The unshakable truth in Haiti

April 23, 2010

Jesse Hagopian, a teacher in Seattle and contributor, was in Haiti with his wife, who works on HIV education in the country, and one-year-old son when the earthquake hit. They spent the spent the next week trying to help with makeshift rescue and relief efforts.

Three months later, he looks at how the forces of poverty and genocide shaped not only his own personal background, but the lives of millions of Haitians who suffered through the quake.

SINCE MY family and I survived the te tromble--Creole for the 7.0 earthquake that devastated Haiti--I have returned home with unshakable thoughts of life and death.

Only two days before the quake, my son Miles and I had accompanied my wife, Sarah--who works as an HIV educator for health care workers--to Haiti. When the Enriquillo faultline shifted at 4:53 p.m. on January 12, 2010, our bed was sent across the hotel room, the other side of the building collapsed, and, as we would soon find out, Haiti was devastated.

We had one Emergency Medical Technician (EMT) at our hotel, and when the word got out that there was a trained medical professional, people began flocking to what became a makeshift medical clinic for hundreds of badly injured Haitians. The EMT quickly deputized my wife and I as orderlies in his driveway "emergency room," and without any prior medical training, we assisted in whatever way we could--ripping sheets to use as bandages, setting splints, tying tourniquets.

It was during the second day after the quake that I witnessed, for the first time, someone die. This beautiful boy was about 8 years old, and I remember he was wearing a bright yellow shirt with a graphic of the sun rising over mountains. His father had worked all night, a translator relayed to us, digging him out of the concrete debris that had been their home. His son's screams, which had served to guide rescuers to his location, had turned to irregular intervals of low moans by the time he reached us.

The makeshift "emergency room" in the driveway of the hotel where Jesse Hagopian and his family were staying in Port-au-Prince
The makeshift "emergency room" in the driveway of the hotel where Jesse Hagopian and his family were staying in Port-au-Prince

The boy was laid out on a cream-colored polyester blanket with part of his brain exposed where a brick had crushed his skull. His father knelt at his side blowing frantically into his mouth. The father was not administering CPR--I doubt he had any training for it. Rather, it was a devoted attempt to animate his son's listless body with his own life force. Yet even as we began dressing his abrasions, the boy took his final breath.

The father, with a look of anguish that made me avert my eyes, quickly fled the area to grieve in seclusion, and the child's motionless body lay on the blanket for some time before anyone could bring themselves to remove him.

I have since learned that some 270,000 other Haitians were also crushed to death by falling cement walls and ceilings--which were themselves a product of the crushing poverty in Haiti that leaves people with the barest of building materials.

WHILE THIS is the first time I have personally witnessed death, it is not the first time I have reflected on how mass death has played a role in shaping who I am. My family story--on both sides--is one of survival from some of history's most merciless chapters.

My mother's side of the family, on her father's side, came from Armenia. Her grandfather, Ardash Hagopian, was already out of the country in 1915 when Turkey commenced its killing of 1.5 million Armenians. However, my great-grandfather's first wife and kids were in Armenia at the time and did not survive what Armenians call "The Great Calamity"--a genocide widely recognized by scholars and nations alike, with the notable exceptions of the Turkish and U.S. governments.

My father is African American, and we trace our roots back to slaves on plantations in New Orleans, La., and Natchez, Miss. My ancestors, then, at some unrecorded point in history, survived the middle passage between Africa and America--a journey that inflicted the deaths of millions Africans.

The natural disaster I lived though in Haiti was, of course, different than these willful acts of mass extermination my ancestors endured so many years ago. The wreckage we saw was not the result of mortar shells. The hundreds of thousands who perished were not beaten to death, thrown overboard, marched to their death, or rounded up for the firing squad.

And yet, I cannot help but appreciate the analogy between the slaughter that my forebears survived and the bloodshed of the Haitian people.

On the third day after the earthquake, we drove around central Port-au-Prince and soon realized that the Haitian people had been abandoned to catastrophe. The first thing we noticed was that everyone had their shirt pulled over their nose or was wearing a facemask to shield themselves from the stench of rotting bodies. Some who had managed to find the dead body of a relative ran through the streets with wooden coffins.

As I took in the sight of Haitians scrambling over toppled buildings--desperately trying to uncover loved ones with only their bare hands--I soon realized there were likely tens of thousands of living people still trapped in the wreckage.

In all of our hours of driving that day we didn't see a single uniformed official--U.S., UN or otherwise--digging anyone out of the rubble or providing water for people on the verge of fatal dehydration. Of the many disturbing images that continue to invade my thoughts about that day, perhaps most distressing was the legion of armed UN troops who were guarding their collapsed headquarters, rather than attending to the relief effort.

The only help we saw from any government came in the form of cadaver removal, as bulldozers scooped scores of decaying bodies and hoisted them into the back of Mack trucks. It is hard to bring myself to estimate how many could have been saved if those who were marooned under slabs of fractured concrete, yet still alive, had received water on that critical third day after the quake.

We have heard multiple excuses for why the UN and the U.S., a mere 90 minutes away by plane, could not get the aid to the Haitian people in a timely manner. We were told the collapse of UN headquarters and the death of the top two officials made it difficult to launch an immediate relief effort.

While there can be no doubt that the UN personnel were dealing with losses of their own, this alone cannot explain the failure to act quickly to save Haitian lives. After all, the UN mission (dubbed MINUSTAH) had built up infrastructure since its occupation began in 2004 that included up to 6,700 military personnel, 622 police, 548 international civilian personnel, 154 United Nations volunteers and 995 local civilian staff.

Think about it from my perspective: When the quake hit, instead of shutting ourselves behind the hotel gate, we began that very evening helping in any way we could. Could not the UN, supplied with more than just bed sheets, have done this, too?

The media reported the U.S. government could not help any faster than it did because the Haitian airport was damaged, slowing the arrival of goods. Granted, but this does not account for why aid could not immediately be flown to the other two airports on the island, located in the Dominican Republic.

Some accounts said impassable roads prevented aid dispersal in a timely manner. But we drove around the neighborhoods near the epicenter and found the roads surprisingly passable.

REGRETTABLY, THE most prevalent explanation in the media for the sluggish delivery of aid was that authorities anticipated rioting by the violence-prone Haitian people. This well-worn racist narrative attempted to transform Haitians from victims of an earthquake into perpetrators of a security threat.

However, my wife and I didn't see a single instance of rioting or violence in the week we were there. As Latin American commentator Nelson Valdes reported, "The United Nations and the U.S. authorities on the ground are telling those who directly want to deliver help not to do so because they might be attacked by 'hungry mobs.'"

When asked why the U.S. had not used its C-130 transport planes to drop supplies in Port-au-Prince, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said, "An air drops will simply lead to riots."

With the ready-made talking point of the necessity to maintain order, the U.S. government failed to rush aid to the neediest and proceeded to flood the country with troops--totaling some 20,000 at the peak--working to secure strategic sites.

Alain Joyandet, the French minister responsible for humanitarian relief in Haiti, charged the U.S. with treating this as a military operation rather than an aid mission. Joyandet told the Daily Telegraph that he had been involved in an argument with a U.S. commander in the airport's control tower over the flight plan for a French evacuation flight, saying, "This is about helping Haiti, not about occupying Haiti."

Guido Bertolaso, head of Italy's civil protection department, said that the U.S.-led efforts were a "pathetic" failure--which comes as no surprise to people aware that President Obama named George W. Bush, who left countless Black people on rooftops in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as one of the overseers for the U.S. aid mission.

I should disclose that I am not a scholar of genocide studies, I do not hold an international law degree, and I do not have the qualifications to make a precise determination whether the mass death in Haiti qualifies under the technical definition of genocide.

My speculation on the topic is informed only by my eyewitness of neglect, my understanding of my ancestors' history, and my reading of the UN's definition ratified at the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. The genocide convention document reads in part:

Article II: In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

To my untrained eye, what I saw in the streets of Port-au-Prince--prioritization of nonexistent security considerations resulting in the deliberate withholding of life-saving water and food--seems to qualify under Article II, Section C.

This was punctuated upon my evacuation from Haiti on Sunday, January 17, when I saw a virtual cornucopia of food, water and medical equipment piled up on the tarmac and not being transported out of the airport to the people in need. More than two months after the quake, Canada Haiti Action Network coordinator, Roger Annis reports that the anemic relief effort continues:

The Partners In Health agency estimates some 1.3 million people were left without shelter by the earthquake. The majority of those people still do not have adequate emergency shelter nor access to potable water, food and medical attention...

Two leading directors of Doctors Without Borders have called the relief effort to date "broadly insufficient." In a March 5 interview, they say that, "The lack of shelter and the hygiene conditions represent a danger not only in terms of public health, but they are also an intolerable breach of the human dignity of all these people." They call conditions in the makeshift refugee camps where many survivors still struggle to survive "shocking" and "shameful."

Yet despite the colossal failure to help the Haitian people in their greatest hour of need, U.S. Ambassador to Haiti Ken Merten boasted, "In terms of humanitarian aid delivery...frankly, it's working really well, and I believe that this will be something that people will be able to look back on in the future as a model for how we've been able to sort ourselves out as donors on the ground and responding to an earthquake."

ARUNDHATI ROY delivered a speech on genocide, in Istanbul, Turkey, on January 18, 2008--commemorating the first anniversary of the assassination of Hrant Dink, editor of the Turkish-Armenian paper--that foretold Ambassador Marten's deceitful words. She said:

[G]enocides are often denied for the same set of reasons genocides are prosecuted. Economic determinism marinated in racial/ethnic/religious/national discrimination. Crudely, the lowering or raising of the price of a barrel of oil (or a ton of uranium), permission granted for a military base, or the opening up of a country's economy could be the decisive factor when governments adjudicate on whether a genocide did or did not occur...

Since the United States is the richest and most powerful country in the world, it has assumed the privilege of being the World's Number One Genocide Denier. It continues to celebrate Columbus Day, the day Christopher Columbus arrived in the Americas, which marks the beginning of a holocaust that wiped out millions of Native Indians.

In fact, Columbus Day, a federal holiday, commemorates the man who perpetrated genocide against the original inhabitants of Haiti. As Randall Robinson recounts:

Within 50 years of Columbus's arrival, the Tainos and their ancient egalitarian culture had all but disappeared. Most died of diseases brought to the Americas from Europe by Columbus and his crewmen. The rest were slaughtered by the Great Discoverer, his brothers, Diego and Bartolome, Spanish colonists and soldiers armed with crossbows, pikes, lances, arguebuses and killer dogs.

Columbus' slaughtering of the Tainos people is an early genocide the U.S. denies, but it certainly is not the last. His Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding, President Obama is lobbying Congress against allowing a vote to come to the floor to recognize the Armenian Genocide for fear of alienating Turkish allies that play a critical role in the U.S.'s strategy for controlling the Middle East.

The CEOs of five major American aerospace and defense companies--Lockheed Martin Corp., Boeing Co., Raytheon Co., United Technologies Corp., and Northrop Grumman Corp--sent a joint letter to the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee urging Obama to reject an Armenian Genocide resolution, in order not to jeopardize their sales to Turkey.

Given this well-coordinated campaign to conceal Turkey's genocide of the Armenian people 95 years ago this month, I suppose I should not be surprised at the U.S.'s capacity to cover up its own recent role in the willful neglect of Haitians.

The earthquake in Haiti is regarded as the worst natural disaster in modern history and in one sense it is: nearly 24,000 people per million of Haiti's population died with the closest comparable earthquake taking 4,000 per million in the 1972 earthquake that struck Nicaragua.

Yet I wonder how my grandfather Ardash would judge this profound loss of life? Having lost his own family to genocide, I wonder what Ardash might he have said to the father of the boy who I was trying to save? I wonder if my West African grandmother, having survived the Middle Passage, would have viewed the deaths of so many West African descendents as "natural" if she had been by my side to see the streets lined with bodies in Port-au-Prince?

While the U.S. attempts to throw the hundreds of thousands dead Haitians down the memory hole it is worth considering an old Haitian proverb: Bay kou bliye, pote mak sonje: "Those who give the blows forget; those who bear the scars remember."

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