Opinion

Commentary: The view from Haiti

PORT-AU-PRINCE — "Hey Francesca. What have you eaten today?"

It was my standard question, walking through makeshift homeless camps that, seven days after the earthquake, have now spread from parks, lawns of public buildings, fields, entire blocks, to almost any open area. Until it seems that most of Port-au-Prince, the survivors in a city of three million, has moved outdoors.

Francesca Dimanche, 8 years old, and her family had taken over a pathetic excuse of a corn field, littered with rocks and dry corn stalks, and erected what has become the standard mode of housing for displaced Haitians, a tattered sheet of old tarpaulin, secured by a haphazard system of sticks and string.

Francesca and her 10-year-old sister Nadia peeked out from beneath the tattered tarp, flapping in the wind. She considered the standard question. She gave the standard answer.

"Nothing," she said.

It was midday. What can you say to two little girls, at midday, who have had nothing to eat?

Twenty-one of these crazy shelters, created out of sticks and tarps and old bed sheets, had been rigged on the corn field in a hill a few miles above the Port-au-Prince airport. The largest tent is made from an old outdoor advertising banner for SeaEscape. "A ship load of fun," promises a banner shading eight miserable, hungry, thirsty people. At least, you're thinking, looking at those eight exhausted face under a badly perforated piece of cast-off plastic that would be useless against the rain, this hellish week has not added a downpour to the city's myriad miseries.

I asked the standard question. Times eight. Standard answer. Nothing. Times eight.

What do you say to Yfania Termos, 27, with a 2-month old baby girl and a 5-year-old boy, whose last meal was a bit of corn? The only emergency supplies to reach this survivor camp over the last few days have been a couple of deliveries of drinking water.

Yfania, with startling almond eyes that could have belonged to a fashion model, fixed them on me as if surely this interloper from Florida must have an answer. But what can you say, in a city drowning in chaos and hurt and need?

Not far away, the mere rumor of emergency supplies brought 50 people to the gate of a warehouse.

A fire at the Bongu pasta factory ("Le Spaghetti des Champions") brought a rowdy throng to the entrance, hoping to salvage a meal from the damaged goods. As black smoke billowed from the burning building, armed guards brandished shotguns and regarded the people outside the gate as if they were facing a possible food riot.

Meanwhile, a fire that would not have rated a mention in their hometown papers attractive an outsized contingent of international media looking for post-earthquake drama.

Bursts of gunfire rang out over the downtown, as looters scoured the wrecked city. I watched a small gang of thugs set upon a young thief and steal his stolen case of candles.

But the real story was a less violent but much more horrific drama. Hungry people have packed themselves into camps that are fast becoming a sanitation nightmare. The smell of the places tell of the escalating urgency.

In her little hillside settlement, Lucane Napole talked about finding a way, somehow, to move his family to the countryside, where at least they could survive on bananas and mangoes and the kindness of relatives.

But he had no more idea where to find the money for the bus fare than how to scrounge food for his children's elusive next meal.

What do you say to Francesca or Nadia or Yfania or Lucane, after asking your standard question and getting back the standard answer?

Unhappily, seven days after the earthquake, with too little in the way of relief supplies reaching the camp, there's nothing else to say. Nothing.

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