I am travelling by bus from the Dominican Republic into Haiti. At the border crossing the sun sets over a vast and beautiful lake. The weather is perfect and the scene as pretty as a picture postcard. It seems inappropriate somehow when I know that in Port Au Prince, my destination, bodies are still decomposing in the street and the advice going round is to wear a face mask with vapour rub on the inside to disguise the smell of death.
Haiti has just suffered its biggest earthquake in 200 years, the effects of which have been compounded, previous to this by a series of political crises and natural disasters, which have left the country in grinding poverty.
The scale of the disaster is huge:” 230,000 people killed, 300,000 injured and 1.2 million left needing emergency shelter. Survivors have lost family, homes, livelihoods and essential services. Hospitals, schools and government buildings were all destroyed” (http://www.dec.org.uk/item/200) <http://www.dec.org.uk/item/200%29>
The media response by the news agencies has been intense, and much imagery especially on the internet has been shocking, almost voyeuristic: There are photographs of bodies piled in the streets; in one picture a man removes a body from a coffin so he can steal the coffin. In another we see corpses alight in the street. Dignity in death is absent and a sense of apocalypse pervades.
There is an argument that publishing strong pictures is necessary to shock the globe into fund raising action; that the scale of the disaster and the inability of the Haitian government to cope led to unique circumstances which needed reporting. This is a fair point but I feel we need to balance this with pictures that allows us to connect with the Haitians with humanity and as equals. I wanted to show the Haiti story in a different way.
Thus, nineteen days after the earthquake, I am on a bus to Haiti with two Hasselblad bodies and seventy rolls of film( yes film). As we cross the border, I can already sense the poverty. The Dominican Republic, not known for its wealth, feels like first world in comparison to Haiti. Poverty-led deforestation makes the land look bare. Only three per cent of original rich forest remains, the trees have be cut for fuel and roofless buildings ( tax is only charged on finished houses) are everywhere not because of the earthquake however.
Within 15 minutes the first signs of the earthquake start to show. I can see why Haiti has been dubbed the unluckiest country on earth because DR is completely untouched. But it is Port Au Prince, close to the epicentre, where one really gets the sense of the devastation. This has been well documented however and although it is substantial, it might be worth mentioning not the whole of the city has been affected.
Nineteen days later the main roads in the city have been cleared and the city is functioning, some areas like Pentoville have been largely unscathed especially in comparison to down-town which has been hit badly, perhaps because the houses have been better built.
What is quite shocking however is the amount of government buildings that were damaged . Almost all the major government buildings: the Palace, the law courts, the main prison and tax office are all down.
Saddest of all this includes many schools and a nine story hospital. In a country with endemic corruption questions will and should be raised about the quality of government construction.
To my relief some of the apocalyptic scenes I had been expecting failed to materialise, as always the mainstream news can’t help but focus on the worst news and the most dramatic scenes and besides, things have moved on from the worst period. It is more than two weeks now since the quake.
The security situation seemed calm, I never felt in danger during my time there, and most but not all bodies have been cleared from the streets or sadly burnt where they lay, although underneath virtually every destroyed building the remains of the dead still lie. Recovering the bodies is a long and difficult job. I photographed one guy whose work was to recover the dead from the tax office. He got through it on rum and the knowledge that at least he was giving the families a chance of a burial.
What is undeniable though, is the massive and undeniable need of the Haitians right now. Camps have been set up on any clear space, opposite the Palace (think across from Buckingham place or in Trafalgar Sq ) thousands now live in ram shackle shelters mostly built from scavenged timber and cloth, barely protected from the sun and certainly not from the rains due in May.
The aid, even as I left a month later and still today, March the 4th, is very patchy. The international aid effort I think is struggling with its approach (I will talk about this later) but I did come across two Haitian charities who seemed to be exemplary of what is happening all over Haiti, in that they are Haitians helping Haitians
I would like to mention them and urge you to consider supporting them somehow.
The first is actually called ‘Haitians helping Haitians’ and is run by two directors one an amazing Hatian guy called Alex ( more on him later) and a lovely Catholic American called Connie who does much of the fund raising. They run an orphanage outside of Haiti, which has since turned, into a mini refugee camp and also work on other projects.
After the quake and after surviving three days without food or water Alex managed to get his van out of PAP load it up and discretely bring vital supplies into his neighbourhood. He repeated this process until the economy started moving again with one van helping about 1500 people. Check out the website if you think you may be able to help, I can vouch for them.
The other charity is not actually a charity it’s a guy, Gilbert Baily, who runs a restaurant. Within 24 hours of the quake around the time the US had taken over the airport and were deciding what to do next, this guy set up a soup kitchen and was feeding 1500 children a day a hot, balanced meal (not just giving them a solitary bag of rice which strangely seems very popular amongst some aid agencies). He is still feeding 1500 people a day and will be for a very long time I’m guessing. If you want to help go to his face book page
or search facebook under
Muncheez Food Drive Haiti
Finally a reminder, for those of you who want to donate through a mainstream organisation, of the Disaster Relief web address
Thank you for reading, more later, especially when the main set of pictures and captions are ready.