We do not know why we chose to fly out of Haiti on 31 Dec 2009. Maybe it was because we wanted to make a new beginning elsewhere, and that seemed to be a symbolic day to close a chapter of our lives. We also did not quite know why we came to Haiti in the first place, or why we were leaving and exactly what we accomplished in between! But we were happy that we were in Haiti for 5 ½ years. People are generally happy for the same reasons and unhappy for different reasons. In Deschapelles, since the early 1950’s, folks who came had found reasons to be happy despite many different reasons to be unhappy.
Indians tend to be superstitious. We had boarded the aircraft but some time later we were asked to disembark, as there was a major oil leak. I am from the air force, and have flown in aircrafts with falling oil pressures, engines that flamed out, doors that flew away and propellers that fell off the nose, and even crashed on a beach once with a wing on fire. But this gushing oil leak from the port wing somehow seemed indicative of nastier things to come.
I passed the word that we were grounded; friends in the MINUSTAH picked us up and took us straight to a New Year party hosted by the Indian contingent of the UN Police. I was invited to speak about our long innings in Haiti and as I began recounting the saga of the Mellon family’s discovery of Haiti, as important to some of us as that of Columbus discovering the Hispaniola island centuries earlier, somewhere in that inky-black darkness surrounding the camp I thought I heard voices whispering that we were not done with Haiti yet. I did not have the stature, ego, determination or even a sense of purpose of a General Douglas MacArthur who famously said as he left the Philippines that ‘I shall be back’ but I distinctly felt that night that Raji and I have left some unfinished tasks behind and some commitments unfulfilled. Robert Frost had once said “We have promises to keep, and miles to go before we sleep.”
That sleep was swiftly shattered at 3.30 am on 13 Jan at Bombay as the quake hit Haiti. I invariably wake at 4 in the morning, my hand always reaching out to put the laptop on. That morning I was bolt awake half an hour earlier, and woke Raji a few minutes later with the terrible news.
When you hear of a catastrophe, what comes to mind? You are dismayed that it happened, and you wonder why it had to happen to a place you know, and to people you know. It is that familiarity, and affection, that makes the event so terribly frightening, and the pain so intensely hurting. Why Haiti? An earthquake did not strike Haiti for a hundred years, but why now, when the country was trying to find its feet, and could sustain democracy for some years?
Seeing the shattered segments of the Presidential palace, or hearing about the crumpling of the MINUSTAH headquarters or the Montana Hotel were not as crushing as seeing the schools of Port au Prince in ruins. This is a country where every adolescent who dreams of college has no other place to go except Port Au Prince. Dreams die first.
When you see the destruction of the houses that have perched precariously on the hills around Port Au Prince ever since we knew them, it was mind numbing to think of the plight of families, particularly children, trapped and dying in them. To be born, grow up and grow old in Haiti would always remain a huge challenge, but why did an earthquake have to even deny that chance to defy the huge odds stacked up against you?
In a city with barely any sanitation, safe drinking water, fuel and power, why did an earthquake have to happen to even destroy the illusion of civic services? In a country where bad roads, dilapidated vehicles and mindless violence with guns and machetes threatened life and limbs every single day, why did an earthquake arrive to maim so many people en masse?
As it is with so many problems that beset and blight Haiti, there are no answers to these emotional questions and no lasting solutions to the huge problems they cause. You hear about the global response to the tragedy and the innate resilience of the Haitian people. Predictably global response will shift its focus when the next disaster strikes elsewhere, and the only force that will linger is the will and capacity of the Haitian people. But heroic and noble as this may sound, they do not succeed unassisted, unsupported.
Hôpital Albert Schweitzer Haiti has never failed Haiti and rose to the occasion as ever, having never closed doors even for a day during any prior manmade or natural calamities that struck the country during the previous five decades. HAS always walked hand in hand with Haiti, and on this occasion also it promptly reached out to serve injured and disabled Haitians so that they could walk again.
Then came the Cholera, a scourge that was foreign to Haiti and struck at the very heart, and bowels, of the country, the Artibonite Valley, with HAS at its epicenter. HAS brought to its control the very best of public health practices. But as we all suspected, the rainy season has rejuvenated the Vibrio.
My wife, Raji, and I are proud of how HAS supported, and sustained, Haiti in its terrible hour of crisis. Having already passed the baton, I was content that HAS was in immensely capable hands, and to see that many more hands had joined to hold the till firm on the course, and many more shoulders had leaned their weight to push the wheels along.
We took ourselves out of Haiti but could not take Haiti out of us. A boat packed with Haitian refugees crashed on the rocks off the British Virgin Islands. Five survivors, all women, who had lost their husbands and children, were marooned on this island about whose existence on the map they had no idea. The only ones on the island accessible to them to speak their language and share their great sorrow were Raji and I.
Every day, as a cruise ships docks here at Road Harbor, a good number of enterprising Haitian women will appear from nowhere to pack the stalls on the pier with garments and goodies; and begin a vigorous, vociferous and vigilant bargain with the disembarking tourists coming from many countries. Raji invariably joins the medley and walks around mingling with the spirited Haitian women. I can hear from afar, as I arrive to pick her up, the excited exclamations from them as she converses with each and every one of them in colloquial, colorful, Kreyol.
That evanescent little piece of Haiti, which disappears like Cinderella’s chariot once the cruise ships leave, keeps Haiti alive for us in this tiny island that you can traverse from east to west in forty minutes. And every day, as I begin my rounds at the hospital at 8 am, starting at the gleaming, and superbly equipped and staffed, 10 bed renal dialysis unit that runs three shifts a day, where every patient looks as relaxed as on a visit to the hair dresser, I think of my patients at HAS with end stage chronic renal failure whom I could not help as the sole functioning renal dialysis unit in Port was never accessible. I look up at a photograph hung on the wall of the ward, showing Road Harbor ferry station the way it looked in 1970, not long back, where women in long skirts and colorful head scarves squat and sell their wares to passersby. That reminds me of the Artibonite Verrettes market, and I can see the face of every hard working Haitian peasant woman I ever knew, admired and respected; they formed the backbone of Haiti’s economics!