That night when we returned to the Salvation Army Camp, I met up with one of the Director’s as I had started doing and he asked me how my day went. I told him we had found a group of 200 children, who hadn’t been contacted or received aid since the earthquake. While I wanted to show him some pictures, he was in a hurry and told me to check in with him in the morning.
One of the things I really struggled with early on was learning how to line up resources with needs. There was so much chaos everywhere. so many unused resources sitting there, so many people who wanted to help and it seemed like there was this invisible barrier preventing from everyone connecting the dots.
I noticed that EVERYONE had it in their mind, what was most urgent, including me. I believe that everyone learned very quickly that just about everyone in Haiti had some kind of need as I mentioned earlier, but it was up to the aid agencies to determine who needed it most and to focus on them. In my mind, the priority was getting food to these 200 kids, I saw this as the most immediate good I could do. The SA leadership on the other hand, had bigger concerns, they were working on a distribution to feed 200,000 people, which required a tremendous amount of resources and co-ordination, essentially taking every resource they had to pull off. On that particular evening when I got back, they had to cancel a major distribution because they didnt have security and they were obviously upset about it. I can understand that while the 200 kids were important to me, they had bigger problems. I saw this over and over, everyone was trying their best, but everyone had different ideas and priorities on what needed to get done, all else went to the wayside. Mathiew and I felt like we were getting really good information, but we now powerless to do anything real about it- we didn’t have any supplies or food to deliver. Extremely frustrating.
Another interesting note was that up to this point, Mathieu stayed as low key as possible when we were in camp, pretty much invisible. We were thankful for the place to crash, and wanted SA to forget about us. The only time we wanted to see them was in the evenings when we got back, and that was me to talk with them and try to win them over a little more. If they saw us hanging around all day, then clearly we weren’t working and were liabilities. So we would essentially come home, grab a few bottles of water from the SA storage unit (which they had said we could) and would go back to our tent. Even a few days in, I was already starting to feel the effects of fatigue. We would come home, grab an MRE and some water and just crash.
The next morning, I was able to show John (one of the 2 SA commanders) as well as several SA workers the images of the children. This was really the first time it had occurred what a great tool my camera was…it was PROOF, of what I was saying was real.
Before we were mostly collecting data, GPS co-ordinates, numbers, etc…that doesn’t really motivate people to act. But, a single picture (as well as a video) of these children, innocent, clearly malnourished, in a field, sleeping on mats….that was different..they could see it with their own eyes, and now it was different…they were seeing what I was seeing and in this sense, validated what we were working towards. This was really the turning point where I started gaining their trust and it was critical. From that day on, the camera usually came with me, unless I was concerned about security and didnt want to attract attention. This was another sensitive balancing act for me, I didn’t want the Haitian people to believe I was there to capture their suffering for profit or personal gain, on the other hand, capturing images to draw attention and validation to what we were doing was a tremendous tool. I also know later, that when we made deliveries, we were always careful to take pictures to have proof that the supplies we were trusted with were delivered. This built trust with everyone we were working with.
After Mathieu 1st and my iphone 2nd, I am certain the most useful asset that I had with me was my camera and what little people skills I had, which were essentially, not complain about anything, don’t say anything stupid, build trust and help others where I could. I have to give Mathiew credit, he never freaked out or lost his cool- just a very natural good people type person. It was greatly to our benefit. There were a lot of egos connected with several aid agencies, the ability to persuade, make friends with, effectively communicate, etc, could not be underestimated. It seemed our ability to get anything done revolved around information and communication skills.
After seeing the images, John agreed to allocate a Salvation Army Captain and his truck to us to return and assess the situation (for SA). The Captain was a native Haitian who had also had his own orphanage, so him coming with us to assess everything was extremely important. If he saw and felt what we did, and reported to John that eveyrthing we were saying was legit….it would be hard to deny us support. I didnt have any doubts and this is exactly what happened. We went out with the Captain, saw them again, and returned to report to John, the Captain confirmed everything, and finally John said… “Ok, lets see what we can do to help lets talk to Craig” Craig was the SA logistics officer who kept track of all the food coming and going. Craig looked like Christian Bale and became one of our strongest supporters. Because he knew how much food SA had and what we were doing, he would allocate what he could before the next meals came in from the States. One thing I absolutely must give SA credit for: if they had food and could move it, THEY DID. Their plot on the Airport was always busy, always moving. Craig said he could get us about 10 cases of food, roughly 2,000 meals. SA also said that we could have 20 tents. There was just one little major problem…no security. It was also probably the most critical issue for everyone…no way to protect supplies and food. On our way in from Santo Domingo, we heard that some aid workers were mugged and killed. While we never could confirm this, but when you are on the ground and hear things like that, it gets your attention. There had also been several riots and fighting over food, and this was confirmed….daily. It gave you absolutely no doubt that if you were transporting food in the city- your life was in danger.
Additionally, the Haitians have rules. If a Haitian steals from another Haitian, the thief could be killed, either by the police or by other Haitians. Stealing among Haitians is a very serious thing. If a white man is giving something away…this is different, whatever he is giving away, is not owned by another Haitian, so whoever can grab it and establish possession before someone else would have the rights to it. Later on, even as food was making its way into the city, well fed Haitians would still fight for and want aid being given out because it was valuable and they could sell it. If a truck of foreigners pulled up to your neighbor hood and started handing out gold, you too would probably freak out a little to get a piece of the action. If you and your family were starving, and a pick up truck full of food was stopped at a traffic light would you try to grab some of it?
What we were considering was taking about 2,000 meals and 20 tents (the tents were considered extremely valuable and very difficult to find, I’m still hearing this is still the case), and transporting these supplies, through the middle of the city, in the daytime, without any security at all. There was no doubt in my mind as well as Mathieu’s that if the general public was able to see what we were transporting, there would absolutely be an attempt to steal it from us. As far as we knew, at this time (I think it was about 11 days after the quake) there had only been a handful of smaller distributions, but no one had done anything without security. Even 4 weeks after the quake, riots were happening everyday.
Before I came to Haiti, I knew I would be putting myself into some dangerous situations. When those situations came up, I knew that I couldn’t afford to hesitate- my mind had to be made up before hand, and if it wasn’t, I shouldnt go. I had a little talk with myself that went something like this: “M…you are going to die one day anyway, you can either take a chance, try to help some people and if you get killed and die a little sooner than you expected, at least it was for a good cause. Are there any doubts or hesitations you have about going over?”. I thought about it and all that I could really feel was that I needed to get in there. It was like watching my little brother get beat up…I just couldn’t bear it. It was a feeling and need as real as hunger that I had to do something. “Well, if you really feel this is the right thing to do, than whether you die or not doesn’t matter.” At that point, my mind was made up. It is so crazy and surreal to think of now, but yes, I made a conscious decision that I was ok with dying in Haiti if it came to that. I do some crazy things sometimes….
What we decided to do, was cover the supplies with a tarp so no one could see what we were moving. Mathieu and I would then sit on top of the tarp just to make sure no one would approach it, He looked like a gang member, I was dressed in military clothing, we felt this was enough of a deterrent. We also wore our backpacks on our chests and I was careful to make sure my camera strap (which was an R-Strap, which looks almost like a rifle sling) was showing. There were so many soldiers carrying rifles, that if you saw a strap like that, you just assumed there was a weapon on the other end. The truck was so full of supplies that we were sitting above the cabin of the truck.
When we left the SA compound, it was a pretty much terrifying. There were 3 other white America Salvation Army workers who initially said they wanted to come, but when they realized we were going without security, they got out of the truck. I know they wanted to come badly but didn’t blame them for not going. Luckily, 4 other native Haitian SA workers saw them leave and they all stepped up to come. We were very fortunate to have them.
When the Haitians in the complex saw what we were doing and they were watching us with the expression of: “Wow…those guys are crazy” because once the security door opened, we were on our own. “We pretty much may get killed doing this” I thought, not just from the riots, but from riding on top of the truck losing our grip and falling off. We werent on seats, no seat belts, no side walls and if we slipped, we were going out. We drove through the city and got quite a few looks, but no one approached us. Once we got out of the city, we were driving at much more dangerous speeds (if we fell out) but we were both very relieved and felt everything would be ok. It felt really good to finally actually move food. A huge amount of stress was lifted off my shoulders, because it was the first time on the trip that I felt like we were making an impact and getting aid to people who really needed it.We arrived with about an hour left of day light left, and raced to get the tents set up. We showed the orphange leaders how to set up the tents and told them: “These are our tents, we will be coming back to get them someday”. The reason we said this was because we didnt want them selling them for cash. There were several other adults in the area who came to see what all the commotion was going on. Several of them asked me for a tent, and I had to tell them no. Another thing I realized was I was the only white guy around. Everyone else who had come with us, (all Salvation Army workers) were all Haitian. There was no commotion or problems when they delivered the aid…because they had those cultural rules. I made a mental note to be extremely careful not to personally give aid out because of my skin color. It was better and safer for the Haitians to do it themselves. We left them with 10 tents and the 10 cases of food and took some pictures with them. This was really the beginning of many great days in Haiti after of some of the hardest days of my life.
Still so many great stories to tell…you can see looking back I have so many thoughts about it…its exhausting just thinking about it, but it sure brings back some good memories.