Haiti - an eyewitness's account

My first trip to Haiti was an impulsive move to be doing something for the relief efforts and was not planned.
It was as simple as getting on the plane with a three week return ticket.
I am a legal interpreter in Spanish and English and knew that I could offer my services to the Dominican officials on the Haitian border. Getting there would be a problem since Port Au Prince airport was and still is taken over by the U.S.

I travelled overland to Haiti and that took me ten hours from the airport of Puerto Plata in the D.R.
On arrival I immediately got working at an impromptu conference in the town of Croix DE Bouquet among the mayor, E.U. representatives, a Dominican politician and the Haitian secretary of the ministry of agriculture, together with a Creole- Spanish interpreter.
The astonishing fact was that although it was a week after the earthquake and this town is close to the capital and the airport, the mayor was still wondering where the water and tents were.
As the days progresses I found myself working more and more on the border between U.S. and Dominican officials. There were times I got dragged into medical situations and logistical disputes but mainly I worked for the transportation by helicopter of the gravelly injured earthquake victims to well equipped hospitals in the Dominican capital. Most helicopters were sent by the Dominican government and the American/Canadian helicopters were usually taking patients to the hospital ship US Comfort.
Only they weren't. Sometime during week three , it was discovered that patients who had been separated from their closest relative alive , to be transported to a "better equipped" hospital in Haiti and had been promised to be reunited , we had no idea where they were. Then we discovered that the" better equipped " Harvard run
field hospital in Cap-Haitien was not better equipped than the border hospital in Jimani were we had transported them from. In addition we had no guarantee the patients were there because when they arrived they were picked up by another helicopter but have no idea were they were now. Meanwhile crying relatives were getting desperate to be told where the injured were and how to reach them. We gave them the wrong information and never told them the truth. It was mad chaos and all these executive decisions were made behind closed doors by the American medical staff. My accent was far too British , so I was not included and was one of the last to find out. We were told to tell relatives to go to this hospital on the other end of the Haiti and that the Haitian government would provide them with free transport , when we knew that this field hospital could only be reached by helicopter.
While working at this hospital on the border town of Jimani and as the corpses that left for Haiti in a truck DE-creased, the donations increased. There was no time to sort it out just pitch-up more marquees and hide them from sight. This meant that medication and other goods we did have in stock we could not find, so patients went without.
Boxes of medication and surgical equipment vanished from inside the hospital at night.
I cannot speculate who were carrying off the big stuff but there was also petty theft and waste.
The first to help themselves were the U.S and D.R. medical staff. While us doctors slept in clean air-con rooms upstairs (some only over for 3 days!) the patients were on the thin ma tresses on the dusty ground getting infections in their amputated limbs and septicaemia.
Upstairs in the westerners common room where food was being prepared round the clock , there was a euphoric buzz of young volunteers from the states , socialising and joking over a freshly opened tin of biscuits.
Downstairs patients were begging for a pair of flip flops for their bare feet/foot or a pair of knickers to cover their indecency.
I could go on with the detail but I must address a more serious issue that I was faced with on my second trip in March.
I had witnessed petty theft on the first trip and the second trip was no exception. This took place mainly in the enormous "Act Alliance" warehouse on the border. The lads who were appointed to empty the trucks and load the NGO's pick-up trucks, spent all day rummaging through the boxes and packets, munching away the endless hours and turning a blind eye when friends came to pick up merchandise that went in the Dominican direction, not the Haitian.
Guards were picking up medicine for their kids, when that medicine had been donated specifically for the use of Haitian victims.
Worse though than the "volunteers" (who actually earn a decent salary and are not volunteering despite their "volunteer" badges) pinching Haitian kids milk to take home with them, was the blatant theft of the Haitian customs authorities.
A week before holy week the Preval government decided that aid was to stop coming into the country because it was no longer necessary and Haitians had to return to normality.
This was a great way to stop aid from getting in without paying hefty bribes to the customs officers.
This did not stop trucks with commercial goods from getting in, uninterrupted.
For us relief workers it was a different story. We were sent on wild goose chases into Port Au Prince to get permission by phantom commissioners and registration numbers that were blocked by the system before being told that we still could not enter with aid without paying the original bribe requested. For example,
for three tanks of water they were asking us for a bribe of one third of the value (23,000pesos).
Day after day we went into the Aduane air-conditioned offices at the suffocatingly hot and dusty Jimany border to plead with the Official who would not budge unless he got his money.On the first day of negotiations I asked Brazilian UN troops to help out. They stormed into the customs office and the customs officer denied having asked for a bribe and said we could enter with the water and two trucks of food free of charge. hallelujah cried everybody. The minute the Brazilians drove off, the Haitian official changed his mind again and we were back to square one.

Time was running out for thirsty and hungry Haitians in nearby tent cities(not real tents, just sheets tied together) and the customs officers in no-man's land played God.
These are president Preval's out-of-control thieves, lining their regime's pockets and using this crisis as an excuse to stay In power for as long as it takes to fatten up sufficiently.Only human greed knows no end and we could be in for a long wait.
Only a very small percentage of our donations is actually getting to the vulnerable, the rest is being creamed off or milked by the middle -men and women without scruples.
What can we do? We can put pressure on our newly elected democratic government to demand elections in Haiti so the people can voice their frustration and take control of their own re-construction.
The big NGO's have failed Haiti. If you ask me what they actually do, I could not tell you. I did see them with their fancy Four by Four's and I could not tell you what they do, probably because they are indoors somewhere, paranoid of being kidnapped.
I did see a lot of American kids in vans with NGO logos on their t-shirts having a right laugh while being driven around Port Au Prince.
Who was on the ground working? In exposed and isolated refugee camps I only saw small grassroots missionaries, individual professionals and philanthropists paying their own way ,engaging with the population and perhaps listening to their needs and acting upon them on a day to day basis.
What is needed now? Definitely not more curious foreigner tourist-volunteers poking about having their pictures taken congesting the traffic and draining on Haitian resources.
Do we stop donating? I would start bothering our politicians and funding grassroots charities without ridiculous overheads and administrative fees. If you have a skill, fly out there and offer your services. Then you know were your money is going. I do and I have stopped donating.This does not mean that there is no need to help Haitians, there is great need now but the efforts must be coordinated and well thought out. Too many huge egos spoil the aid work.

REVOLVE would like to point out that many charities did provide field hospitals and aid on the ground, but that it is a good idea to support smaller charities rather than the bigger ones. They tend to have a personal relationship with countries and can help far quicker than others. Revolve always supports the work of Medecins Sans Frontieres for example.

http: www.thirdworldtraveller.com

A charity that L. saw helping on the ground are:
http: www.nhcc.org.uk