, as there were reports of gunfire and fighting along the route we had just taken [we made damn sure we had someone translate the new directions in French to our motorcycle drivers].

It feels like there's a critical, dangerous balance between aid and security: hunger and desperation lead to violence, and of course if people have food, water, and medical attention there will be a reasonable amount of order. But what if the strategic operation commanders miss a neighborhood, do not correctly detect or diagnose the need of an area, and those people then, desperate, seek, with violence if necessary, to meet their needs by going to the areas that have received aid? It is just one of the myriad seemingly insurmountable tasks that the relief organizers here have before them, but they keep moving. I am absolutely awestruck by the ceaseless effort, the increasing amount of aid workers, volunteers, streaming in by the hundreds every hour, from all over the world, doctors working in the such medically unideal conditions. The doctors and nurses, sleepless, with the help of Haitians, inexperienced but willing to help in any way possible, disposing of the dead, assisting the living. The offices at the UN compound packed with international relief teams coordinating the manpower and supplies. The security and police forces, from Jordan, Sri Lanka, Chile, Israel, with french translators, gearing up to patrol and chaperone the aid workers. I feel so goddamn useless here just holding a camera I can't fucking stand it. I am in awe of the relief workers, the conditions they're working in and what they are able to accomplish.

The Colombian UN security coordinator at the desk next to me just turned off his computer, laid down to sleep under his desk, so I should be polite, turn off the lights, and do the same. Good night.