I spent last week in Haiti covering the growing cholera outbreak for NEWSWEEK It was my first trip to the country, and on the night-time drive to my hotel in Port-au-Prince—a walled compound of NGOs and journalists—I saw a large fire in the middle of the road. My driver casually steered around it, while talking on his cell phone, as if he sees that every night. I found out soon enough he actually does. As he drove on toward our destination, my senses were flooded by the dizzying swirl of Tap-Tap buses and thousands of motor scooters that defy all rules of logic and physics.
The next day, I stepped out of the U.S. Embassy compound after an interview and there was a deceased woman lying by the side of the road. Witnesses said a U.N. truck had run her over, but U.N. officers on the scene wouldn’t talk to us. In fact, they made us leave, and covered the body with a tarp when we walked up. Only her up-turned hand was left exposed. I was taking in the scene, feeling sad and sweating in the brutal mid-day heat, when a young boy walked down the sidewalk on my side of the street. He was eating a candy bar, and he glanced over at her and then turned his gaze forward again, never breaking stride. His facial expression didn’t even change. He just kept on walking and took another bite of candy. It was my first exposure to what I had been told was the defining characteristic of Haitians: That they are some of the most resilient people on the planet. They have to be. Earthquakes? Cholera? Hurricanes? What’s one more dead woman on the road after a kid has seen all that?
After we left the embassy, we made our way to the Cité Soleil dump, on the edge of the poorest slum in the poorest city in the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Our photographer, Antonio Bolfo, wanted to take some photos of the people who lived there, so I went along. (Note to budding journalism students: never let the photographer decide where you’re going on assignment.)
The dump was massive, and all along the dusty road were angry-looking men lounging outside makeshift metal houses. One of them screamed at us, and I was really glad I didn’t understand Creole because I don’t think I want to know what he said. In addition to the stench from the garbage piled to the horizon, there were herds of huge pigs, and fires, and smoking mattresses. Writers overuse words like “apocalyptic,” but trust me when I tell you it was apocalyptic. We drove in as far as we could, and then stopped so Bolfo could get out to take photos. I decided I would not get out of the car. This was because I was scared to death.
Bolfo hatched a plan that if they threatened us, we would say we were there to tell their story to the world—which had the added benefit of being true—and that if they killed us, that would make it more difficult for us to do that. But staying in the car was scarier than getting out, because soon we were surrounded. Just in time, our driver and translator, Johnson Elioner, did something crazy. He said hello to them. He smiled. A lot of them smiled back. He told them I wanted to ask them some questions about their lives, and they were interested. I got my courage up, and climbed up the massive pile of garbage. Johnson translated the Creole into English and back again. Jean Antoine, a young man holding a large plastic trash can, told us he had been working for 12 straight hours. He pulled out two scraps of metal he’d found, and proudly showed them to us. A woman napped on a rolled-up piece of carpet nearby as we spoke.
After an hour or more of interviews standing in muddy garbage, my fear slowly dissolved into sympathy and admiration. Here were people who lived amidst and atop trash heaps, but most were gracious and kind to a nosy American journalist who walked into their de facto home. This bit of good feeling lasted about a minute, however, because when I looked back down garbage mountain toward our car, I noticed the lights had been on the whole time we were there. It was starting to get dark, and now the old SUV—about 100 yards away—was surrounded by people leaning against it and peering in the windows. I decided that it might be a good time to leave. When we walked up to the car, Elioner spoke to the crowd for a moment in Creole, and the seas parted. “What did you say?” I asked. “I’ll tell you in a minute,” he said.
The dump dwellers stood in a group, and I asked more questions. It turns out they had a compelling story to tell. Many of them had metal and wooden homes on the landfill that they had built by hand, and they said they were plowed under just last week. Joissant Livette, 52, said he had a pig farm here for three years, and he swept his arm from left to right to show me where it was, with tears in his eyes. Another young man said, “I have to send my kids to school, and they plowed under our home.” A woman sitting on the garbage breastfed a baby, her bare feet dangling. These squatters said they were being forced to move into a smaller and smaller collection of homes on the dump, and they’d been told those would be torn down as well. When asked where they would live then, one man cried out: “On the street! On the street!” pointing toward the city. (I later spoke to the company that manages the dump, and it denied this razing had happened.)
After asking my final questions, it was time to head to the relative safety of downtown Port-au-Prince. As we turned to go back inside the SUV, Elioner pulled me aside and said I would have to “give them something” before we could leave, but “don’t get in until the car starts.” It was then I knew what he had said to make the men stand down.
If you’ve ever watched a bad horror movie, you know what occurred next. He turned the ignition key and nothing happened. It didn’t make a sound. He did it again. Again. Again, and again. Five times in all. I know because I counted, and on the fifth try it turned over. I hopped in the back, and dug through my bag for something to give them. I only had a little bit of food, but I handed some beef jerky out the window while I looked for more. There was much unhappy murmuring in Creole, and Elioner leaned over the back seat and whispered frantically, “money ... money ... money.” (Yes, you can whisper frantically.) He told the crowd I would hand it to only one man, and about a dozen people stepped toward us in unison, ignoring his direction. It was like a nightmare game of Simon Says. Finally I found a handful of five-dollar bills in a money belt, and handed them out the window. One man took them, and then the scene dissolved into a melee of yelling and grabbing, and we drove off down the road, where we picked up Bolfo and made a quick exit.
The week ended with me waiting out Hurricane Tomas safely in my hotel in Port-au-Prince. I thought about those people I’d met at the dump; the rural families I interviewed with cholera in Artibonite Department; and the children I saw when I went out with Red Cross Health Delegate Meg DiCarlo and her team as they visited the Sitron camp in Port-au-Prince. The temporary town of roughly 1,750 people sits just behind the luxurious Karibe Hotel—and the Red Cross was there to give its residents storm updates and information on how to prevent cholera. Sitron was at particular risk because it’s on the side of a ravine. As the health promoters moved from shelter to shelter, the wind and rain whipped a yellow hurricane-warning flag atop a pole. Red Cross Program Manager Julien DeBrosse described the mood: “The people are scared. They’re scared of cholera and now the cyclone.”
When I got back to my hotel that night, I sat on the edge of my bed and cried. As the rain poured down outside my window, I pondered the fate of the kids I saw playing happily in the dirt at the Sitron camp, and I wondered if they would be safe that night. I said my version of a prayer, and tried to get some sleep.
In the end, Tomas skirted the island, and though there were fatalities and thousands displaced, it looked like Haiti had finally caught a break. But that joy was short-lived. This week we learned that cholera had made its way to Port-au-Prince and the slums of Cité Soleil, where I had interviewed the people living at the dump. The water that Tomas dumped over Haiti could help spread the disease still more.
As I read that news in my Washington office, I thought back to when we’d made our exit from the landfill. As we bounced along under the darkening sky that night, my adrenaline was pumping, and I heard music coming from the underbrush along the dusty dump road. When I looked to my left, there was a small, open-air cinderblock church, filled with men and women praying and singing hymns. A string of lights hung down from the ceiling, and the peaceful scene calmed my racing heart. Now those same people are in the new cholera hot zone, and they have yet another reason to bend their knees and pray.