A report from Paul Jeffries about Haiti

Dear friends in my supporting churches:

After being buried for a week in the rubble of Haiti’s January 12 earthquake, Ena Zizi was rescued by the Gophers. I was fortunate to be present as she was pulled alive from the ruins of the Port-au-Prince Roman Catholic cathedral complex on January 19, and my photos of her rescue were picked up by newspapers around the world. It was an intensely emotional time, especially as Zizi’s dirty and injured body–resting on a broken piece of plywood salvaged from the rubble–was carefully passed down over three stories of debris to the ground. The 70-year old woman began singing, a not very articulate song as she hadn’t had any water to drink for seven days, but her joy was infectious. The Mexican rescue team carrying her began crying. In that one small corner of Haiti’s post-quake landscape of hell, other rescue team members from South Africa and Mexico paused for a moment and applauded. Amidst so much suffering, we celebrated an extremely precious moment of joy.

Zizi, who was severely dehydrated and suffered a broken leg and dislocated hip, later told an interviewer that she had yelled for help in the hours after the quake, then conversed with a priest who was trapped in the rubble nearby. He eventually grew quiet. After that, she “talked only to God.” When the Mexicans’ search dogs brought rescuers close, she sang until they found her.

The Mexicans who saved Zizi’s life are known in their home country as the “Topos of Tlatelolco”–the Gophers of Tlatelolco, a giant apartment complex in Mexico City that was destroyed by the city’s 1985 earthquake. When the corrupt PRI-controlled municipal government failed to respond, the residents formed their own rescue brigade, learning quickly on the job. Over the years since, they have become stars among international rescue teams. Although all volunteers, they fly off at a moment’s notice to respond to major disasters like that in Port-au-Prince.

Unlike some rescuers, who stay on the surface and peel away the debris until they reach the victims, the Gophers have become experts in tunneling into rubble, using pieces of debris to prop up tunnels, thus gaining faster access to survivors. It means they put their lives more at risk, but that risk has paid off many times just as it did for Ena Zizi.

As the days went by in Haiti and I continued to document how Haitians were recovering from this enormous disaster, I realized that the Gophers have a lot to teach us.

A lot of people would like to help the people of Haiti at this difficult time, but I suspect we’re scared of getting too close to their complicated history and culture. When the earthquake struck, Haiti was a poster child for vulnerability–those political, economic and social factors that make a society suffer more when it encounters inevitable natural hazards, in this case an earthquake measuring 7.0 on the Richter scale. Any attempt to help Haiti recover in the long haul without attempting to understand that vulnerability will inevitably doom us to merely replicating that same condition. In other words, nothing will change. For long term recovery and reconstruction to be successful in rebuilding a different Haiti than before, it’s necessary to dig a little deeper, to tunnel like the Gophers into Haiti’s past, much of which is inextricably linked to U.S. and European foreign policies and the behavior of U.S. corporations.

If we choose to ignore all of that, then it’s easy to blame Haiti’s problems on an alleged pact with the devil, as Pat Robertson suggested in an unabashed attempt to blame the victims for their own suffering. Or to kidnap Haitian children and attempt to smuggle them out of the country, as did a group of so-called missionaries from Idaho in what seems a remarkable act of arrogance and racism.

While Robertson and the kidnappers are easy to criticize–they’re the low-hanging fruit of cultural stupidity–I suggest we need to carefully monitor our own responses, remembering to dig deeper into the rubble of Haiti’s reality in order to craft better and more appropriate responses that take advantage of the deep resilience of the Haitian people and empower them to shape Haiti’s reconstruction themselves, rather than let it be shaped by the whims of outsiders, as well meaning as they may be. Thousands of people in our churches are signing up to go to Haiti as volunteers, and their solidarity will be a critical contribution to helping Haitians survive. Yet if all we do is rebuild the same Haiti as before, vulnerable in so many ways, then we might as well stay home. Our charity will do no good if it is not tempered with justice.

There are myriad challenges in Haiti that demand our best discernment. To cite just one example, there is a move to reverse decades of urban migration that swelled Port-au-Prince into an unsustainable urban nightmare. So the government wants to move people back to the countryside. It makes good sense, and tens of thousands of Haitians have already left the capital on their own. They will need housing in the countryside, and it’s conceivable that volunteer mission groups will be called on to help with that construction. But how are people going to survive in the countryside?

Not long ago, Haiti produced more rice than it consumed. Then in 1995 the International Monetary Fund forced Haiti to reduce tariffs that protected its domestic rice industry. Foreign companies, mostly from the U.S., started dumping rice in Haiti, and most Haitian rice farmers went broke and migrated to the capital. Now they’re supposed to move back to the countryside, but how are they going to survive economically? Without a radical shift in Haiti’s treatment by the international community, a move toward fairness and away from continuing to take historic revenge on Haiti for daring to break with slavery and colonialism, then schemes such as the relocation of families to the countryside are doomed to fail. Lest we be accomplices in such wrong-headed adventures, we’re called to respond comprehensively to the Haitian crisis–rebuilding crumbled infrastructure while at the same time remaking the international economic and political environment in which Haiti will have to survive.

There are numerous other issues that are also important to address. Among them is the role of foreign soldiers in the quake response. Haiti has a long, negative history of occupation by foreign troops, from the U.S. Marines in the early decades of the 20th Century to the multinational United Nations force of recent years. In the wake of the quake, soldiers from several nations responded, including thousands of U.S. troops, and largely played a positive role. I encountered U.S. soldiers on repeated occasions, including while hitching a ride on a Navy Blackhawk helicopter transporting food and medicine from the ACT Alliance to a remote town on Haiti’s southern coast.

In the first days, most of the U.S. soldiers were visibly nervous, holding their weapons ready, and not exactly looking friendly. But as the days went by and their contact with Haitians helped them understand that they had nothing to fear, the soldiers grew more relaxed, and more helpful. By the end of the month, members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne provided protection for a massive food distribution at several sites around Port-au-Prince. The distribution was to women only (thus avoiding some problems of violence that had plagued earlier distributions), and the soldiers helped keep it peaceful and moving smoothly. Moreover, I photographed several that volunteered to accompany some of the women to their homes, carrying their heavy bags of grain and thus discouraging any men who lurked outside the food distribution sites thinking they could steal from the women.

Despite the positive contribution of the troops from the U.S. and elsewhere, their presence inevitably confuses humanitarian and military mandates. And even more important is the question of how long they’re going to stay. The sooner they leave the better, if the priority is strengthening Haitian institutions and lessening Haitians’ fears that the quake has produced a new sort of occupation. Although the quake destroyed a lot of the capacity of the Haitian state to respond, that has to be strengthened quickly lest Haiti lose whatever remains of its imperiled sovereignty along with its devastated infrastructure.

I’m now in New York, where I came when I left Haiti and have spent several days attending to dramatic sleep and hygiene deficits. As trying as it was both physically and emotionally to cover the quake, I’m looking forward to returning in the coming months to continue to document the good work that the ACT Alliance is doing in so many areas. And I’ll be watching closely with many others how we in the international community can respond in creative, supportive and appropriate ways to the needs of the Haitian people, helping with immediate needs for food, water, shelter and psycho-social care while at the same time strengthening the capacity and resilience of our Haitian sisters and brothers.

Today marks the one month anniversary of the quake. The images of suffering and dignity that have emerged from Haiti since then have moved people around the world to be generous and want to help. That’s good news. Let’s work at being truly helpful in building a better Haiti, and not just reconstructing the one that tumbled to the ground on January 12.

Best regards,


PS: As I shared with you before, you can view some of my images here


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