Witness to a nightmare

January 18, 2010

Jesse Hagopian, a teacher in Seattle and contributor to SocialistWorker.org, was in Port-au-Prince with his 1-year-old son to visit his wife when the earthquake hit. His wife, an aid worker, works until the evening on most days, but by sheer luck, she came to the hotel where they were staying early on Tuesday--just minutes before the quake struck at 4:53 p.m. This spared Jesse and his family agonizing hours or days trying to find one another amid the chaos.

Within hours, the hotel where they were staying became known as a place where some medical help was available, because another hotel guest happened to be an emergency medical technician. Jesse got a crash course in treating severe injuries--broken bones, head wounds and more--as people desperate for help kept arriving.

Jesse spoke with Eric Ruder via telephone from Port-au-Prince on January 15 and 16 about the crisis unfolding around him. On Sunday, he and his family were able to travel from Haiti to the Dominican Republic.

CAN YOU describe what you're seeing in Haiti?

YESTERDAY, WE drove around downtown Port-au-Prince, and some of the adjoining cities. It's hard to describe, because there's just no reference for it in the rest of my life. But the first thing you notice is that everyone's wearing a mask. People are coming from different cities and different neighborhoods to search for their relatives, and the stench is so bad because there's so many dead bodies that everyone's got a mask on.

There are people looking through the rubble, and the rubble is just so expansive. Huge buildings have collapsed, and everything's made out of concrete, so it's just concrete slabs and concrete bricks, just littered all over the ground and all over the street, and countless scenes of people digging through them, looking for loved ones.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of bodies that aren't claimed. We saw a lot of instances of bulldozers coming and picking up bodies, and throwing them into the backs of trucks. They're trying to clear the streets of dead bodies because it becomes a public health issue. But it's going to be very challenging for a lot of families who don't have closure and don't know what happened to their family members.

Homes destroyed in a poor neighborhood of Port-au-Prince

One of the things that you also notice when you go through the streets is that everyone's out there on their own. There was very little of the government or the UN in the efforts to find these bodies or help the injured. During our drive, we only saw the UN in front of the place where their headquarters used to be. It had collapsed, and we saw lots of soldiers guarding that area. I didn't see anybody distributing aid.

Half of the hotel that I was staying in collapsed--the half I wasn't in, thankfully. And the half I was in, there were cracks all over the place, so it was dangerous to remain there. We have our 1-year-old son with us, so we definitely didn't want to just sleep outside if we could avoid it.

Thankfully, my mom had a friend here, and she had gotten in contact with him right when we got to Haiti, before the earthquake. He came and found us, knowing which hotel we were staying in. That was very lucky, or else we'd be sleeping outside. And he has this phone that we're talking on now, so without that, we'd have no contact to let our families know what was going on.

What you can do

Donations and aid are desperately needed in Haiti. Here are some organizations with connections to the grassroots movements in the country.

The Haiti Emergency Relief Fund, organized by the solidarity organization Haiti Action, delivers resources directly to grassroots organizations. It was founded in 2004 after the coup d'etat that forced President Jean-Bertrand Aristide out of office.

For more information, including a telephone contact, go to the Canada Haiti Action Network Web site.

The Zanmi Lasante Medical Center is located in the Central Plateau of Haiti and delivers health care through a network of clinics. The health center survived the earthquake and delivering aid to the disaster zone. You can donate to the center through the U.S. non-profit organization Partners in Health.

SOPUDEP is a pioneering school in Petionville. The resources of the school and its teachers are being mobilized to assist the neighboring population. You can support the school via the Canadian-based Sawatzky Family Foundation.

I WAS in Gaza last summer, and when I saw the news picture from Haiti, I was struck by how much it looked like Gaza. Like you've described--big piles of concrete and twisted rebar and broken bricks everywhere you looked.

THAT'S IT. That's all they build with. It's terrible construction in an earthquake because it's so heavy. It just crushed people. Nothing is reinforced enough to withstand a very strong earthquake, so the devastation is so massive.

If the UN mission here was really about helping the people of Haiti, this would be the best place in the world to have an earthquake--not that you'd want one anywhere, but you'd have a huge peacekeeping force that could help with the injured and rebuild the country.

But instead, in the course of a day or two, so many people died needlessly because they didn't get a bandage on their head wound. My hotel became a makeshift hospital, and so many people were coming there because we had one nurse. That was all we had--no supplies and no other help. If someone had dropped off a box of bandages, it could have saved more people.

I just read that the new estimate by local officials is 200,000 dead. I had originally read 50,000. If people who are still trapped don't get water, this number is actually conceivable. I saw so many huge buildings downtown just collapsed, and the quake happened just before 5 p.m. on Tuesday--so many of those buildings had people in them.

If that number of 200,000 is reached, it will be one of the 10 deadliest natural disasters of all time.

Of course, it's not simply a natural disaster. It's a natural disaster on top of the disaster that U.S. imperialism has imposed on this country for decades, backing one dictator after another in the interest of maintaining a source of cheap labor for U.S. corporations.

WHAT DO you think of the Obama administration's response so far?

ON SATURDAY, Hillary Clinton flew into Haiti to oversee the relief effort--supposedly. But I think her trip to Haiti tells you all you need to know: They had to shut down the airport for three hours so she could land, which meant that no actual aid flights could come in.

And this happened at a really critical time, because we're right at that point where every extra ounce of water matters. At this point, people who have been without water are facing imminent death. But they stopped the aid shipments so Clinton could give a canned speech from Haiti about how much the U.S. is doing to help.

And in any case, the U.S. government is sending more boots on the ground and more guns to help with "law and order." But this isn't what the Haitian people need. They need people with shovels, and people to give them water. And of course, "law and order" is threatened by the lack of aid. Emphasizing troops over aid creates a self-fulfilling prophecy that will lead to serious bloodshed.

ON SATURDAY, an article about the Haiti crisis in the New York Times said that the historic "neglect" of the Haitian people has at least made them "resilient." To quote the Times, "Although protesting is a national custom, so is surviving on little. That national ethos, the Haitians' ability to scrounge to find enough to fight their hunger pangs, is being tested in full by the current crisis."

RIGHT. IN other words, we've been screwing them for so long, they should be used to it by now.

It's such racist garbage. It's a little softer than the Rush Limbaugh statement that we've already helped the Haitian people with our taxpayer dollars, or Pat Robertson's idea that this is retribution for a pact made with the devil. But it's coming from the same racist attitude that these people are used to these kinds of conditions, so they'll be fine. But nobody can deal with the horror that I've seen here.

When I heard that statement from Pat Robertson, after all the stress I'd been under, that just kind of broke me. I had to yell. That this earthquake was payback for kicking out the French during the Haitian Revolution? I hope that Pat Robertson can be dropped in one of the neighborhoods here, and let the people have at him.

It's hard to even respond to that kind of idiocy, but I just got finished reading C.L.R. James' The Black Jacobins, and it's one of the most inspiring stories I've ever read about ordinary people taking up arms, liberating themselves and taking control of their own affairs.

And then there's people like Pat Robertson, who wish Haiti was still a colony, where they could just directly enslave people and make money off them.

In any case, the U.S. needs to tell its soldiers to drop their machine guns and pick up shovels and start digging people out. I've seen a lot of stories predicting that violence and looting could break out, and that's a real possibility, if they don't get people food. But it doesn't have to be that way. The way you impose order isn't with machine guns, but by giving people food.

On Friday, they gave out only 8,000 packets of daily food rations, and the UN says that some 8 million are needed this week. People are drinking water contaminated by the rotting bodies, so there's a public health disaster looming that could create another wave of deaths among those who survived the quake.

SOME U.S. officials say they fear distributing food because it could create riot conditions. But what happens if the food isn't distributed?

WE KNOW what happens. My wife was here a year ago and had to be evacuated because food prices rose so high that people were eating mud. That can only go on for so long until people decide to go into stores and take what they need in order for their families to survive.

They need to marshal the world's wealth to come help--now. The idea that the world's most powerful country--one hour away by plane--is being stopped by a clogged airport is asinine. It's infuriating.

THE ESTIMATES are that the six largest U.S. banks paid out a total of $150 billion in compensation to their employees for 2009. So the $100 million pledged to Haiti by the U.S. is 0.05 percent of that.

ABSURD. I also just read that a couple in Arkansas hit the lottery for $100 million, but that's all the Obama administration can find to help Haiti. Basically, the Obama administration is orchestrating one of the largest catastrophes in world history.

The Haitian government is in collapse--figuratively and literally. The presidential palace caved in on itself. And it's not like the government was healthy before the quake struck. In 2004, George W. Bush deposed then-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and greatly weakened the connection of people to the resources of the government.

With the local government in collapse and the international players more interested in "law and order" and contracts for their corporations, there just aren't enough people and infrastructure to deliver the aid that people have so generously dug out from their own shallow pockets.

WHAT ROLE has the UN been playing?

I REALLY didn't see them at all, even though the hotel I was staying became a center where hundreds of people came for relief. No one, including the UN, brought supplies to us.

The headquarters of the UN itself collapsed, and I believe that the number one and number two UN officials in the country were killed, so they're definitely dealing with a crisis of their own. But if they're here to try to create better conditions for the people of Haiti, it seems like they would have a faster response, not just to their own crisis, but to the broader one.

Seeing so many dead bodies and so many people searching on their own and not seeing any clinics set up or dispersal of aid or medicine of any kind anywhere that we went--it really seemed like the Haitians were on their own in the midst of one of the largest presence of UN forces in the world. That just seemed like a huge injustice to me.

GIVEN THE levels of desperation, how is the security situation?

I THINK the devastation is so dramatic that people are in shock. At this point, a few days into the crisis, people are still just looking for their loved ones and trying to dig out people from the rubble. It hasn't yet reached the point where the level of desperation has become such that there's the kind of riots that happened a year ago when food prices jumped so high.

At least it doesn't feel that way to me right now. But how long can you go without proper medical attention? There are millions of people who are homeless. What do you do when you have millions of people homeless? You have to have a coordinated effort to address these problems, and you have to start taking care of them in a timely manner, or you know that people will have to take matters into their own hands and use any means necessary to find the water, food and shelter they need. There's bound to be some sort of revolt.

And with the sort of political repression that exists in Haiti--for example, the largest and most popular political party in the country is banned from participating in elections that had been set for later this year--it seems like that type of tension really could come to a boiling point.

WHAT HAVE you been doing since the earthquake hit?

OUR MAKESHIFT aid station was featured in the media. In fact, it was the front page of Yahoo News, so hundreds of people just started coming.

I had a young kid die right in front of me, simply because we had to wait hours before we could get to him--because there were so many other people in line. And I don't have any medical training, you know? I shouldn't be the one to work on him!

It's just been so crazy that it's hard to even describe. I just learned how to do things--just like anyone would if they had to. We were lucky that there was this one EMT who had some medical training, and he got totally overwhelmed with the number of cases--he just started assigning things to us. My wife and I and a couple other people at the hotel wanted to help out, and so we just tried to attend to people with the worst injuries. It's horrible to think about--beams had fallen on people's skulls and caused massive bleeding, people lost their eyes and limbs and everything.

I went through the hotel and got all the sheets off the beds and then ripped them into strips, and we used those to stop the bleeding. We broke up the chairs in the hotel and found whatever sticks we could to use as splints for people's broken limbs. We just did whatever with what we had, because no aid was being delivered.

Then I found out that the EMT who headed this whole operation at the hotel got so exhausted that he tripped at night and broke his ankle. So now he can't continue, and they have no help now.

CAN YOU describe the conditions that people have to contend with? In the news coverage I've seen, it looks like a lot of people are living under a tarp spread between two trees.

YES, THAT'S how most people are living. Those blue tarps are everywhere. The people who are lucky have a blue tarp draped over them and are living under it. The food and water situation is going to become a crisis. There's some available at hospitals, but there are long lines for everything, whether it's gas or water or food.

At one point when we were driving, we thought the street had been blockaded, but it turned out it was just a gas line that was very long. There's some water available at different stations like that, but some of the pipes have obviously ruptured, and the infrastructure was very weak to begin with. People are just scavenging and doing whatever they can to eat at this point.

It all seems so absurd, though. There's been an occupation by the UN since 2004, and they developed no infrastructure? Even if there's a bottleneck at the one major airport, there are coastlines--you can bring boats in. And you have the Dominican Republic next door--you can get aid there and bring it across the border.

This is an hour from Miami, right? It's right next door to our country. We've mobilized ridiculous amounts of weapons and supplies and soldiers to the Middle East to invade countries, right? I really think they could figure out how to make it happen.

I'm sure there are difficulties. Haiti's an extremely poor country, largely because of U.S. imperialism and Western domination, and that presents real challenges for distributing aid. But I can't accept any excuse given by the media for the U.S. not being able to get more help here, given that the U.S. is able to marshal huge resources around the world when it wants to occupy a country.

IN 2009, the U.S. spent about $12 billion a month on its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now, they're pledging $100 million in aid to deal with this crisis. That's less than 1 percent of what they were spending each month on military occupations.

YES. THERE are millions of people homeless here, which sounds big. But when you put it in the context of how much they're spending on war, how much they're spending on bank bailouts or bonuses for executives, it just doesn't make any sense. That $100 million isn't anywhere near the amount that's going to be needed to address rebuilding homes for the population that survived, and healing the people who are injured.

It was a natural disaster that hit Haiti and created this awful mess, but it's really the unnatural disaster of decades of poverty that made the natural disaster so horrible. Homes made from the cheapest possible materials are going to fall, and they're going to hurt a lot of people.

The lack of infrastructure to deliver aid is a result of the poverty, and that wasn't just an accident, but something that was orchestrated by several different governments over time. In the 1820s, Haiti had to pay reparations to France because it won its independence, and France lost all its "property," in the form of slaves. Today, Haiti owes money to the International Monetary Fund. The IMF has offered loans to Haiti to deal with this crisis--so it can be plunged even further into debt. It's absurd.

And Barack Obama has selected Bill Clinton and George Bush as the main people who are supposed to solve the problem? We saw how well Bush did in New Orleans--it's not a serious attempt to help people here. It seems much more like a publicity stunt to say, "We're doing what we can," and meanwhile, millions of people will suffer.

THAT EARLY history of Haiti is remarkable in so many ways. The U.S. initially supported the Haitian uprising with arms and money, because it saw the rebellion as a way to eject the French. But once the revolution was successful, the U.S. opposed it, because America was concerned that the revolution would set a very bad example for Black slaves in the southern U.S.

WHAT I love about Toussaint L'Ouverture is how he would make alliances with the British here, and then the French here, and the Americans there, but he always knew that they were interested in maintaining their own advantages and exploiting Haiti however they could.

So he would make alliances when it suited him to beat the other imperialist power, but he never was lulled into thinking that they were actually going to defend Haiti and try to fight for the end of slavery.

I think that the outpouring of support for the people who are suffering here in Haiti is really beautiful, and it shows that people want a better and different kind of world--and they're willing to give up things to get there.

But the problem is that a lot of the institutions set up to deliver the aid aren't concerned about building a better world. They're more worried about their own institutional security, not upsetting the status quo in Haiti. In one way or another, their efforts reinforce the grip of the current president, who is himself a servant of U.S. interests.

So you have a situation where all this money can be raised, but if it goes to private contracts for corporations to rebuild Haiti, then it's really more about them rebuilding their bottom line. This happened in Iraq, with big contracts to Halliburton, and we saw how well that worked. Iraqis still don't have electricity, and meanwhile Halliburton is fabulously wealthy.

A similar kind of thing happened in New Orleans, where huge devastation became a huge opportunity to privatize. Everything down to the schools are privatized, and unless we collectively demand otherwise, the same dynamic will happen here in Haiti, where U.S. corporations see this as an opportunity to get all the funds that people are donating.

So I hope that we can help shed some light on the devastation that's happened here, and help be part of the process of raising the money and the medical supplies that are needed here. But we can't just leave it in the hands of the institutions that have already driven Haiti into poverty. We have to try to fight for an alternative, where the aid actually goes to people and not just these corporations.

Transcription by Andrea Hektor.

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