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Posts Tagged ‘Port-au-Prince’

RaRa-Horns

For the past month, on Sunday nights, thousands of Haitians have been taking to the streets to celebrate Kanaval.  The yearly festival is marked by RaRa bands, floats, costumes and parades, and will culminate in a massive celebration in Jacmel on the weekend of February 26th, and another in PAP the following weekend.

Rara-Drummer

Rara-Drum

David and I went down to a Kanaval celebration in Petionville last Sunday to see what it was all about, and to be honest, it was just a HUGE block party.  Music blares on speakers large enough to blow out your eardrums, and Rara bands from local neighborhoods come to play their traditional Vodou music (except not all Rara bands are Vodou, I’ve recently learned).  Women pour glasses of homemade klerin (or sugar-cane grain alcohol), for those who don’t have the money to buy a bottle of Haitian rum, and the party goes on until the wee hours of the night.

Woman-pouring-Klarin

Ben and I are planning on going to Jacmel for the big celebration just over a week from now to take pictures and shoot video of what is one of the biggest cultural events in Haiti.  Because around this time last year the country was still reeling from the earthquake, they didn’t celebrate Kanaval in 2010, so this year is looking to be quite the party.  We’ll keep you posted, and, of course, provide you with plenty of pictures.

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Burning-Tires

Tens of thousands of protesters flooded the streets of Port-au-Prince Wednesday, leaving the city crippled after the results of the November 28th presidential elections were announce late Tuesday night.  The protesters, many of which were supporters of Michel Martelly who was left out of the country’s January 16th second-round run-off, erected roadblocks at practically every major intersection in the city.  By using burning tires and cars, as well as rocks and rubble, the streets quickly became completely impassable for anything other than a motorcycle.

Burned-Car-Roadblock

Casket-in-the-road

Ben and I traveled around the city with the help of an awesome moto-taxi driver who seemed to know every single person at every single road-block.  At one point a group of protesters surrounded us holding rocks and demanding we give them gas from the motorcycle so they could light a barricade on fire.  He looked around and found someone he knew who quickly explained to the people that we could pass, and we drove away safely before they got the chance to use their rocks.  Bottom line, he’s a keeper.

We maneuvered through protests and barricades, as Haitians ran through the streets holding Michel Martelly posters, and in the mean time destroying Jude Celestin and Mirlande Manigat posters along the way.  Businesses had boarded up their windows and doors, and the entire city was practically closed down, but the streets were packed with people chanting, “We don’t need Celestin!  Down with Preval!  We want Martelly!” in Kreyol.

Protesters-Running

Old-man-martelly-protester-champ-mars

Man-with-Anti-celestin-poster

And while many of the protesters marching the streets were peaceful, some resulted in violence and destruction.  At the Port-au-Prince campaign headquarters for Jude Celestin, protesters broke in and looted the building before lighting it on fire.  Local firemen (which I didn’t even know existed) sprayed down the smoldering remains of the HQ, which was filled with piles of burning Celestin campaign posters.

Unfortunately, it’s acts like this that detract from the real message, which is that these people feel that their democratic process has failed them yet again.  Like I said yesterday, it appears that the real results of the election actually included Martelly in the top two candidates who would move on to a run-off, winning over Celestin by over 10%.  They have the right to fight for that, but they should not do it at the expense of those whose personal property is now being destroyed because of it.

Firefighter-spraying-Posters

Fireman

Firefighter-Spraying-room

We traveled further downtown to the presidential palace, which had a peaceful march of a couple thousand Haitians.  “Celestin bought his votes, he bought this election,” explained one of the protesters as he passed by the palace, “But we don’t need money, we need a president that can lead our country.”  We doubled back towards the Delmas region, which holds one of the main arteries of the city.  Our moto-taxi driver expertly maneuvered around rubble that had been thrown into the street, and we came across one of the offices of the Provisional Electoral Commission (or the CEP).  Remember, these are the guys who ran the elections, and are also the ones that many hold responsible for having reported fraudulent results.

UN troops were standing guard at the CEP office building when suddenly rocks and bottles came raining down on their heads.  The protesters, who had been peacefully held back until this point, started to approach the line of troops, and the UN engaged.  Using flash grenades, tear gas and rubber bullets, the UN troops pushed back an increasingly violent crowd that was slowly creeping towards the CEP.  The rocks came from all directions, and the UN troops were outnumbered.  They jumped into their tanks and drove full speed towards the protesters, temporarily scattering them before they would quickly reconvened.

UN-Troop-Ready-to-Fire

UN-Troop-Throwing-Flash-Grenade

UN-Troops-with-Two-guns

Protesters-Running-From-UN

Tear gas filled the air and we left the area, heading up the hill towards the CEP office in Petionville.  There we found another protest that, while much smaller, proved to be much worse.  About a dozen protesters were throwing rocks at UN troops there, but the UN response could only be characterized as irresponsible.  Rubber bullets flew past the protesters and into crowds of people surrounding the area.  A tear gas canister also missed its target and landed in the middle of a nearby tent camp, causing it’s residents to flee from the toxic fumes.

And then, just 10 feet away from Ben, a flash grenade exploded right underneath one of the protester’s feet.  He hobbled away from the intersection and looked down at his foot, which was now riddled with shrapnel and bleeding profusely, and then collapsed on the sidewalk.  He started to moan as fellow protesters assessed his wounds.  His foot was badly injured, and the first layer of skin on his legs had been burned off.  We helped him up, and then carried him to a clinic nearby where we left him slumped on a chair as he waited for medical attention.

Protesters-Throwing-Rocks

Protester-Injured

The question now is whether the protests will continue with this intensity.  President Rene Preval spoke on the radio this afternoon asking for protesters to stop the violence and accept the results.  Michel Martelly came out with a statement of his own saying that the people have the right to fight for their vote, but also asking that the violence end.

The city will remain on lock-down until this dies down, but that could take days, if not weeks.  American Airlines has canceled its flights for today (Wednesday) and tomorrow, and the US embassy has warned American citizens to avoid the streets.  There are less gunshots tonight than last night, which is a good sign, but only time will tell if that means that order is being restored, or if the people are just resting for yet another day of chaos in Port-au-Prince.

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Cholera-Victim-Feet

The cholera epidemic that has killed over 1,300 people and left tens of thousands sick has reached the capital city of Port-au-Prince, and is quietly taking it toll on a population that lack proper access to sanitation and hygiene.  Aid workers are not concerned so much with the disease reaching the larger tent camps, as many are provided clean drinking water and have such a heavy NGO presence that the necessary aid would likely be provided in the event of an outbreak.  They are more worried about it spreading in the slums, especially in places like Cite Soleil, where shanty towns lack access to clean water, and where the sanitation infrastructure is non-existent.

Carrying-to-the-hospital

From our perspective, it wasn’t clear that cholera had hit the city, even though news reports were claiming otherwise.  You just don’t see it.  Living in our house in a relatively nice part of town, the presence of cholera was not obvious, which stresses that this is not a disease that people who have the proper resources get.  It’s a disease that affects the poor, but with the vast majority of people in this country living on less than $2 a day, almost everyone is vulnerable.  All we needed to do was travel downtown last Thursday and the toll of this cholera epidemic slapped us in the face.

Ben and I were driving around PAP Thursday looking for protests when we drove by a man who looked like he was dead on the side of the road.  We pulled over and looked down, “Yeah, he’s dead,” I said just as the man moved his head back and forth lethargically.  We were shocked, so we asked people who were standing close-by how long he had been laying there.  They explained that the man had cholera and that he had been there for a couple hours.  Soon after his mother came and began to wail, saying that he was her only child and asking “Why is this happening?” in Kreyol.

Greiving-Mother

NOTE: The following pictures are graphic.  If you would like to continue reading please click “continue reading”.

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Four-Women-B+W

I recently went to the Healing Hands for Haiti prosthetic and orthopedic clinic in downtown PAP to assist a photographer who was shooting pictures for the Red Cross, and had the time to shoot some pictures myself.  The clinic has been up and running since just after the earthquake, and according to their Program Director (and our neighbor) Al Ingersoll, they’ve been busy ever since.  “We have about 20 people coming in here every day,” he explained, “and we’ve seen over 400 cases so far.”

Boy-without-a-Foot

Girl-Sitting-on-Chair-with-Prosthetic-B+W

20 year-old Evena Prince had just returned home from school when the earthquake hit.  “I was taking a nap when everything started to shake,” she explained while sitting on a plastic chair holding her prosthetic leg, “I ran out of the house and a building fell on me.”  She was rushed to the hospital, but the injuries to her leg were too severe, and doctors amputated the limb.  “I never thought I would walk again,” she said, “but now that I have this leg I can do things that I couldn’t do when I had to walk with crutches.”

Woman-with-crutches

Prosthetics

For physiotherapist Gillian Fergusson, every day brings a new set of challenges.  “We see about 20 patients a day, sometimes more,” she explained, “but we are training a local staff to be able to help the patients learn how to use their prosthetics.”

Duilio Barreto is a prosthetic technician who lost his leg during a war in Nicaragua, and is helping to train the Haitian staff. For him, he knows what these people are going through, and wants to make sure the experience of getting a new leg is a positive one. “I was given a prosthetic that didn’t fit, it hurt me,” he explained while installing padding on a prosthetic leg, “that’s why I take extra care to make sure it’s perfect, I don’t want these people going through what I did.”

As he walks through the workshop he wears shorts so that the Haitians getting their new limbs can relate to him. “I know what it’s like to not have a leg,” he said, “I hope I can be a source of inspiration for these people. To give them hope knowing that if I can do it, so can they.”

Sanding-Prosthetic

Tools-of-the-Trade

Adjusting-Prosthetic

And while the well-staffed prosthetics workshop is working every day to give people new limbs, Gillian says that the conditions here make it hard to fit some people.  “There are a lot of difficult stumps in Haiti,” she explained while helping a patient walk on crutches, “you have boney stumps or scar tissue that takes longer to heal and that’s harder to fit around.”  She also says that children pose a particularly tough situation.  “You sometimes have to refit children with a new prosthetic every 6 months, which is hard on the child,” she explained, “and with the poor job that was done with amputations just after the earthquake, sometimes the bone is growing faster than the skin, making it hard to fit a prosthetic around it properly.”

But even with all the issues that fitting Haitians with prostheses poses, Gillian says that all the hard work is worth it.  “When someone comes in here and can’t walk or has to use crutches and then they leave with the ability to walk, that’s a really positive thing, it’s a great feeling.”

Daunting-Task

Boy-with-Soccer-Ball

And while visiting a clinic like this would, at first, seem like a very depressing thing to do, it’s actually turned out to be a really positive experience.  “A lot of these people went through the grieving process in the hospital,” Gillian explained, “when they get here they are learning how to walk again, they are getting their life back.  It’s not a sad place at all, it’s a positive place for everyone.”  And she’s right.  These people all have a common bond that allows them to learn and grow together.  While I have always been terrified of losing a limb myself, seeing the strength among these people makes you feel weak for pitying them.  They might have lost a limb, but they still have their lives, and in Haiti that’s something worth celebrating.

As a side-note, the photographer I was working with was awesome (you can see his work HERE), and he recommended I process the photos in black and white.  I did, and as a result I feel these pictures have more emotion in them than any of the pictures I have taken since being in Haiti. If you’re interested in seeing a larger slideshow of the pictures above (which I recommend), and others that I didn’t include here, you can click these words.

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Looking-over-the-Dead

Haiti could literally not be more unlucky.  Just 10 months after a devastating earthquake killed over 200,000 people, left 1.3 million homeless, and practically destroyed any semblance of government, a cholera epidemic has swept through the central plateau region of the country killing over 300 people, and leaving thousands of sick in its wake.  Last week the U.S. embassy sent out an email saying to avoid the region because about a hundred people had gotten diarrhea, which seemed like a pretty weird reason not to go somewhere to me.  But sure enough, the next day it was confirmed that the diarrhea had been caused by cholera, a disease that hasn’t been seen in Haiti for over a century.

Carrying-the-Dead

I covered the story for NBC over the past few days, and went with my friend Ben to the Hospital Albert Schweizer in Deschapelles, a small town just 30 minutes from the epicenter of the outbreak.  The managing director of the hospital told us that they were seeing a constant stream of cholera patients, and that they were now forced to operate two hospitals in one: one for the cholera patients, and the other for everyone else.  Cholera patients were spilling out into the hallways, as there were not enough beds for the sick.  Mothers held their children’s IV bags while sitting on the floor, the elderly were simply too weak to move.

The issue is the water.  Somehow the disease got into the muddy water of the Artibonite River, which is Haiti’s largest, and infected thousands of people.  The problem is that many poor Haitians who live in the countryside are, at times, forced to drink this water because they have no other options.  There are no grocery stores there, and shops to buy clean water are few and far between.  Many of the hospitals have noticed that the majority of their patients are workers from the nearby rice paddies, which are irrigated by the Artibonite.  The workers get thirsty, they drink the water, and 3 days later they are deathly ill.

Artibonite-River

I visited the Artibonite on Monday with an NBC team that had come down, and as we walked into the market that sat besides a bridge that crosses the river, it became abundantly clear why this epidemic is not going away anytime soon.  Sitting on the outskirts of the market were three women selling the catch of the day, which just happened to be fish fresh from the river.  I tried to explain to them in my terrible Kreyol that the fish were no good, and that you can get sick from eating them, but they argued back:  “The fish are fine,” as swarms of flies flew over their catch, “the water here is not bad.”  In reality you can’t blame them, this is their livelihood, but the water there is very bad, and those fish could soon be someone’s last meal.

Fish-for-Sale

The UN, and other organizations, has stressed the need for education and messaging to make sure that the population here knows the facts about this disease, but it just doesn’t appear to be working.  Almost everyone in the city of Saint Mark, which holds the hospital that has seen the most cholera cases, wears a face mask, yet cholera is not an airborne disease.  Those who don’t have masks cover their mouths with their hands, which is exactly what you are not supposed to do.  You get the germs on your hands, you put your hands in your mouth, and then you get sick.

The UN has also begun a program to build “Cholera Treatment Centers”, which they were originally calling “Isolation Clinics” before they realized how inhumane that sounded.  The people in Saint Mark burned the first CTC down because Doctors Without Borders decided to build it on a soccer field next to a school.  While the school children would have most likely been safe from the disease, it appears there is a disconnect between the community and the humanitarian aid organizations that could eventually cost people their lives.

But the ignorance isn’t only in the countryside.  After returning to PAP, I had conversation after conversation with Haitians who just didn’t know anything about cholera.  Whether it’s a certain kind of vegetable that they heard carries the disease, or a lack of knowledge regarding the issue in general, the people here are going by the most recent rumor they hear on how to get (or not get) the disease.  While driving to Saint Mark on Sunday, one of our drivers said, “I would rather have AIDS than get cholera!”  Everyone in the car gasped, looked at him, and simultaneously asked, “Why?!”  He downshifted to avoid a pothole, and then explained, “At least if I have AIDS I will have 15 or so years to live.  When you get cholera you die in four hours!”

Cholera-Victim-with-Mother

While our driver was right about cholera killing people in a matter of hours, 95% of the people who make it to the hospital are able to get treatment and be discharged a few days later.  The hospitals have the supplies, they just need you to get on to one of their beds so that they can treat you.  The problem is that so many people live so far away from a hospital that many just don’t make it there in time, or if they do it’s already too late.  Not to mention, Haitians are already chronically dehydrated and malnourished, so it doesn’t take much to finish the job that everyday life here in Haiti has already started.

Children's-Cholera-Ward-2

The numbers have continued to rise steadily, and aid organizations here are planning for the worst case scenario.  One of their worst fears has already come true in that 5 cases have been confirmed here in PAP, but they all traveled from the central plateau region, and had been infected there.  What NGOs in the capital are fearing most is it spreading in a tent camp or slum where tens of thousands of people could get sick in a matter of days.  There are dozens of unconfirmed cases in PAP, but many fear the number released by the government is much lower than the reality, and that this could spread amongst the displaced people in the camps like wildfire.

For Jillian and I, we are just being extra cautious, washing our hands, drinking water we know is clean, and not eating street food.  There’s only so much you can do, but as long as we are vigilant we feel that we will be OK.  Many here have stopped shaking hands, instead using an elbow bump as a greeting in an effort to reduce germ proliferation.  Also, for a few days we couldn’t find water anywhere in the city, as cars would drive from store to store with trunks filled with empty Culligan water jugs ready to be refilled.  That’s toned down a little bit, but all it takes is one radio host to say there’s going to be a clean water shortage and all of a sudden water will be sold out everywhere.  But in reality, Jillian and I also have the added benefit of being healthy individuals who eat well and drink plenty of water.  While cholera would not be pleasant, we wouldn’t have the same four hour time-line that many of the population here has.

Cholera-Victim

Only time will tell whether this becomes a nationwide disaster or just a major public health issue.  No matter what, people know they are at risk, and it’s a situation that has left the country stunned.  The UN is expecting the numbers to continue to rise, but with education and an increased focus on hygiene (which is horrible here), they are hoping to slow down a deadly epidemic that could possibly last for years.  Because Haiti needed another hurdle to stumble over, right?

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The 6-month anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti has come and gone, and after heavy media coverage and a slew of government events, the Haitian people have been reminded, yet again, that their situation sucks and nothing has really improved.  I’ve been trying to think about how to sum up the events of the past 6 months for a while now, considering we all knew it was coming weeks before the day arrived, and it’s still hard to comprehend.  Just over 6 months ago the earthquake in Haiti destroyed over 180,000 homes, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and left millions homeless.  Unfortunately none of those things have changed.

No-Roof

When Jillian and I returned to the States after the earthquake tons of people asked how long it would take to recover.  “Months? Years?” they would ask.  The answer was always a disappointing one, “More, probably decades,” we would say.  Haiti was already a place that seemed without hope, and now it appears to be almost irreparably damaged.  The infrastructure that was already sorely lacking has been torn to shreds, and the poor have just become poorer (and homeless).

With the help of tons of international money, work has begun trying to pick up the shattered pieces of an already broken country, but there are so many compounding issues that stand in the way.  Both the Haitian people and the NGOs have desperately waited for some sense of leadership from the government here, but let’s be honest, there is not a single person in this entire world who could single-handedly grasp the enormity of the issues that now face this country.  Elections are scheduled for November, but who would want to be the President of a country that has hit absolute rock bottom.

Carrying-the-Water

So like I said before, there are a bunch of issues to deal with, none have just one quick-fix, and they all depend on each other in one way or another.  Let’s start with the tent cities:  1.5 million people are still living in spontaneous camps throughout the country, left homeless after their houses were damaged or destroyed.  Just after the earthquake the heat was on to get them into shelters before the rainy season, and while NGOs earnestly worked to achieve this goal it was quickly realized that moving that many people, and building that many homes, was impossible in just a matter of months.  The rainy season has been upon us for months, hurricane season starts in earnest soon, and both the Haitian people and the NGOs have now admitted that the tent cities will be here for years.

Kids-in-Tent-City

But part of the hang up is there is just no place to build the homes.  Land-rights issues have slowed an already sluggish process, and with no one knowing who owns what, the building of transitional homes has been slow in coming.  Of the 125,000 transitional shelters planned, just under 4,000 have been built.  These shelters are produced to only last between 2-5 years, leaving the looming question of what happens next?  Supplies to build these houses is tough to come by, and shipping containers filled with the necessary tools to do the job sit stuck at customs, waiting for a simple signature that may take months to obtain.

Moving-Wood

But even if you have the supplies, and you know who owns the land, it might be impossible to build simply because the rubble of the house that stood there before has not been removed.  As you already know, Cash for Work programs (like the one Jillian is managing) are working everyday to clear the rubble that fills the streets and neighborhoods throughout the country.  The problem?  There is too much rubble, and not enough resources to move it.

Carrying-Buckets

One estimate says it could take 1,000 trucks 1,000 days to move all the rubble out of PAP.  That’s over 3 years, just to move the rubble.  But yet another problem jumps out, as there are just over 300 dump trucks operating in the capital doing this work.  You can do the math, but I went ahead and did it for you: at this pace it will take over a decade to move all the rubble out of the city.  If the rubble is still there, there are no transitional homes, and if there are no homes then people aren’t moving out of the tent cities.

UN-Rubble-Removal

Even though I’ve painted a pretty dismal picture, there are some bright spots.  80% of the schools in PAP were damaged or destroyed in the earthquake, but since then they have reopened 80% of those affected.  That’s a huge accomplishment in just six months.  While over 50% of the children in Haiti still don’t go to school, I think we can all agree that education is key to a proper recovery, so getting those kids back in the classroom helps immensely.  Also, because of a huge push to vaccinate Haitians, and particularly children, from infectious diseases right after the earthquake, there has yet to be an outbreak.  This is great news considering that if just one family catches something bad in a tent city, it wouldn’t take long for the rest of the tightly packed families around them to catch it too.

Smiling-Child-at-School

So we are left here, 6 months after the earthquake, with little progress.  I’ll be the first to admit, everything in Haiti takes about 5-times longer than anywhere else, so the slow pace of recovery isn’t shocking.  And you also have to give the NGOs slack simply because rebuilding an entire city, or country for that matter, takes an enormous amount of time.  The phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day” resonates well here, but that’s hard to explain to the people who live in tents that seem to hold heat better than our oven.  Life is miserable for them, and time is something they just don’t have.

Woman-with-Rubble-Behind-her

For Jillian and I, this 6 months has proven to be an enormous test.  Jillian used to say “the earthquake was the easy part,” and it’s totally true.  In that situation, for her at least, it was life or death, black or white.  It was ‘get home and get help’, and knowing what was best was pretty clear.  But now we are posed with questions that always tend to have a slight tint of gray to them, whether it be Jillian managing her programs for WC, or just questions about us.  Nothing comes easy anymore, and whether that’s a reflection of living in Haiti or the residual emotional effects of what happened to us during the earthquake, it’s hard to tell.

We have made some major progressions.  We moved from a tent in Ben and Alexis’ yard to our beautiful Ti Kay.  Jillian went from newly unemployed to being a rockstar at her new job managing programs that are really helping Haitians in need.  I went from an unemployed freelance journalist to NBC’s man in Haiti.  Olie went from a tiny little fur ball into a teenage punk of a puppy.  These are all good things, things we can hang our hats on and say, “not bad, all things considered.”  But it’s funny how all the external things can align perfectly when the pieces inside just don’t seem to fit.

Houses-Changed
Jillian-with-Engineer
Olie-Changes

For a lot of people, when they heard that the 6 month anniversary was here they were shocked: “I can’t believe it’s already been 6 months!” they would say.  “I can,” I would think to myself, it’s been the longest 6 months of my life.  It’s hard not to resent the earthquake for doing what it did to us, as I’m sure is the case with almost every single person in Haiti.  Our life was so simple before, it was just Jillian and I, in love, newly married, and living a comfortable life in our tiny little apartment in DC.  Back then all we had to worry about was the cockroaches that pranced around the floors while we ate dinner.  Now our decisions have ramifications, like whether people will be living in miserable tents for the next couple years.

And while many things have moved on, some have stayed the same.  It’s been 6 months since the Mission House we lived in collapsed, and all of our possessions are still sitting (finely pressed, we’re assuming) under the rubble.  I’ve asked to go back and simply dig (without putting myself at risk), but have been turned down time and time again because of a not-so-simple reason.  You see, Haitian Ministries forgot to pay their earthquake insurance for more than a year before the quake, making the house a pile of worthless rubble instead of a fat insurance check to use on the next Mission House.  Because of that no one has been allowed to dig in the house at all (they made an exception when we dug Jillian and Chuck out, thank goodness), as the lawyers overseeing the case have asked to keep it just the way it is until the case is resolved.

Collapsed-Mission-House

Jillian is over this, and I can understand why, the house brings bad memories and she’s ready to move on.  But for me, this is something that I need for closure, just to know that all our stuff is gone (or not…), to know that that life is over.  It’s the watch that my Dad gave me when I graduated from college, it’s all the pictures that are stored on my computer, it’s the hard drive that I backed up all my pictures on and set next to my computer (woops!).  It’s not so much getting those items back, it’s knowing that I can just move on and get on with the future, and not live in the past.  It’s so incredibly frustrating to not be given that chance, to be held back when practically everyone else here has had that opportunity already.

But now we look ahead, at the next 6 months, after which we will look back at what has been done here and scoff at why more hasn’t changed.  By then Jillian and I will have decided if we will stay here for another year or make the move elsewhere, whether it be back to the States or to another country.  Olie will be HUGE, and probably injuring us constantly by thinking he is still a puppy that can jump on our laps like he does now.  Haitians will still be living in tents, and our stuff will probably still be sitting in the rubble of the Mission House.  6 months from now lot’s of things will have changed, but I fear that many will stay same, leaving Haitians with yet another round of media interviews and government events reminding them how bad life after the earthquake really is.

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On January 12th, when the ground in Port-au-Prince started to shake violently, Jean Tibert (or Handy, as his friends call him) was teaching a class on video production in a large building on the main drag that funnels through the city.  The walls started to shake, things started falling off the walls, and the class dispersed into the dust-filled street.  The world was coming to an end.

When you talk to Handy, you get the sense that he know exactly what’s going on around him, at all times.  He stands about 6 feet tall, has a warm smile and a small gut (he’s trying to lose 40 pounds), doesn’t drink soda, and is deathly afraid of heights.  NBC has used him for every trip they have taken down here, because if you had to describe the way he works in 10 words or less, it’s simple: he’s just incredibly reliable.  He knows the city like the back of his hand, and he likes that he knows WAY more than you.  You want to find the Haitian Soccer Federation HQ?  “Of course!  It’s just off John Brown on ‘blah blah blah’ street.”  The streets in PAP rarely have street signs, but he somehow knows the names of all of them.

But not only does he know where everything is, he knows everyone that matters.  The chief of police? “He’s my godfather.”  Laura Silsby’s lawyer? “He’s my uncle.”  The president of some random tent-city? “Oh yeah! I used to play soccer with him!”  It’s ridiculous.  If you need a sliver of information, or a short interview with the Prime Minister (Handy’s distant relative is his PR rep), it’s done after just a few quick phone calls.

About 3 months ago, Jillian and I were grappling with the issue of having to pay our rent in cash, as they don’t take international checks here.  Handy took me to a local bank, talked to the clerk, and after skipping the enormous line that snaked around the building, he had me sitting at the desk of one of his (3 million) friends.  20 minutes later I had a local bank account without the required Haitian Residency Visa, something I couldn’t have done myself even if I would have bribed the guy.  Handy shook his hand, said he’d give him a call sometime, and we left.  Simple.

But if Handy doesn’t know anyone at the hospital we are doing a story on, or the tent city we are touring, someone is likely to recognize him anyways.  You see, Handy is a Haitian movie star, a serious, honest-to-God, local celebrity.  Before the earthquake he had starred in a handful of Haitian movies, some shot locally, others in Miami.  In one he played the poor local boy who seduced the daughter of a rich, bourgeoisie family.  So in PAP he’s the closest thing to a heart-throb that you can find, and the ladies love him.

Jillian and I were watching the Brazil World Cup match with him last week, and on our way out two young women stopped him to ask for his autograph, all while flirtatiously batting their eye-lashes.  During a trip to a local hospital where we were looking for a particular patient who had been dispatched months ago (a close to impossible feat as records from after the earthquake are non-existent), the only reason we found him was because the women at the counter told Handy where the patient lives…but only after he let them kiss him on the cheek.  No joke. The judge in the Laura Silsby trial was even giving him regular updates on the case “because he likes my movies,” Handy explained, with a huge grin on his face.

But what’s so amazing about Handy is that even though he could probably run for President in Haiti, and win, he’s incredibly cool and down-to-earth, and his number one priority is ALWAYS his family.  He’s constantly making sure his schedule allows for him to take his daughter to school, and if his wife needs to use the car, he takes public to make it work.  I asked him one day if he had girlfriends outside his marriage, as so many Haitian men do, and he simply replied, “No! My wife makes me happy.  And to be honest, she’s enough work as it is.  I don’t need another woman to worry about.”

So when the building Handy had been in after the earthquake survived unscathed, his primary objective was to get his family.  “A lot of my friends were going around trying to save people from buildings, but I couldn’t do that without knowing if my family was OK,” he explained.  He ran to his mother’s house, where his daughter was supposed to be after coming home from school.  The house had also survived, and his family was outside, scared and unsure what to do next.

He quickly thought about his options, figured out his next move, and told his family to follow him.  After the earthquake everyone who wasn’t digging out friends or family members was simply looking for a safe, open area to stay.  The medians of streets were filled with people with nowhere to go, so an alternative had to be found.  The golf course at the Petionville Club was the first thing that came to mind.  It was open, safe, and clean, and let’s be honest, there’s no chance that a building can fall on you while sitting on one of the fairways of PAP’s only golf destination.

The family walked the short distance to the course, put down the possessions they carried with them, and relaxed for the first time all night.  Handy looked around, and there was no one else around.  They were the only ones on the golf course, but in just a few days more than 40,000 displaced Haitians would be calling this their home in what is now the largest tent city in Haiti.  They slept through the night, and when they woke up, others had taken his cue and filtered in to spend a night filled with screams and sorrow on the lush grasses that have now been trampled to dirt and mud.

But they couldn’t stay there forever (like so many people have), so the next day Handy walked to his car, drove back to pick up his family, and traversed the streets on their way to his home in the mountains of Thomassin, where his wife was anxiously waiting for him.  Their house had also made it through the quake, but the next night they slept in the courtyard in fear that another earthquake would finish what the first one could not.  After a few days they returned to PAP to check on his Mother’s house, and on friends.  The movie studio that he owned had collapsed, he now had no way to support his family.

He then made the tough decision to send his family abroad, so he took his wife and two children to the border of the Dominican Republic, saw them through, and then returned to PAP to find work.  “It was go time,” he said.  A friend of his (I know, another friend!) was working for NBC as a driver, and Handy just happen to run into him, as the phones were still not working.  They needed another driver to pick up NBC staff from the airport in Santo Domingo, and bring them over the border to Haiti.  He was hired the next day.

Since then he has ascended to be the go-to guy for everything that NBC needs.  When a team comes to cover a story, no matter what it is, I hire him knowing that we will get exactly what we’re looking for, no questions asked.  And if he says it’s not possible, I know he’s not just saying that to get out of doing work, it’s just not possible.  Every time I work with him I learn something new, and he’s one of the only people who I feel I can talk to candidly about the situation here in Haiti, whether it’s my own frustrations or just questions about why things are the way they are.

He’s always thinking, always trying to be one step ahead, and always gets the job done.  Whether it’s his family or NBC, he’s a guy you want on your side, no matter what lies ahead. I have a tremendous amount of respect for Handy, and I am lucky to be able to call him my friend.  And while I think it’s safe to say that the tent city at the Petionville Club would have started without Handy, it’s still pretty amazing to know that he was its first resident.  It’s proof that he knows what’s best, because 40,000 people can’t all be wrong about the same thing.

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