The Common Good

Haiti: Hell and Hope

Smoke and flames rose from the sidewalk. A white man took pictures. Slowing down, my breath left me. The fire was a corpse. Leg bones sticking out of the flames.

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Port-au-Prince police headquarters is gone, already bulldozed. A nearby college is pancaked. Government buildings are destroyed. Stores fallen down. Tens of thousands of buildings destroyed. Hundreds of thousands homeless.

Giant piles of concrete, rebar, metal pipes, plastic pipes, doors, and wires.

Corpses are still inside many of the mountains of rubble. No estimates of how many thousands of people are dead inside.

Electrical poles bend over streets, held up by braids of thick black wires. On some side streets the wires are still down in the street.

Buildings take unimaginable shapes. Some are half up while the other side slopes to the ground. Some like collapsed cakes. Others smashed like children's toys.

Everywhere are sheet shelters. In parks, soccer fields, in the parking lot of the TV station, tens of thousands literally in the streets and on sidewalks.

Thousands of people standing in the hot sun waiting their turn. Outside the hospital, clinics, money transfer companies, immigration offices, and the very few places offering water or food.

Troops and heavy machinery are only seen in the center of the city.

After days in Port-au-Prince I have seen only one fight -- two teens fighting on a street corner over a young woman. No riots. No machetes.

Hope is found in the people of Haiti. Despite no electricity, little shelter, minimal food, and no real government or order, people are helping one another survive.

Men and boys are scavenging useful items from the mounds of fallen buildings. Women are selling mangoes and nuts on the street. Teens are playing with babies.

Beautiful hymns are lifted as choirs calling to god in every sheet camp every evening. People pray constantly. The strikingly beautiful tap-tap cabs trumpet "In God we trust" or "merci Jesus" in bright colors.

Everyone needs tents and food and medical care and water. But when you talk to them, most will lead you to the ailing great grandma or the malnourished child.

What should outsiders do, I asked Lavarice Gaudin Lavarice, who helps the St. Clare's community feed thousands each day through their What If? Foundation. She said, "help the most poor first. Some who labored their whole lives to make a one bedroom home will likely never have a home again. Haiti needs everything. But we need it with a plan. Pressure the Haitian government, pressure USAID to help the poorest."

International volunteers who work hand in hand with Haitians are welcomed. Others not so much. Lavarice saw the Associated Press story that reported only one penny of every U.S. aid dollar will go directly in cash to needy Haitians. "I can understand that they distrust the government but why not distribute aid through the churches and good community organizations?"

"We hope this will help us develop strong leadership that listens and responds to the people. No matter what, we will never give up. Haitians are strong, hopeful people. We will rebuild."

Bill Quigley is a veteran civil and human rights lawyer and the legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights. He recently traveled to Port-au-Prince with money and supplies from the What If? Foundation, which has been running a meal program for children there for the past decade.

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