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What if there are zombies under there? [Oct. 17th, 2010|06:01 pm]

I didn't expect Haiti to have changed much in three months. I think that would have been naive at best. I was surprised at how little had changed in three months though. The incoming customs barn, which was half-built when I first arrived in March, is complete now, with baggage carousels so narrow that all the bags fall off, fans that aren't turned on despite the crowds and swelter, little rooms for customs to search people and their luggage. But those changes are, at best, superficial. I didn't get searched, or even spoken to by customs or immigration. My passport and entry card were silently stamped and I lugged my huge duffel out of the building, into the face of dozens of porters clamoring to take my bag or find me a cab or whatever to earn a few bucks. Fortunately, I knew the drill, and looked for the porter with a sign with my name, then waited for the guys who were sharing my shuttle with me to get through the circus.

Port au Prince didn't seem to have changed even slightly. It's still a whirl of bright, colorful truck canopies and graffiti, covered in mud and rust and smog. The first time I made the trip, in March, I suspected that we would drive the whole 25 miles to Leogane through windy, hilly, congested, unpaved surface roads through crowded neighborhoods of half-collapsed, two-story buildings. But no, after a tour of downtown, including the ruined national cathedral and presidential palace, we reached the national road. When I left Haiti in July, the large, central dome of the palace had been demo'd and cleared by heavy equipment. No visible progress had been made on it when I returned two weeks ago on October 3rd. Half-collapsed buildings in Port au Prince are still there, and people just walk or drive motorcycles around them. I had heard that no one wants to take on the job of clearing rubble in the capital because it's a logistical nightmare. This had given me a moment's pause, because it was exactly what I was going to do in Leogane, where I spent four months earlier this year. All Hands Volunteers, which is the new name of Hands On Disaster Response, asked me to return as a project coordinator in charge of heavy equipment.

Leogane doesn't seem to have changed much, either. There are still collapsed houses, still uncleared. It looks like all the IDP camps that were here when I left are still here, occupying the soccer field, public parks, and central square. There is still no water system. De-energized power lines are still drooping and sometimes falling over. There are a couple changes. One street, where Rue La Liberte turns into Pere L'Eveneau, has been paved with sand and paving stones. All Hands has cleared about fifty-five more houses since I left, and built three or four more schools. The field hospital on the grounds of the nursing school next door to our base closed, and its inventory moved to the large, permanent Hospital Saint Croix downtown. Nothing radical.

I do have an ambition for radical change. I would like to hire a bunch of heavy equipment and dump trucks to demo and clear all of central Leogane. No, there would be no salvageable rebar or cinder blocks or, in many cases, foundation slabs. In nearly every case, those are not reusable anyhow. The rebar is rusty and fatigued. The cinder blocks are chipped and crumbling. The foundations are cracked and uneven. The land is good though, and could have shelters or new houses built on it. Yeah, believe me, I am acutely aware of the difficulties I face. Getting the budget for equipment rental is probably the easiest part. Keeping a fleet of heavy equipment working efficiently takes pretty extensive planning. Two big, experienced NGOs, CHF and Samaritan's Purse, had equipment fleets in the Leogane area and had a hard time keeping them productive. I don't have the experience of multi-million dollar NGOs, but I did spend months assessing, planning, and scheduling rubble and Bobcat jobs in Leogane, so my unlikely ambition isn't hopeless.

I leave this entry with the anecdote of the week. All Hands has been working with the Mayor's office in Leogane and has a pretty good relationship with city officials. The new Chef du Personel asked Kim, the tall, serious volunteer who's been working with them, if we would “rubble” the city's cemetery before the Day of the Dead on November 1st. She said we could look at it and asked me to assess it with her, a translator, and the Chef du Personel. The graveyard was a terrible mess. At a glance, half of it is overgrown with creeping vines. Pushing up through the growth are tombs, some like little, pastel tile and concrete houses, some like something decorative you'd see in a garden, some just long concrete boxes. All that I could see were damaged. Some collapsed entirely, some cracked off their foundations like a truck had hit them. The Chef said they estimated 180 damaged tombs for us to demo and rubble, which, for the reduced volunteer population, we have here, would be impossible. It would take us as long as two months, with no other rubble work happening in that time.

At least as importantly, we felt we needed permission from every family to work on their tomb. The Chef insisted that the city administers the cemetery and we didn't need each family's permission, but can you imagine if even one family objected? Jasmine, one of our volunteers who is Haitian-American, later really emphasized this, saying that tombs are a multi-generational representation of a family history. A bunch of blancs marching in and sledgehammering on a tomb without permission would be worse than working on a house without permission. It would wreck our standing in the community and just be wrong altogether.

As we walked around the cemetery, though, past the cash-for-work crew that was clearing foliage near the entrance, it got a bit weird. I realized that these were really tombs. I looked in one cracked slab and realized it covered a six foot hole. A little farther in were two caskets, one in a damaged tomb and one just on the ground. Open. With a skeleton in a rotted suit.

“What are you going to do with those?” asked Kim.

Smiling, the Chef and his aide? Friend? Toadie? insisted it wasn't a problem. We, as in All Hands Volunteers, could just burn them.

“Burn the bodies?” we asked, aghast.

“No, burn the caskets. Put the bodies in a big hole.”

“You mean a mass grave?” What's worse than aghast? We were that.

“Well, yes, a big hole.” Did I mention that, in various parts of the conversation, he implied that our relationship with the mayor's office would be jeopardized if we didn't agree to the job?

“We need to talk this over with our boss.”

The talk with our boss, Stef, went quickly: “Stef, there's no way we can do this project.”

Ultimately, the Chef du Personel was a pushy, but he's just trying to get whatever he can out of whoever he can. That's the way business is done in Haiti, and to an extend anywhere. It would be a great political boost for the mayor to get the cemetery cleared by Day of the Dead, and a nice bonus to get us to do it for free, so why shouldn't he try? It was a good welcome back to the country though.