"It stinks here."
I think I actually said that to my wife when I called her after arriving in the Haitian capital city of Port-Au-Prince. I meant it both figuratively, and because of the smell.
Port-Au-Prince could be beautiful. I thought this when I first laid eyes on it last year, just after the earthquake struck. It's kingly mountain range embraces the city, which then hugs the Caribbean to the west. If history chose different paths, this city could have made a great center of tourism, art, culture, and commerce. One begins to get angry at the amount of lost potential.
History, by way of foreign rulers, has been cruel. Independence came to Haiti, but not without a price. The necessity to pay reparations to the French left the nation economically weak. It's evident today. The antiquated public works were woefully inadequate even before the quake and now their non-functionality compounds the problems further. The Haitians have never developed an exportable product, with which to trade in the global market. They don't host a major university leading scientific breakthroughs. They don't have glamorous hotels luring in well-off North American or European vacationers seeking a tropical paradise.
People in the U.S. need a better perspective on Haiti. We really do take certain things for granted. Last year, I watched excavators recover bodies from rubble. If such a scene existed in the U.S., a coroner would have been on site to receive the bodies and deal with them carefully and appropriately. That's not the case in Haiti. Bodies recovered from this scene were placed in trash bags and stacked on the sidewalk. Sometimes they rotted in the heat before a person would recognize the corpse and take it. Sometimes they went missing. Sometimes a feral cat got a filling feast.
There are now a million people in Port-Au-Prince living in "Tent Cities." It's a misnomer as these shelters aren't tents. They're not even shelters. These are not issued by their government or by an aid group. These are hastily strewn together with whatever could be found; tattered tarps hang from broomsticks wedged into the gravel of the ground. Sometimes, if you're lucky, you find or steal enough wood or tin to make walls.
This is especially true for the colony on the site of the Acra industrial park. Acra once hosted factories producing tires, among other things. Now, the land is a twisting maze of these huts. None are larger than ten feet square. None have floors. Most people sleep on the harsh gravel unless they've found a mattress or something else soft enough to abate the pain of sleeping on the ground. But Acra is also a place of despair. Families have been torn apart. The elderly are sweating it out in shelters of cardboard. Orphans wash in a canal already confirmed to have been infested with cholera. There is no foster care. There are no schools or daycare.
"After the January quake, everybody is their own grown-up now," says Oliver Joseph, who is in his twenties. He's not some legal guardian for the kids who live next door to him, but he does keep an eye out for them.
"Nobody is guiding them," he says. "They have nobody to look over them. They are a bunch of talented kids. He sings. He plays instruments. There's not much to do, though. They're just sitting in the streets."
Lauren Andrena used to raise her kids in a small house, with bedrooms and televisions. Her kids still go to school but she is finding out the village isn't helping.
"You cannot educate no kids," says Lauren. "I can only show courage to them. It's very dangerous. A lot of bums. A lot of bad activities."
There are also no jobs. Those who live at Acra don't work. They don't earn any money. Many did work once, but the quake destroyed their place of employment. Oliver used to fix cars at a mechanic shop up until last January. Now he wishes he could do anything for some money.
"I hope that someone will walk by and offer to give me a job," he says. "I would take the job."
There are "work for cash" programs enacted at Acra. These allow people to take on day laborer-type work and collect hard money at the end of the day. But the jobs are scarce, the work is inconsistent, and often it's only made available to "people who know people."
"I don't know anyone there," says Lauren. "They give the jobs to their friends."
Jobs are a key issue here. Barely anyone has one. Those who are employed don't earn much. The average Haitian lives on $1.25 a day doing whatever work they can find. Some take to the streets trying to sell whatever they can. My car window is usually bombarded with people trying to sell me shoes, cell phone car chargers, fruits and vegetables, and yes, there are the Squeegee Men here too. Others come to your car-side to beg while you're caught in traffic. Many times, these are children. One boy, perhaps eight or nine years old, tapped on my window. He then lifted his shirt to show me his ribs. The boy hadn't eaten in a week, at least. His eyes showed a mix of anger and grovel. There really isn't much I could do for him. We didn't have food with us in the car, and it's not safe to open your window or door to give him anything. Sadly, it could very well be a ruse to get you to unlock the door and harm you.
The problem is that small odd jobs don't jumpstart an economy. It's in this area that we've seen some progress. Former U.S. President Bill Clinton came to Haiti this week to mark the opening of a new factory at a new industrial park in Port-Au-Prince. Clinton not only heads up a special fundraising effort for Haiti alongside former President George W. Bush, he's also the U.N.'s special envoy to the nation. A Korean clothing company, Sae-ya, will operate a factory employing 20,000 Haitian men and women. Not only will the jobs be stable and high-paying, they will be able to export these products to the U.S. It's a move Clinton helped orchestrate, and he hopes it will push Haiti into global free trade which could in turn entice more companies to base production in Haiti and allow capitalism to bring in lot more money into the country.
"I'd like to say, also, a special word of thanks to the private sector in the United States, especially the garment companies, who made this day possible by promising to buy these products," says Clinton.
Retailers in the U.S., like Wal-Mart and Gap have pledged to make Haitian-made clothing available in their stores. Clinton hopes other companies, who had pledged to do business here, will follow suit.
"We can now go back to them and say, 'If Sae-ya can make this kind of commitment, you can make the smaller one you were thinking about after the earthquake."
But as the Haitians wait for more jobs like these, they continue to live in filth.
Oxfam is a charity-driven organization that has been working in Haiti for more than thirty years trying to improve water and sanitation here. The earthquake further compounded the reasons why they set up shop in the western world's most impoverished nation to begin with.
"Before the earthquake," says Oxfam's Julie Schindall, "Eighty percent of Haitians did not have toilets."
When cholera began surfacing here, Oxfam knew they needed to more aggressively address the sanitation and hygiene issues plaguing this country. In more developed countries, washing your hands after using the bathroom is second nature. It is so only because our parents taught us and we had health class in junior high. It's institutionalized. Someone a few hundred years ago discovered that washing prevented the spread of diseases. That information never really made it to Haiti. Simply put, much of the population didn't know any better. They didn't know that relieving themselves into a stream in one neighborhood could poison the people who drink from that stream a mile away. It's something that everyone here needs to learn.
"We have to teach their babies to do it. Get their grandmothers doing it," says Julie. "It's brand new to these people."
Even armed with new hygienic knowledge, the job issue still bars people here from keeping clean enough to live.
"To wash your hands with clean water, you need soap," adds Julie. "That's an important element. Well, who's gonna have soap when the majority of people are living on less than a dollar twenty-five a day?"
Health is just one of the things that had been put on the back burner in this country's progressive failure. And whatever resources they have here, were usually not reserved for people deemed to be a lost cause. That usually included amputees. And after an earthquake, amputees abound as evidenced by the amount of torn limbs lying on street-sides I used to see last year.
On a flight home from another story assignment this year, I by chance sat next to a group of amputees all wearing soccer jerseys. When asking, I found out they were the Haitian National Amputee Soccer Team. Turns out, some groups in the U.S. knew of a rather large world league for amputee soccer and hastily strung together a Haiti team and entered them into Amputee World Cup. They had been training in the Dallas area thanks to the U.S. Major League Soccer operations there along with groups like International Institute of Sport and founder Fred Sorrells.
"Let me tell you," began Fred on that flight. "On the field these guys can fly."
One of the players, a young man named Mackenzie Francois, was forced to cut off his own leg when trapped after the quake. He thought he would die on the streets eventually. I interviewed him when the plane landed and I was able to grab my recording gear from the baggage claim. We had to do it quickly because Fred, Mackenzie and the team were trying to make a connecting flight to Buenos Aires for the game.
Today he's a star in Haiti. He and his team represented their nation to the world in Argentina. The team got standing ovations and, despite not winning a game, gave every team a run for their money.
"What they lack in skill, they make up for in heart," says Chris Campassano with Phoenix Pro Soccer, a group trying to start an MLS team in Phoenix and who has been a sponsor of the Haitian amputee team.
Amputees in Haiti, according to Chris, were always considered the "lowest of the low." Now, they're a source of pride. They even received a public award from the Haitian government. The award ceremony took place in the soccer stadium in Port-Au-Prince in front of stands filled with fans. Mackenzie says it proves life doesn't end when becoming an amputee.
"You will always succeed if life if you move forward," Mackenzie says.
Moving forward is something the people still living in Acra might have to do very soon, whether they want to or not.
Acra is planning to evict the hut residents. They have allowed them to stay for a year, but now they want to rebuild their factories and get back to business. The people living at the complex would love to leave and go back to their homes. The problem is their homes are gone. They ran out of money by not working while living at Acra, so rebuilding is not something they can afford. Banks aren't lending money here, either.
Nobody likes living at Acra. But nobody thinks they can leave. They'd have to take their tents with them, but the other tent communities are full. This would force them into the streets or even worse, the wilderness. It must be frustrating for the world to watch, considering how much money was raised immediately after the quake. U.S. citizens alone raised more than a billion dollars.
"I haven't seen any of it," says one woman resident. "I have never even heard of this money."
Part of the problem is the Haitian government, which the residents claim is up to its decades-old tricks of corruption. In some cases, incoming money and supplies are being held up at customs as the government is demanding to be paid taxes as high as forty percent to bring these things into the country. That would mean that for every dollar you donated via text message, forty cents would go the pockets of the Haitian government. That leaves only sixty cents for the charity to take operational costs and then give the rest to the people who need it. That woman I spoke to has a better idea:
"It's better for them to come and give it to me, hand by hand," she says. "If they are sending it (to the government), I will never receive it."
I had hoped to find some glimmer of hope here. I'm not sure I found it, save for one young lady named Kaitya. She's a twenty-eight year old mother of five and is seven months pregnant with her next child. She too, lives at Acra inside a rough hut near that cholera-laced stream. She has little of her family left as both her parents were killed in the quake. She will give birth on the gravel and dirt in her hut, near the contaminated water. She tells me this with a smile and a giggle.
"How are you smiling in all of this?" I asked.
"Why should I not smile?" she asks in return, gleefully. "It's the only thing I have."