Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Port-au-Prince - Jimani, DR

We woke up with the dawn, the airport hadn't slowed at all. There is a Japanese pilot just looking incredibly unhappy about something just across the ditch from where we slept. Plane after plane, helo after helo all night and still some goods are getting hung up at the airport. We were spending the day with a group primarily from Utah who had flown three choppers to Haiti to assist in any way they could. As the sun rose to frost the city on a golden slant, we were already in the chopper heading up the hill a few miles to the Maison Enfants de Dieu orphanage in Port-au-Prince. There were a few fires downtown that had probably burned overnight and I could see the damage from above the dense city.
We landed in a grassy field and walked about 4-5 blocks through a waking neighborhood. Faces along with where they slept were matching up with my thoughts and ponderings from the night before. When we arrived to the orphanage, 100+ kids were scattered about, nearly everywhere but inside. They ran towards anyone who was let in the gate with outstretched attention craving arms. Nannies were tirelessly keep some children just sitting on a bench, others wash wriggling little bodies in a packed wooden crib in front of the building. As I explore there is one small baby with stiff skinny legs laying on a mattress inside a yellow tent. Flies are nearly covering him and he isn't even crying. I couldn't even take a picture, I just asked one of the volunteers if they should go grab him. After a few hours the children start gathering like as if in front of a stage and the names are called. Of the 100+ kids, 80 of them are being evacuated and with every name, a smile flashes on one of their faces and they run toward the sky blue bus. All I can think about is the kids whose names won't get called, I look for them but can't distinguish.
After some pushy bargaining I get on the bus that bumps and chokes through the city streets that are not meant for large vehicles. It wasn't looking good at the UN gate of the airport until an American Air Force Colonel showed up, and smiles started to surface on the volunteers faces as we rolled through the gate towards a giant C-17. People were carrying them onto the plane and buckling them in, one at a time. It was a bit emotional, maybe I was just tired from sleeping with aircraft, not sure. After the plane took off I watched the Haitians and Americans from the orphanage hug each other in the shade of the now outdoor terminal. National news crews were there and so I started to get nervous about how I was going to get my photos out.
I hear from someone that there was a trailer somewhere inside the UN compound with ethernet connections so I started walking and got picked up by a crazy UN inspector guy driving a pickup who made me go on like 3 or 4 errands, then he finally took me to a tiny trailer and showed me the window where I was supposed to climb through. There was a stack of bricks in front of a 2 by 3 partially opened window; apparently a staircase. He told me not to tell anyone he brought me here and then left. The internet wasn't super fast, but it worked and while I was getting the photos out a German photographer and news crew climbed through the window too.
After I got back to where the helicopter was at the airport I followed some of the volunteers with the Utah group go and give out small bags of food. I asked them as we walked past the security of the airport gate if they knew what they were doing. I think they had an idea but the answer that I got, was a bit too optimistic. I can't really even say how strong hunger mixed with the feeling of being forsaken does to a person. I don't have the mind or experience to articulate how they fought for food, although you can't judge them, the scene just doesn't leave you. Doesn't take much to remind me how little I know or have seen. We quickly found ourselves in a big scrum and I was kicking myself for trusting these guys. It got a little tense and so we had to split up to get back to the airport by sunset to catch our chopper to a new camp inside a baseball diamond just over the border to the Dominican Republic. We ended up having to leave a couple of them not knowing if they even got back into the airport. We waited as long as we could and then had to leave. Flying over the purple dusk and broken land towards the DR at the end of my first day in Port-au-Prince I felt like I would be a terrible Marine, leaving guys behind like that. I felt sick inside until I saw them the next morning sleeping under the tarps at the airport with smiles on their faces. They found their way somehow.
That first night in the DR was so peaceful and serene. 30 minutes away by chopper from Port-au-Prince was a completely different land. Green, lush with homes covered in paint; a completely different vibe. There was music playing at a bar down the street and kids everywhere. It seemed like we had just stepped out of an awful movie or something.


christy said...

i'm pretty speechless. your experience looked insane, thanks for sharing mike. i really respect what you do.

Greg said...

Amazing images. The ones that show any touch of human compassion or even simple connection make me want to cry. thanks so much for sharing these!

v辰原 said...


Chris Detrick said...

Wonderful work Mike!