Tragic diary of an aid worker
PUBLISHED: 17:05 20 January 2010 | UPDATED: 10:03 12 August 2010
Day one ON Tuesday night the tremors of Port au Prince s devastating earthquake rippled through the whole country. Cap-Haitian, Haiti s second largest city fell into a silent daze of disbelief, horror and fear. A long waiting game began as communication
ON Tuesday night the tremors of Port au Prince's devastating earthquake rippled through the whole country. Cap-Haitian, Haiti's second largest city fell into a silent daze of disbelief, horror and fear.
A long waiting game began as communication lines failed and the majority of the city's
population wept for the news of loved ones in Port au Prince.
After a day of mourning, the reality seemed to have sunk in and the ever increasing scale of this disaster truly started unfolding.
At 4am a small team from Haiti Hospital Appeal set out from the north of Haiti to Port au Prince. For most of the seven-hour journey we remained in silence, fearing what we would find before us.
As we drove further into the city, the scale of the atrocity began to unfold. Piled along many of the streets lay the rotting bodies of victims from the earthquake. Most were covered in old, dirty sheets scarcely large enough to hide the tragic images below. People passed by, some slowly as if out of a mark of respect, others quicker, jogging almost to avoid the mass of flies and the sickening smell.
Makeshift coffins occasionally wove in and out of the crowds of people, carried by half-a-dozen or so men. Voluntary undertakers frantically passed from street to street.
Looting has already been reported and what has caused many of our friends greater concern here is the reality that a number of criminals have escaped from broken prisons, guns have been stolen and some shootings reported.
That said, I have been truly amazed and
humbled by the peaceful way the majority of this city has handled itself, especially in light of the normal reputation this city has.
We had been warned that the city stank of death and such warnings hadn't been false. The majority of the population walk around with masks covering their faces, others have smeared some form of ointment around their nose to avoid the smell.
It is a potent and cruel reminder to all those who survived that beneath the piles of rubbish and destroyed houses, schools, offices and the like lay their loved ones. It was as if we'd walked into a city sized morgue.
Mass sites have already been used to burn the dead and on the way in and out of Port au Prince the smoke and smell linger in the air.
Port au Prince has always had some of Haiti's poorest slums, but now it seemed the whole city has transformed into a community of makeshift tents.
Some small communities, just enough to fit a few families in, others huge, easily cramming in hundreds if not thousands. Many sit within these ever increasing temporary refugee camps, beneath the blistering hot sun, resigned to the reality of their new lives.
Many of these families will live in these tents for many months if not years to come.
One of our main objectives on travelling to Port au Prince was to search for the children of one of our staff.
Beneath the awesome scale of this disaster, with the destruction which looked liked the blitz in my mind, lay the tragic stories of individuals.
Our employee Simone Gean had waited three days to find out whether her four children had survived. The relief was incredible as she heard the news that her family were alive. There aren't many glimmers of hope here amidst this great darkness, but when you find them, you cherish them.
During our travels yesterday we came across a group of UK rescue workers from Lancashire, Manchester and Kent. It was a welcome moment of encouragement to stand besides these men and hear of their work, their sacrifice, searching through such mounds of rubble as I have described. I'm not a particularly patriotic guy, but in this instance I did stand proud witnessing the brave and dangerous work that some of our fireman and rescue teams from the UK were undertaking.
Our appeal's ambulance was filled with water sachets, medication, first aid equipment, clothes and food rations. Such aid was but a speck of dust amidst this great ocean of suffering.
However, with aid only just arriving from abroad, it was a welcome respite to many. One sachet of water costs less than five pence and I watched as women and children danced before me, singing their thanks to those who'd provided them with this welcome relief.
It is always humbling in developing countries such as Haiti to witness what a profound and powerful affect the offer of one small gift can have on an individual or family. Before long, our little 4x4 ambulance became a powerful magnet of need.
Women, children and men of all ages would stare through our window pleading even for a scrap of food. Our driver became agitated, fearful that some of these crowds in their desperation wanted our ambulance and so we steadily progressed through the city, not hanging around in any one place for too long.
It shames me, but I have become hardened here, I wonder where my heart is, why it is I don't cry at the injustices of this nation so much anymore.
Of course my heart still pours out as much as it ever has, more so today, and deep down I ache and grieve as anyone who works here does. However, it is a true but sad reality that the disaster of Haiti happened a long time before Tuesday.
When the images fade from our televisions, as they did from the hurricane devastation of 2008, this country will continue living day-by-day on a knife edge.
This is why our aid response doesn't just include immediate emergency relief, but also the desire to complete an urgently needed hospital facility in the north; to provide hope and desperately needed health care for the future.
My new driver feared the atmosphere of tension in Port au Prince. It's interesting to see the tragedy through the eyes of Haitians.
They are more in tune with the underlying 'heat' there which like a kettle sits dangerously close to over boiling. They sense great anxiety, a fear amidst the people. A Haitian radio station reported of someone having their head cut off in one tragic result of the grief and tension.
With so much destruction faced by the UN and police as well as everyone else, there is chaos across the city. This said, if accompanied by a Haitian who knows the streets well and can discern the atmosphere I felt safe and peace security wise.
This act of violence remains an isolated report, and as I mentioned yesterday, I am touched by the way many of these remarkable people have gone about dealing with this nightmare.
It took us over four hours to get from one side of the city to the other. People walked through the streets aimlessly with nowhere to go, carrying the few bags and possessions they had left.
Many crammed onto any vehicle available desperate to leave. The mass exodus of PAP has begun and on our way out we followed cars full of the injured and in some cases even the dead.
However, some people have said that this city no longer exits. They are wrong. Even amidst the tragedy some desperately try to sell goods along the streets, and large tent cities have spread all across the city.
They are crammed into every space you can imagine, even in the small gaps in the middle of major dual carriage ways.
The city has become a shanty town, and will remain this way for a tragically long time into the future.
Unless aid and sanitation is sorted out quickly there is a major risk of an epidemic of cholera, diarrhoea, typhoid, meningitis and various other illnesses. As things stand it is not a case of 'if' water-born diseases will cause a problem, but rather 'when' they will start.