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The other day, I had the chance to spend several hours walking the streets downtown with my interpreter, Jean. Jean was also a victim of the quake. He is currently living in a tent outside of his unstable home. But despite his loss, he was gracious enough to be my guide.
Now, I’ve seen photos on the news. I’ve watched videos of the devastation. But it wasn’t until I visited Port-au-Prince in person that I truly understood the scope of the Haitian earthquake…
To get there, we hired a motorbike taxi. Essentially, we paid a guy on a motorcycle to drive the two of us into the city. We had no helmets, and we came absurdly close to Mack trucks as we weaved in and out of traffic. But I wasn’t concerned about my safety. I was too busy taking in the unbelievable sights and sounds.
As we drove past the U.S. Embassy and the Port-au-Prince airport, it looked like a war zone. UN Armored Personnel Carriers rumbled down the streets, Humvees full of American troops whizzed by and countless helicopters criss-crossed overhead. Every now and then, a giant military cargo plane would roar into the sky from the airport’s single runway.
At strategic checkpoints around the city, soldiers from the American 82nd Airborne division stood guard in full tropical camo with automatic rifles slung over their shoulders.
As we continued further into the city, I began to see the tent villages.
At first, they were nestled into small open places between buildings… a few people trying to live close to their old homes. But once we reached downtown, the tent communities took up every single public place available. Parks, yards, sometimes even streets.
Port-au-Prince has quite literally become a giant refugee camp. And as we pulled up to our destination, I could immediately see why.
Words cannot describe just how totally the city has been destroyed. If buildings are not complete heaps of rubble, they are leaning dangerously to one side. If they aren’t leaning, they have massive cracks in their walls. If they don’t have cracks, their roofs have collapsed. I could go on and on.
Walking down a single street, I saw crushed automobiles, downed power lines, shattered windows, and rubble swept into the road. Every time we turned a corner, the scenes of destruction continued.
Even now, the smell of rotting bodies drifts out of some of the wreckage.
As we walked past building after building, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was in some post-apocalyptic world. Everything was destroyed.
In an attempt to show respect to the victims of the quake, I took only a few pictures while we were there. But even if I could show you thousands of images, I wouldn’t be able to convey the totality of it all.
I knew I was going to see devastation, but I was totally surprised by one thing. Before heading down there, I had imagined Port-au-Prince to be a ghost town. I pictured empty, deserted streets and an eerie quiet among the broken buildings.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Port-au-Prince is teeming with people. Everywhere I looked I saw vendors trying to sell things on the sidewalk, women doing laundry, pedestrians crossing the street and tap-taps (Haiti’s public transportation) driving every which way.
The real difference between the city now and before the quake is not the number of people. It is the fact that those people are now living on the streets.
The main public park downtown is becoming a crowded slum. People have already added wooden or corrugated metal walls and roofs to their temporary dwellings. They are preparing to live there for a long time.
Port-au-Prince had roughly 3 million inhabitants before the quake. 200,000 died, which means that 2.8 million people still live in the city. Except that now, they have no homes.
One of the most heart-wrenching things I observed as we walked around downtown was the absolute loss of dignity to which so many people had succumbed.
On one busy street-corner, I saw a sight that will remain with me for a very long time. A young mother, wearing nothing but a skirt, was bathing with her two naked children in an old, broken fountain. There, passing just feet in front of them, were pedestrians, cars, street vendors…
Her dignity was gone.
As we walked through the streets, many people called out to me begging for food. But these weren’t typical homeless people. These were decently dressed men and women who used to have jobs. People who used to have homes. People who now must scrape by just to get a meal.
Most people here speak no English, but there is one phrase that many of them have learned since the earthquake…
“I am hungry.”
After several hours of walking around and sitting in utter disbelief, Jean and I returned to Pastor Pierre’s house. That night, I went up on the roof to reflect on all I had seen. I turned on some music and let the images from the day wash over me.
I’ve seen a lot of poverty, so I didn’t expect to get very emotional. But as I thought through the absolute hopelessness facing so many of the Haitian people, something in my heart absolutely shattered.
Within minutes I was weeping. Giant sobs shook me as I thought of people dead under the rubble, children without parents, families searching for food… Haitians who once had so little now have nothing.
After a few minutes, my sobbing subsided and was replaced by a quiet introspection.
As I thought about how I need to respond, I realized one significant thing. I cannot forget this. I must not. The Haitian people will be recovering from this earthquake for decades.
As I head back home and sleep again in my comfortable bed, Jean will still be sleeping in a tent. That woman will still be bathing on the street corner. Bodies will still be found under the rubble.
Even if I move on, Haiti will still be here.
My time on the roof led me to one simple conclusion. I must not let this become just a memory. I must reserve a section of my heart for the nation and people of Haiti. The Haitian earthquake must become a part of my low grade fever of sadness.
Because only if this becomes woven into the fabric of my life will I be able to make a difference here. I must become an advocate for this nation, even when the memories of this trip begin to fade.
If I do, then as the rebuilding of this nation continues, I will be able to share in the joys of a God who loves to restore. When hope and life spring up among the wreckage, I will be able to participate in the celebration.
God will not forget the people of Haiti… and neither will I.
- How are you attempting to keep Haiti in your heart and mind? Leave a comment below to explain...
- Continue to pray for the nation and people of Haiti. Pray that this crisis will remain in the public consciousness of Americans, even after it has disappeared from the news.
About the Author: Barry is the founder and director of World Next Door. A storyteller, traveller and giant nerd, he lives to compel suburban Americans to get engaged with social justice and find their place in God's kingdom revolution. His ultimate dream is to adopt a pet monkey named Kevin.