"I saw only the best of human nature."

by Shaker P

Hours after the earthquake hit, my four coworkers (one Haitian and three Americans) and I (also American) were with a group of 30 or so people in the courtyard of a hotel near Petionville that had sustained the quake without damage. Across from the hotel is a large park, into which dozens of families were streaming from side streets, carrying food and bedding, and grasping their children tightly, to settle in for a sleepless night away from the buildings that might fall in the aftershocks.

Two small figures came in from the street, a girl and a boy. They looked as though they'd been dipped in fine powdered sugar from head to toe. Except where they were bleeding: Minor cuts and probably a fractured wrist for the girl. In America I would have said they were 8 and 6, but in Haiti I've learned it's very hard to estimate age because of chronic malnutrition. When the girl realized that people wanted to listen to her, and that there were Creole speakers among us, she burst into tears and told her family's story. Their house had collapsed on top of them, and now they were in the park, with nothing. "We almost died today," she repeated. We sat them down and brought them water to drink, ibuprofen for her pain, and a first aid kit to clean their wounds.

Maya (not her name) is twelve, and her brother Ron (not his name) ten. Once she had been cared for, with ice on her wrist, Maya decided it was time to bring the rest of her family to the hotel courtyard. My friends and I sat with Ron while others accompanied her to the park. Soon, in came Maya's mother, with a babe in arms, a brother, who looked about Maya's age, and a sister, maybe three years old. All had the terrible powdered-sugar coating. Quietly, they settled onto a bench and the edge of a fountain. The doctor who was with us looked at each of them in turn. Maya's mother probably had a fractured top of her foot. Again, ibuprofen and ice were the remedies we had.

Coke and crackers were produced by the hotel, and the family ate. The three-year-old girl settled in on my lap, and one of my friends was holding the baby. Soon they were both deeply asleep. The hotel was happy to offer them space in the courtyard where we were all planning to sleep, but that was still too close to a building for them. They chose to return to the park, and were anxious to get back before the space was full. We walked them across the street, and when they were settled in a spot, handed the sleeping baby and toddler to Maya's mother and older brother. We gave them the little cash we had on us and returned to the hotel.

Soon we heard that there was a clinic functioning nearby, and we volunteered there until early in the morning. It was difficult, but what a difference it made having morphine and strong antibiotics to give to people injured in every imaginable way by falling buildings. Later we would not have those to give.

At daylight Wednesday morning, my group decided to make our way back to the place where our organization has worked on community-based health and nutrition since the 90's, about 20 miles outside of Port au Prince, near the epicenter of the quake. We walked partway and then were lucky enough to hitch a ride. Tens of thousands of people were on the move that day, walking, with few possessions. Again I was struck by how fiercely people—women and men—were holding on to their children.

Two thoughts struck me over and over. The first: It didn't have to be this bad. If the global community had ever, since Haiti became the first independent country in the Western hemisphere, engaged with Haitians (all Haitians and not just powerful elites) as partners rather than a means to an end, this would not have been as bad. The second: Everyone is just trying to take care of the ones they love, and stay out of everyone else's way. For the 72 hours I was in Haiti after the quake, I saw only the best of human nature.

We arrived at our destination at around 9:30 in the morning, a hospital that we partner with. There were dozens of badly injured people there, and more coming in every minute. Again, any bad thing that can happen to a human body when heavy things fall on it. Only this time we had no morphine, and just everyday antibiotics. Two doctors, two nurses, some nursing students, and us, with no medical training. We splinted fractures with cardboard and handed around acetaminophen and ibuprofen for pain. The worst head injuries were driven to Port au Prince—to where? But there was 0% chance of helping them where we were.

Again, heroism all around. Lily (not her name), a robust and healthy 13-year-old before the quake, had a crushed left arm. Her neighbors carried her in around noon, in shock, cold and unresponsive. The sun was very bright where we were laying patients on tarps in the middle of the courtyard. One neighbor stood over her to shield her from the sun as we covered her with blankets and chafed her (uninjured) extremities. Only after her mother arrived, with sweet fruit juice for Lily to drink, did he leave his post, and gently pointed out his small daughters to me, laying near their mother, one with a fractured femur, the other a fractured shin.

Lily started coming around, and I was awed by her mother. The woman stood over her daughter, also shading her, and chatted and joked with her. I have a five-year-old, who had stayed in the US with her father, and I could not fathom how this mother could be so brave, so controlled, as to not betray a hint of the fear she must have been feeling to her daughter, who by now was in extreme pain. Dehydrated, Lily was drinking as much water and juice as we could give her. Lily's mother allowed me to share the sweet juice with the other children nearby in order to mask the bitter taste of the pain pills I was crushing up to give them.

At 5 pm, we were out of medicines, and new patients had stopped coming in. On the doctors' instructions, we made sure that all of the patients had pain pills for 24 hrs, and antibiotics—I don't really know how many days' worth. We told each of them that we would try to bring more doctors and help as soon as possible, feeling worse than useless. I didn't see the two little girls with broken legs leave. My last view of Lily was her mother picking her up in her arms, like a much younger child, to carry her to wherever they would be sleeping that night. I don't know, may never know, what happened to them.

I was airlifted back to the US by the US Air Force early Friday morning with other Americans, including many Haitian-Americans. Walking onto the plane was an immense relief, and we were all treated with care and gentleness. The guilt was also immense as I thought of all those injured people who were not being airlifted to safety. My thoughts of them continue to be a great motivator to me in the days since the earthquake as I work to coordinate relief efforts, a task much bigger than any organization, no matter how large or well-prepared, can really do well—but which nevertheless is being done, by many organizations, much better than media reports would have one believe. I am equally motivated by the respect I have learned for my colleagues and the heroic women and men I have met over the three years I have worked in Haiti, and by my faith that they will rebuild, that they will endure.

I fervently hope that the voices and goals of those groups that have been marginalized throughout Haiti's history—women, youth, LGBTQ, differently abled people, mentally ill people, and rural and urban poor people—will have a much bigger impact on Haiti's future than they have in the past. Non-Haitian partners have a responsibility to facilitate that. My very small non-profit organization is working with a much bigger one since the earthquake, and it has been a pleasure to work with their protection experts on how to make life in camps safer for women and children, and work with them to set up spaces where children can play and be safe—can just be kids again for a while.

At least in the communities we serve, women have taken the lead in recovery and reconstruction—perhaps they always do after disasters? Our job as non-Haitian partners is to help Haitian women to navigate the friction that might cause—things like increased violence against women—and to celebrate with them the corresponding increase in status that increased economic opportunities in the quake's aftermath will bring.

I had intended for the trip that took me to Haiti in January to be my last, at least for a while. Having worked for many years in international nutrition, I was tired, so tired, of the way that root causes of poverty and hunger—including the universally low status of women and children—are seldom addressed by development groups.

There are still major obstacles to social change of course, but these days I'm taking my marching orders from Ti Vice, a popular Haitian konpa band. They have released a home-grown benefit song (much more fun than "We are the World 25"—download it from iTunes or amazon.com to benefit two good organizations), called "Nou pap lage": We won't give up. As Haitians who have lost so much are working so hard to rebuild their lives, their country, and their society, I can continue to partner with them.

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