Sunday, January 17, 2010

Like a movie

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI-- After the longest day of my life, I'm spending my last night here in Haiti.

Today felt like 3 separate days.

It began with another huge tremor around 5am that shook our building, sending Barbara and I running outside. Once we went back inside and laid down, there was another tremor. We were too lazy to get up for that one.

I woke up again around 7:30am. It was that damn rooster again. I went upstairs for some coffee and to play with the babies. Then a bunch of us piled into two trucks and drove to the U.S. embassy. This is where my day started to feel like a movie.

There was a huge crowd outside of the embassy - a gorgeous, modern building that was unphased by the shaking that destroyed the buildings all around it. We made our way through the crowd and directly to the front of the line (it pays to know people; Barbara is pretty much famous in Haiti). We told our story to a guard.

We needed emergency medical visas for some of the sick orphans here in the village, including 11-year-old Charlie, who we brought with us. Charlie had a concrete wall fall on him during the 'quake and the nurses are certain he has some serious internal damage to his abdomen. He's in a lot of pain. He quietly sits through his suffering - not saying a word, but once in a while you see a single tear fall down his face. Charlie has a family waiting to adopt him in the U.S. He has a passport, but the process of getting a visa really drags on here in Haiti. Now that he needs medical attention, it is so important that we rush this process. There is no one here to help him and we have no way of knowing just how bad his injuries are.

After the guards met Charlie, they brought a wheelchair out for him and we all got to go inside. It was like stepping into another world - a world that just a few days ago would have seemed normal, but now after 3 days without running water, toilets or a.c. - this was paradise. We brought our sweaty selves into the air conditioning and waited. I used the restroom.

The toilet flushed.

I almost fainted.

Back in the lobby, we watched as a steady stream of men carrying machine guns, as well as horribly wounded 'quake victims went in and out of the building. A makeshift hospital was set up in one of the embassy offices to care for the people waiting for the opportunity to be sent home to the U.S. After a few hours of waiting, we got the news. Not only is Charlie getting a visa, we're getting them for 11 other orphans.

We cried.

This is unheard of and beyond a miracle. Children that could die if they are forced to stay here, now not only have an opportunity for quality medical care but the chance to have a new life in America.

That was the end of the first leg of my long day.The second part began immediately.

We sent half of our crew, including Charlie, in one of the vehicles back to the village. Barbara, Joe (the organizer of this trip and founder of Air Mobile Ministries), John (the print reporter I'm traveling with) and I loaded into a truck and headed into the heart of Port-au-Prince.

It's the kind of devastation you simply can't prepare yourself for.

Decomposing bodies litter the sidewalks - their arms stretched out as if grasping for help; their faces frozen in an intense expression of pain - the same expression worn even by the living here. The smell is beyond description and the images now seared into my mind are just as nauseating.

Then, there's the structural damage: the presidential palace, the senate building, the national post office, the federal building, the main courthouse - all destroyed. Imagine if all of those buildings in the United States crumbled. It's something we like to think could only happen in some sort of blockbuster film, but for the Haitians, this is now reality.

A tent city sprung up just across the street from the once stunning "White House." Hundreds upon hundreds of people now live there, sleeping on what little scraps of cloth they could find, bathing in the fountain, eating and drinking - nothing. Some people are walking around in the streets naked. Maybe they have no clothing. Maybe it's too hot on this sweltering day. Maybe, they're just starting to go crazy. With no food, no water, and everything around you destroyed how could anyone keep it together?

I didn't see any organizations offering aid today; I know some tried, but I didn't see them. But whatever help is here, it's not enough. These people are starving and it seems to me that it's going to get much, much worse before it gets any better.

We wrapped up our emotionally draining day by going to the Visa Lodge - a cool little hotel in Port-au-Prince. Phase 3 of this unbelievable day. Again, it was like a movie.

There were reporters from around the world gathered there having dinner and a beer, unwinding after a very long, hard day of work. We all tried to pretend we hadn't just witnessed such horrible things.

For a moment, we escaped.

The peace was short-lived though. As soon as we pulled out of the parking lot we still had to drive 15 minutes back to the village, past toppled buildings, through a river that people were both bathing in and drinking from, as well as past hundreds of homeless Haitians wandering aimlessly in the streets.

I'm having another Haitian beer and heading downstairs for my last night with my new friends. I'll be home tomorrow, possibly with Charlie and a 2-year-old orphan who has a visa and a family waiting for her.

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