Earthquake in Haiti

01 de February de 2010

I am not a doctor, I am not a nurse, and I am not a rescuer …. I am just Maria Jose (Maria for my friends) and here is my story about Haiti…

Tuesday the 12th

Earthquake in Haiti, magnitude 7.3 Mw.

Wednesday the 13th

Plunged into everyday’s routine, we often don’t realise the magnitude of the tragedies we are surrounded by. Today all of the sudden everybody started talking about Haiti’s earthquake and the Haitian community in Bayahibe is quite agitated. All the communication systems in Haiti are collapsed, so is no way to know the extend of the impact. The atmosphere is of a deep uncertainty. Just now, twenty four hours later, I realise that a catastrophe has occurred.

Thursday the 14th

Emergency measures.- What do we do in this kind of situations? I am checking on the internet and I see that they need drinking water, food, canvas and medicines. Someone has offered to pay for the transport of a lorry loaded with whatever is needed. Great! Along with some members of the organisation, I started to take up an emergency collection for the first rescue mission which will be leaving this coming Saturday.

Some people’s reaction, still amazes me. This lady on holidays in the Caribbean saying,
“ I can’t see what I can do to help! The president of my country has already sent two airplanes loaded by all kind of things.”
Someone else said to me” you won’t be able to go through; the frontiers are closed!
“Be cautious with the epidemics”,
“You can smell the death stench from the border!”

Fortunately you always have someone who encourages you, to make it balanced!

Along the afternoon more and more people approaches us with their contributions. Everybody is aware of the news. The person who offered to pay for the transport backed out because he heard somewhere that the frontiers were closed. I’ll go, I said. I said to everyone that I was going and I’ll go. The reason I won people trust is because when I am saying I am doing something, I am doing it and when I say I’d go, I’ll go. We have managed to get a huge amount of things, is late now. We’ll carry on tomorrow.

When I got home, I started thinking if I wasn’t being a bit stubborn? What if everyone was right and I’ll get stuck at the frontier? I look at the sky and like many other times I m asking “what should I do? Should I stay here and help from here or should I go and take the risk?
That night I had a dream: I saw myself in Haiti with a little girl 11 or 12 years old in my arms. I was giving her a kiss in her forehead…

Friday the 15th

Second day of the collection. Today I know where I am going, I am determined. Many of the people we informed yesterday came today. They are bringing all kind of contributions. I managed to get a rental van and Leonardo a Dominican driver, and Pierre a Haitian guide Pierre will come with me. Everyone has, something to say. I just listen the supportive people. As soon as I hear something negative I am walking away and leave it to my colleagues. I am facing my own fears, I don’t need any additional one…

Saturday 16th

It is 3 am. I am printing the list of things there are in every box so we can put a sticker on the outside with the contents inside. I feel so sleepy! In two hours, Leonardo the driver will get here with the rented van with part of the money we raised. I wonder if everything will fit in the van!

7.30 am. After some technical difficulties to put everything in the van, we leave. We’ll go to La Romana to pick up Pierre from AJEDH Foundation, the Haitian guide. He knows Haiti extremely well.

Here we are engaged with the unknown. We hardly speak on our journey. None of us know what we can expect. We arrive at the frontier early in the afternoon. It doesn’t stink. We saw a few lorries heading towards the area of the catastrophe. How nice it is to feel you are not on your own in your particular effort for supporting a better world. At the frontier there is no barrier. There are lots of people but everything is calm.
We drove around the lake Enriquillo in order to enter Haiti. Wherever we look at we see a few collapsed houses.

Pierre takes us to visit some of his family. They live in an area where despite being affected by the earthquake, there not seriously wounded people, but everyone is scared though. We move on and go to visit the surrounding areas, there are not many houses and the settlement in the area doesn’t have many people. Everyone is hungry and thirsty and they sleep in the open air.

Haiti

Haiti

Haiti

Haiti

Haiti

Haiti - Cura en la montaña

Haiti - Campamento

Haiti - Campamento 5.000 personas

Haiti - Palacio Presidencial


On our way we find a little clinic where we meet an American nurse who works there and who speak Creole very well. We tell her that we are carrying medicaments and that she can take those she need. She seems very happy about it. These days she is receiving many wounded people. After giving them first aid she is forced to send those patients to other hospitals. We go back to the campground where Pierre’s sister- in-law is staying .We join the neighbours to have something to eat food from cans and some rice, all part from the donations since no one has food or water in the area. Apparently very few people had a meal today.

Here and there, for the first time I can read in people’s sight the powerlessness in old people look, of not being able to survive by them selves. It’s a mixture of pride and resignation that has always broke my heart. Leonardo and I slept in the van. Pierre stayed at his sister-in-law. We are all tired. Tomorrow will be another day. Earth is trembling…

Sunday the 17th

We are heading Puerto Principe. Barrio Simon 1. The number of destroyed houses is endless. The street is awfully crowded. A huge amount of people carry a suitcase in their heads, and many of them wander aimlessly. I can feel a heavy atmosphere, it is a very deep feeling. All of the sudden someone is greeting Pierre I recognise the person. – Tupac?! – Tupac is a guy who used to work at a diving centre in Bayahibe. What a nice feeling to see him again! While he is talking to Pierre, I realise how thin he is, he looks clearly undernourished. He has a very sad look, and looking at him part of this sadness becomes part of me.

He tells us about what the situation is in Haiti. The bad situation seems to be the same for all the Haitians. He shows us his wallet containing 3000 pesos which is not bad at all, but he cannot spend them because there is nothing to buy. That confirms to me once again how useless money is. This reminded me of a poster I saw many years ago about an American Indian native with the quote saying: “White man, once you will have cut down all the trees, and have killed all the fowls and all the rivers are dry, what will you do? Will you eat money?…

Tupac is telling us about a camp that was set up not far from where we were. Apparently it’s taken in about 300 people, many of whom are seriously injured. We follow him and arrive to a street called Cite Militaire. The street looks quiet. We stop in front of a green sliding door where we can read “Ecole Mont Carmel”. It is a School. The door is open. We walk between people who are standing removing sheets and blankets from the floor in order to let us passing through. We can see in both sides different families of refugees in emergency accommodation made by sticks, sheets or even canvas. At the back we can see the empty classrooms which seem to have resisted pretty well the earthquake. Everyone comes around us with curiosity and hope…

People in charge of the camp introduce themselves and tell us about the situation. The camp is full of children. Everyone is hungry; adults and children. I took a quick look. It is normally easy for me to understand what is going on around me wherever I am and I am good at making quick decisions, so in a few minutes we manage, with the help of the young and strong men of the community, to remove all the desks from the classrooms. We place them to use them as canteen desks, we ask women to bring their pans and a cooker. We send someone to buy 10 dollars of coal while we prepare two big pans with milk, oats and biscuits to be served to everyone. Everybody is extremely excited.

Now is when we can start talking. Fan Fan is the leader of this camp. He is a mechanical engineer. He is lucky enough he has preserved his job. He has organised a security group which means a group of young people carrying some sticks in order to watch over the security of the camp’s community. This doesn’t prevent the feeling of uncertainty and the fear.
I have always believed that the best way to start helping is to start working. As you get involved, you can better understand what is going on, you get closer to people when you are working with them.

What can I do with my skills and my knowledge? Cleaning wounds! I know how to do this. I have done it in the past, I have helped a lot of people doing this. I am not a nurse, but when I was a child I fell so many times, the same number of times as I have been cured, so I think I can say I learned something about it!! We set two tables with medicaments and a few banks in the shadow, so the injured can have a seat. Et voila! Now we can really see the magnitude of the disaster!
Where are all those injured people coming from? What terrible injuries! They are all infected, with pus…..we are at the sixth day since the earthquake and most of these people haven’t seen a doctor. I disinfect injuries, put some ointment, cover and put a bandage, over and over.

Leonardo and Pierre are doing the same, even though they leave the more difficult ones for me to cure them. It is an endless thing and there are injuries I am not skilled enough to deal with them, due to my limited medical knowledge. There is this little girl who has a big gash in her head. She is so scared she says she is not in pain even if her head is bleeding. There is this other young girl with her instep seriously wounded, a woman with her eyes in blood who has been strongly hit in her head having her eyes fixed who knows where. My God, something has to be done!. Someone has told us that the big organisations are in the camp of the airport and we can find doctors over there. We have to evacuate this woman. At the time I was shouting that we have to empty the van quickly two other women arrive and they seem seriously ill, I am very worried for them we have to go. Quick, let’s go I said!! We are very lucky that Leonardo, as soon he does any journey once, he will remember forever.

We got to this airport in less than 15 minutes. We are referred to a group of Colombian surgeons whose “hospital” is half way set up. They are unbelievably kind and try to help immediately. Unfortunately they are not allowed yet to perform any operation in the camp, because the UN is concerned about the risk of the spread of epidemics. Indeed, the woman with the eyes all red is seriously ill. She, along with other women, has to be evacuated urgently to the Hospital La Paz. The third woman only needs first aid treatment and a boy who also came with us needs the wound in his head to be disinfected. The Colombian surgeons will have to take down the hospital and go somewhere else in the city. We have to make to most of the fact that they are still here. We went back to the camp because there are still some seriously injured people who haven’t been seen. We will work on a plan B when the surgeons will go.

After our second journey to the airport I realised we won’t be able to keep doing this for a long time. First of all we haven’t collected enough money and we don’t have much petrol. To refill the tank we have to go to the frontier, which is two hours away from here and in addition of that we heard rumours that they don’t allow to fill external tanks because of fears of smuggling. We have to do something about it. Pierre and I are emphasizing our efforts looking for alternatives, solutions. We ended up finding a Mexican male nurse who told us about a French organization who has doctors keen on helping in the camp but they don’t know how to do it and they are scared about their security. One thing linked to another and we ended up leading a delegation consisting of one Mexican nurse, one General Practice doctor along with a lorry in which there were two other nurses from the French charity COSI, a large number of rescuers, surgeons and more nurses from QATAR AID.

After checking and making sure the camp wasn’t that unsafe they all decided to help us and they all went back to the camp at the airport. Pierre and I stayed overnight at the camp. I could hear until late in the night coming from other camps and from the one we called Camp 1, people chanting gratefulness to God. Despite that cause the noise and hunger I couldn’t sleep, it had been a really beautiful experience. I was exhausted and took me a long time to feel sleepy but finally I fell sleep feeling proud of our first small victory among this huge tragedy the extension of which was still indeterminate…

Monday the 18th

At 8 am two medical teams arrived with a huge amount of medicines and different utensils. We set everything up for them to work as comfortably as possible. They started then a long day of work. Everyone was asking me questions, asking me for things, for attention, food, water. I had to shout a lot and make quick decisions. I forgot to eat and I hardly drank anything. I knew in a few days I will be back home and I will be able to recover. We had all kinds of injured people. We had babies (they broke my heard, so tiny!), women, children, men. We even had someone injured by weapon. The bullet went trough the leg without even touching the bone!

The team from the kitchen was perfectly coordinated. They cooked for the whole camp giving preference to the children. People in charge of other camps came asking for help. This was the first time we got in touch with people from the three other camps we will work with very soon. All three placed on the same street. The smaller one (50 people) hadn’t received any kind of help yet, the second one almost as big as camp1 and the biggest one, with 5000 people. This last one left us in shock. How are we going to be able to help this entire people if our organisation is so small and there were no supplies left? Alright, we’ll thing about something later. To start with we need to find a way to get all their injured in here.

Let’s start! The day past transferring people, organising things and making decisions. I finally could find some time in the afternoon to play with children. For the first time since we arrived to the camp we could hear laughter, even adults joined us. They were all surprised to realise they still could have some fun. I think we all released some stress there! COSI and QATAR teams left the camp before the sunset. Surrounded by prayers, cold and a back ache I fell asleep completely exhausted again.

Tuesday the 19th

Today everything started again but more organised this time. Everyone were where they were supposed to be and then I realised I was not of much help now. I decided to go back to Bayahibe with the firm conviction to come back. Pierre and Leonardo agreed with me and we started our way back.

We took with us an wounded woman who needed to be transferred urgently to the Jimani Hospital. It was a young girl with an amputated arm and a gash in her head. Her strength was amazing. On our way out of the camp all the kids kept asking me if I was leaving: Ou ale, ou ale? I promised them staring at their eyes that I would come back. They felt more confident. Emanuel, a member of the group of security, a big guy taller than me, a well built boy looked at me and said “are you leaving? What are we going to do without you? I felt devastated; I hardly managed to hold my tears back.

He looked at me like a child whose mother has abandoned and this look broke my heart. I realised more than ever that I never could let this people down because if I did it would be like to betray my principles, my ideals, my own love and myself. With a lump in my throat I said: I’ll come back”.

On our way back, at the frontier, thanks to the size of our van we were allowed to drive on the side of the road, avoiding the long queue till the limit of the border. It wasn’t fast enough. I got out of the van and desperately run letting everyone know we had a serious injured person inside. Passing the frontier, we found many checking points. The Dominican militia was so kind because once they realised the serious situation they didn’t make us loose a single minute. On our way to the hospital I realised that the husband of the wounded woman had only 12 dollars with him along with a paper carrying bag with two bottles of water, some clothes and not much more. When I gave him 25 dollars, the water we had left and some food, he looked at the sky thanking God for the help.

The hospital from Jimani was full Spanish health-carer (Protection civil among other organisations), Cubans and Colombians who were going up and down between hundred of injured people lying on mattresses, sheets and the few stretchers they were available. We left them in the hospital with the hope of meeting them in better circumstances. We kept quiet the rest of the journey. I couldn’t say a word because I had lump in my throat and for the first time since we started this journey the tears fell down my cheeks… How much pain, how many people suffering! And this, due to a natural disaster. What it would be in a war? A war which is created by the man itself….what kind of world we are living in?

Wednesday the 20th

Second earthquake. Magnitude 6.2 Mw. We manage to communicate with Fan Fan after a few attempts. Fortunately there were not many injured. We made a second collection. I could do it thanks to the help of some members of the organisation and some volunteers. I spent the whole day reviving all the images of all what happened and crying.

Thursday the 21st

We come back to Haiti. I wonder if I will be able to detach myself from this country when the time arrives. I know I will follow up this cause the time it needs but I cannot forget my project in Dominican Republic. One thing is connected with the other one. From Dominican Republic I can do much more to help both places.

From this moment I cannot remember things in detail. I know that the car broke after two or three days and Leonardo had to come back to Dominican Republic to repair it. He took Pierre with him because Pierre said he couldn’t leave his children on their own any longer.
Here is in short (it is a way to say it because I am not going to summarise this experience!) summary of what I was doing the 14 days I stayed in Haiti:

– First of all we had to find water to be provided to all the four camps. I was observing for a few days already that cars from the Haitian Red Cross were driving up and down with people taking notes but I couldn’t see they were doing anything else. I approached them and ask what they were doing. They told me that they were checking which camp had water and which no. I asked them how they think they were going to find out if they would get out of the cars and they wouldn’t go into the camps. They confess to me they were scared.

I introduced myself and told them that I was trying to organise the camps so they would get help easily and also to ask people in the camp to behave in a proper way when they receive the help. I let them know where to go to get more information. I also approached members from the French Red Cross. I don’t know who made it possible exactly but two days later , a few tanks of drinking water were installed in camp 1 an in the camp of 5000 people. One thing I learned is that 3 times more of chlorine is needed in the water to avoid epidemics. At the beginning no one wanted to drink it. I drank some to show everyone that the water was good. I felt my tummy very heavy all afternoon, but I didn’t die.

– The second thing to do was to get some food. This would be a bit more complicated. There were too many people in need. I tried the bureaucratic way, talking to big organisations, filling up all kind of forms, attending gatherings without success. I spent days following Lorries loaded with food, getting into areas with shootings. I saw decomposed corpses and foul-smelling. The amount of food I could manage to get was not enough. It was just to calm the growing despair.

I have to admit though that the Venezuelan army was distributing a big amount of food. The time came where I realised that this system wouldn’t work. Playing the mammy duck wouldn’t work for long. The day will come where I will go and my little ducks will stay defenceless. I decided to involve the members of different committees which were better and better organised and from whom I won their trust after proving I was reliable. I called them all together. The negative view I got from people who have been sleeping out doors, with hardly any food or none and drinking very little, was the first obstacle I had to face.

I managed to resolve this giving them the best medicine in those cases: hope. My slimness growing day by day, which didn’t prevent me to work very hard, helped a lot, because they understood we were on the same boat. The second barrier was the lack of solidarity. This was a bit more difficult to solve. This barrier started to dissipate when I explained them how important it was to be together so they could attract more attention for this area and consequently more help from big organisations. And it happened. The Colombian Red Cross arrived with a load of food for more of 5000 people.

The head leader of each camp followed the guidelines I provided to them and they started to go to the places I discovered myself where they could get some food. Gerardo Suchil, a Mexican rescuer provided them the census of every camp. They then approached different organisations and were making some progress. This built up their confidence in an improvement. To make it short, we solve the problem progressively.

– The third step was to keep in good state the patients who had been seen already. We managed to make some doctors to come sporadically to the camp1 so they could treat the patients from all the camps. The last few days, Medicos del Mundo made their appearance and set up a medical check point in the big camp.

– It was only one thing to be solved. The tents. For two days it looked like it would rain. It would have been a disaster if it had happened. The majority was staying under sheets and the epidemics would have been terrible. A few days earlier I decided to camp in the airport. The reason was it was much easier to have access to the big organisations from there. And so it was. I obtained a few tents, canvas and sleeping bags which I distributed however I could. I contacted many people who helped me.

The last few days I met a big group of Spanish people who was working there for a few days already. They were very well organised. Samur, Bomberos en Accion (fire men in action), Aecid, to whom I have so much to be grateful for. They adopted Hambrientos de Todo and made me feel part of the group.

Sunday the 31st

The small camp has been more difficult to manage. It was the one less looked after, the one which had the least help and the one which felt more down. After we got them food, water and a canvas that covered most of the camp, they recovered some strength and their attitude changed completely.
On my last visit to the camp 1, I passed by the small camp. I was amazed to see the men, who usually were jus sitting under a shadow, they were helping picking up blocks, cleaning the street and all of them turned themselves and greeted me making me know how proud they felt to be working. Tears went out of my eyes.

When I arrived to camp1, chatting with Fan Fan, he asked me:

-Maria since you came here, this camp has changed a lot. Look, people are happier. Tell, me how do you do it? While everyone is only worried about making money you are doing this for us. How can it be? Tell me, I want to know, I want to understand.

Suddenly a little girl approached the camp. She still wasn’t able to speak and she extended her arms towards me.

– My dear Fan Fan, here you have the real richness. Look at her; she is extending her arms towards me.

While I was getting my reward in my arms Fan Fan was thoughtful.

– But Maria, aren’t you scared of the future? And, if the help it should arrive doesn’t arrive?

There many times I feel scared, but I don’t tell anyone, so I told him what I am trying to think when I am scared.

– Believe, and you will attract, believe deeply and you’ll get there.

At this precisely moment the door of the camp opened and the miracle was there. The Swiss Read Cross was looking for a safe camp to use as a base and from there to be able to make the distribution to other camps. Fan Fan and I looked at each other with disbelieve and I said

– Here you have you answer.

And I thought, this confirms my belief.

A few hours later, once I arrived at the camp in the airport, I got a call that was telling me that the Red Cross had provided to the camp, canvas for 5000 people.

I new from that moment the time to go back had come.

PS: We want to come back to Haiti with more help. We want to offer our help to some dangerous areas with very difficult access for big organisations. We keep counting on your collaboration. None of this would have been possible without every bit of your help.

Thank you and always thank you.