The devastation wreaked on Port-au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, in the aftermath of an earthquake which rocked the city to its fragile foundations is a bitter blow to what remains the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. That Haiti, the first country in the West Indies to win independence – Napoleon’s legendary armies took a beating here in the 1820s – is still so dirt poor amid a sea of comparative plenty, should be a source of eternal shame for its rich and powerful neighbours.
I have reported from the slums of Lagos and Dhaka, but nothing quite prepared me for Citi Soleil, the poorest part of the poorest city on the poorest island. I can only imagine the carnage and sweeping anarchy that will even now be engulfing the benighted inhabitants of that particularly desperate shanty. None of the corrugated and wooden shacks have foundations, and very few of the inhabitants will now have any access to clean water and the very basics for human existence. But then, sadly, this much they are largely used to.
It is said that if one flies across the island of Hispaniola, crossing the straight boundary between the Dominican Republic and its westerly neighbour of Haiti, that near imaginary line becomes very real. On the Dominican side, there is the rich green of forests. Just over the border, there is barren scrub. Haiti, de-nuded, de-spoiled, and lacking in natural resources is the country that least deserves what has just been visited on it.
The global chasm between rich and poor, growing as it has been for the past quarter century is very real and quite visible too. The hillsides above Port au Prince, although shaken by that same earthquake are home to the wealthy. Their villas look down on the sprawl below, and their effluent flows down through open sewers to the city below. From a vantage point above Port au Prince, it is possible to see a thick slick of raw sewage hugging the coast, a line once again de-delineating the blue of the sea beyond. Aside from the slaves revolt that broke Napoleon’s army, there has never been a Cuban style revolution here. The reason being that most people dimply don’t ever have enough food in their bellies to rise up against the largely corrupt nomenclature that has run this place with varying degrees of ineptitude, and in the case of the Duvaliers, cruelty, for decades.
Picture this then, and before the earthquake magnified the misery tenfold; tin shacks containing nothing except crowded humanity, open to the elements, with trash blocking open sewers and inundating living areas. This was my first impression of Citi Soleil, and there were only two ways to get into the place, or risk a violent end. The first was, and is, with United Nations Peacekeepers (MINUSTAH), the second by permission of one of the gangsters who hold the power of life and death in which ever patch of the city he controls.
The day I went in with UN peacekeepers fresh from Brazil, it was largely quiet, although we did so in bullet proof vest and blue helmets on top of an armoured car. Sniper fire and shootings are a daily fact of life, and the departing Jordanian peacekeepers had earned themselves a reputation for shooting first. The slums of Port au Prince were alive to Brazil’s upcoming debut in the World Cup, and as a gesture of goodwill the commander of the battalion had just handed out twenty or so television sets. As our armoured car inched its way back through the filthy, rutted streets, to the safety of the Brazilian compound, the first shots in the battle for ownership of the donated televisions, began to ring out.
It is genuinely hard to even begin to describe the desperation of the place, but as I see images of collapsed buildings, and even the crumpled cupola of one of the few visually attractive constructions, Haiti’s Presidential Palace, memories come flooding back. For it was outside that same palace, as I sat in alone in a crew van, my producer and cameraman some distance away, that an old man sitting on a wall, motioned to his mouth. I held out a battered note to him, and was more or less immediately surrounded by about twenty people, who began to shake the van, and shouting, began to draw their fingers across their throats. The window of the vehicle was open and I called out to my colleagues who were far enough away not to see or hear, trying desperately not to sound terrified, which I was. In what seemed an interminable, age our Haitian interpreter gingerly picked his way back to the van, and frightened as he was too, managed to persuade the men away. “I told you”, he said, “never to show money. These people are desperate, but luckily for you, when a man draws a finger across his throat, it simply means he is hungry”.
There will be many more people going hungry over the next few days, even as the United Nations, the sticking plaster that kind of keeps the show that is Haiti on the road, begins its relief operations. But sticking plaster it will be for of one thing most Haitians are aware. Nothing has changed, and little is ever likely to change. A Haitian cab driver in New York, better educated on international affairs than most of the citizens who call the city their home, once told me bluntly, that the only solution was for everyone to leave his country. “We are successful wherever we go”, he said “The Queen’s representative, the Governor General of Canada is Haitian. We are successful outside Haiti, but not inside Haiti”. That may or may not be true, but he had a point.
It would be tempting to blame the West for turning a blind eye. But then what of oil rich Venezuela? What of other islands in the area who regularly turn-back the refugee boat people? And what of the Haitian elite itself, truly one of the most self centred of any? For it remains a central part of the problem, for there is no trickle down here, except of course in the deluge of shit that comes pouring down the mountainsides into the slums below.
And so long as the poor of Haiti do not revolt, a sticking plaster for their wounds, even after this latest disaster, is all that is likely to be on offer.