Downtown

Posted Feb 08, 2010 by 16 Comments

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…

War Zone

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.

The presidential palace in ruins. Once a symbol of freedom and independence in Haiti. Now completely destroyed.

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.

American troops waiting to guard food distribution.

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.

Total Destruction

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.

One of countless buildings destroyed in the earthquake.

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.

Not Deserted

Port-au-Prince is still absolutely full of people.

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.

Vanishing Dignity

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.

A tent city has sprung up in Port-au-Prince's central park.

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.”

Overload

Many Haitians are still living among the rubble, trying to move on.

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.

With little dignity left, the Haitian people need us to remember...

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.

Never Forget

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.

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Next Steps
    • 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.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Barry is the founder and Executive 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.

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Comments

  1. Cassie Anderson said... 

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    February 8th, 2010 at 10:59 am  

    Thank you Barry for keeping it fresh in my mind

  2. Dave Rod said... 

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    February 8th, 2010 at 11:03 am  

    I’ve now talked with 3 folks who have returned from serving in Haiti, post earthquake. They range from speechless to overwhelmed to extremely wrecked. This article along with the others helps me understand why. And they help me “walk” the streets of PauP with you. I grieve still. And I ask…now what…for me…from me?

  3. eness said... 

    Reply

    February 8th, 2010 at 11:13 am  

    WND is helping to keep Haiti in my heart and on my mind – thank you, Barry. And I am still searching, asking God what I am to do?

  4. Amy Sorrells said... 

    Reply

    February 8th, 2010 at 1:02 pm  

    What your Dad & Eness said. WND is helping. Your words and photos are weaving teflon stitches of truth into the fabric of our hearts. Thank you . . .

  5. Jo Nading said... 

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    February 8th, 2010 at 1:26 pm  

    Ditto. I could not imagine you NOT being emotional, Barry. God is moving in your heart…you are feeling the compassion that God feels…and I am so grateful for your willingness to share. Thank you to WND and NVM. Help us be brave while asking “what next” for each of us.

  6. Dana said... 

    Reply

    February 8th, 2010 at 2:28 pm  

    Barry . . .wow, I am just blown away by the saddness and despair that comes across from what you are experiencing in Haiti and yet, I can also feel the hope you have for the people of Haiti. Hope that the world will continue to respond, hope that God, our great loving, God will be revealed to the world through how His people are responding to this crisis. Keep doing what you are doing Barry, and bring the stories home to us. Help us respond to the needs of those everywhere who are suffering. Help us seek justice for those that are marginalized whether in our own backyard or 1000 of miles away.

  7. Nick Kirongo said... 

    Reply

    February 9th, 2010 at 1:00 am  

    I couldnt get a better first hand account as you have just gave, its sad that the people of Haiti have to go through this but all things work for good for all who believe in the Lord, its my prayer that the Haitians will come out of this stronger. Thanks Barry

  8. Rick Radcliff said... 

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    February 9th, 2010 at 12:36 pm  

    Barry, I spoke personally to 2 of NVM board members (Jay and Aaron) and they tell me work is being done right now to get Widley to the states for surgery on his legs. That’s a huge praise. I don’t know that Widley knows this yet, by the way. One of the medical team members is a surgeon here in Indy promising to do the services for free. As you know he’s needed this long before the earthquake and God is bringing new hopes and new joys to people there.

  9. Rob Yonan said... 

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    February 9th, 2010 at 9:23 pm  

    It boggles my mind to think that there are almost 3 million people destitute with no end in site. I just can’t wrap my mind around how it feels to sleep on the ground, under a tarp, for a month.
    What does one churches long term commitment to one location look like? What about one person? One small group? One neighborhood?

  10. Janet Hedges said... 

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    February 10th, 2010 at 10:59 pm  

    Was a pleasure to work with you Barry. Will pray for your safety. Your words here ring so true to me. I too recall a man and several children showering naked under an open spigot on a busy street corner. The need for cleen water was greater than the need for privacy. Thousands living under tarps without sanitation. Yet, God has used this horrific circumstance to bring the world attention to bear on a place that needed it so much even before the quake. We must all work at shining a light on this spot in the world for a long time.

  11. Jackie Brumley said... 

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    February 10th, 2010 at 11:10 pm  

    I’ve been home now for 4 days and still sit here in numbness. How do you begin to explain? I’ve tried to remember what you told us to do on the tap-tap that afternoon. Stay strong. Stay safe.

  12. Cort Thompson said... 

    Reply

    February 17th, 2010 at 12:23 am  

    Barry
    god Bless You! I met you @ Pastor Pierre’s – I was there with His Healing Hands from Central California. Thank you for your diligence, and honest representation of the situation there in Haiti. My heart aches for the people. I will be back – I can’t not go back.

  13. Kristen said... 

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    February 9th, 2011 at 4:56 pm  

    It’s crazy to think it’s been a year since that happened. Over a year, actually. I can’t wait to visit there later this summer and experience Haiti and all of it’s struggles and successes. Barry, thank you for sharing!

  14. Breanna Sipple said... 

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    February 10th, 2011 at 9:42 am  

    I’ve seen a video of Haiti about a month after the earthquake, but your writing brings to life the smells, sounds, and close-up scene of what it was like to truly walk through that city. When I began to read about how the people began to prepare to live a long time in the park in their makeshift dwellings, I imagined if that happened to me. If I had lost everything, anywhere I could have gone was destroyed, and help to get what I need might take a very long time… I think I would do the same thing, and I can only imagine the hopelessness many must have felt. I was really touched to read you were weeping and felt God’s heart for the people of Haiti and what they are going through. Right now, I don’t know what I will do in response, but I just looked up Nehemiah Vision Ministries and saw some ways to be able to help their ministry. Your article makes me want to look up what’s going on specifically RIGHT NOW in Haiti, I’m sure the needs are still there, even a year after you went.

  15. Jim.M said... 

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    February 13th, 2011 at 3:48 pm  

    Hard to believe a year has passed since this was posted. The struggle continues, prayers for NVM, and all who serve in Haiti.

  16. Mike Otis said... 

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    April 5th, 2011 at 10:41 pm  

    Barry, your words here are some of what i have been feeling since returning from Haiti saturday night. I have traveled around the world much, mostly to very needy places, but for some reason this one has me a bit shaken. Keep up the open and vulnerable words.

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