Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Endurance of Port-au-Prince

"This camp is really focused on toilets," our Red Cross liaison, Becky, said as we drove through Port-au-Prince on our way to a Red Cross camp for earthquake refugees. It was late June and I had just arrived in the city to shoot a short documentary piece for British TV. "Interesting," I said, not really sure what to make of the toilet information. As Becky finished describing the camp, I looked out the window at the passing landscape. An hour earlier, I had been surprised to find that the PAP airport showed no signs of earthquake devastation and I now found myself checking the images passing by through the car window against the images I had watched on CNN in the days following January's earthquake. We turned down a side street and I asked our driver, Werner, who had grown up in Port-au-Prince, whether the temporary-looking houses that lined the street--small, one-room shacks pieced together with wooden posts and corrugated metal--had been built since the earthquake. Werner glanced out my passenger window and said softly, "No, those have always been there."

As Werner drove through the entrance gates of the Red Cross camp, Becky quickly reminded me of what other Red Cross representatives had told me in the days leading up to my arrival in Port-au-Prince--that I was not to cry in public. "If you feel yourself feeling like it," Becky said, "just excuse yourself." She repeated the same thing to Angie, a young woman from Manchester who was the center of the TV piece I was there to shoot. After the earthquake, Angie, a mother of three and the manager of a Tesco store, was so moved by the news reports she saw that she devoted all of her spare time to raising money for the Red Cross. She became somewhat of a local icon in Manchester and she was in Port-au-Prince to see first-hand what all of her fundraising efforts had afforded. Angie had arrived the previous evening and now, as she stood attentively at the entrance of the camp, wearing a white Red Cross polo about 4 sizes too large for her, she looked very young.

Angie, and, by extension, I were shown through the camp by a pair of the camp's leaders. We toured a medical facility, where there were roughly 15 women waiting to be treated, and walked through an outdoor sports complex in which a large TV screen had been erected to show World Cup games. We were told that the basketball courts on which the TV stood were remnants of an athletic center; now, kids darted around a pick-up soccer game and many ran over to us as we walked by. One boy nudged his way to the front of the group, showing off the clear plastic garbage bag he wore over his head. Reflexively, Angie moved to lift the bag. We would soon find out what Becky had meant in the car about toilets.

A week earlier I had received an email from my friend Alex, a photographer for AFP who had spent time in Haiti following the earthquake, asking if I'd--probably not, but possibly--be interested in going to Port-au-Prince for a one-day shoot. I replied immediately with an enthusiastic "Yes!!" and began imagining what this assignment would be like. I joked with Alex that I'd have to go out and buy a few charcoal t-shirts a la Anderson Cooper. In the weeks following the earthquake, I had watched the TV news coverage, read the frontpage newspaper articles, and clicked through online photo galleries. I felt that I was relatively well informed about the situation in Port-au-Prince and I approached my trip in much the same way as one approaches a vacation in a famous city: it was an opportunity to see first-hand the things I already knew.

"Shall we go see the toilets?" Becky asked. I nodded, even though David, a tall, square-jawed Red Cross organizer, had already started making his way over to a row of gray, elevated boxes. The wooden boxes bore the Red Cross insignia and rested on stilts above large, black containers that captured the human waste. A group of local men hammered together the frame of a new box and then eventually tilted it to rest next to the other latrines. David introduced us to a couple of the workers and then went on to describe his excitement about the "major developments" the camp has made with its outdoor toilets. Following the earthquake, David explained, Red Cross workers put up porta-potty-style toilets throughout the camp. Unfortunately, they discovered that a significant percentage of the camp's residents were eschewing the conventional sit-down toilets of the porta-pottys in favor of squatting and shitting on the floor next to them. "This was a major problem," David added. The new toilets were outfitted with two options for defecating--a toilet for sitting and a hole in the floor with foot grips on either side for squatting. David pointed to an example of the second option as a man wearing dark blue overalls, rubber rain boots, and a cloth surgical mask walked by with a dirty shovel. It was at this point that I began to understand the full extent of the devastation in Port-au-Prince.

After touring the Red Cross camp, Angie and I were shown a neighborhood that was ravaged by the quake. The streets and alleyways were filled with rubble and most of the houses that were still standing bore a red mark designating them for demolition. A local man named Antoine gave us a tour of his house. He pointed to piles of brick and twisted metal and labelled them as his kitchen, his living room, and the bedroom where his 4-year-old daughter died, her skull crushed by falling debris. Antoine introduced us to his wife and showed us their bedroom--one of the few rooms in the house that did not crumble in the earthquake. The couple still lives there, amid the rubble and standing water and garbage that is grazed on by hogs. Antoine said that his wife refuses to look at photos of their daughter. For now, the debris that surrounds them is reminder enough.

As we were leaving Antoine's neighborhood, we walked by a young man standing beside a dump truck. He had a pickaxe in his hands and he was methodically breaking apart a few large pieces of cement. The clanking sound of his pickaxe reverberated through the neighborhood, bouncing off hills upon hills of rubble. In our car ride back to Red Cross HQ, Angie was silent. Her cheeks were flush with sunburn and she watched Port-au-Prince pass by through her window--more rubble, more shanties, more Red Cross tents. For months she had worked to raise money for the earthquake victims, to help the displaced families she had seen on TV and in the newspaper. She, like me, like everyone around the western world, had gained an understanding of what Haiti was like after the earthquake but now Angie was beginning to understand the scope of it.

I came to Port-au-Prince expecting to see the familiar features of the news stories: the makeshift medical clinics, the collapsed buildings, the displaced families. I saw all of these things, but I also saw the toilets. I began to understand that the problems in Haiti are so basic, so fundamental, that they expand far beyond what we associate with the recent earthquake. January's quake didn't only wreck the county, it exacerbated problems that have been wrecking the country for decades. A recent article in The New York Times examined the slow pace of recovery in Haiti, attributing much of the problems to a local government that was "weak before the disaster and further weakened by it." As the rebuilding efforts continue six months after the earthquake, it is important that we see Haiti not as a news event but as a complicated, evolving country.

At the end of Angie's tour of the Red Cross camp, she sat in on an assembly put on by the aid workers. Excited children surrounded a temporary stage and watched a presentation on hygiene that included quiz games and sing-alongs. The main event, though, was a performance from a boy who's become something of a celebrity in the camp. He raps over music plucked by an instrument he's fashioned from a creased soda bottle and a rubber band. As the crowd cheered him through an impressively composed song, the assembly's focus shifted from the fundamental problems facing the camp to the fundamental spirit of resilience that is evident throughout Port-au-Prince.

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