The Situation Here Is Clearly Deteriorating
By Charles King
January 17, 2010
Housing Works President and CEO Charles King, and Housing Works Medical Director Vaty Poitevien, a Haitian native, have been in Haiti since Friday to assist PHAP+, a Haitian coalition of PWA-led organizations, in providing desperately needed medical services and supplies to Haitians living with HIV/AIDS. King reports to us after his second day in Port au Prince:
About 5 o'clock yesterday evening, Edner and I left the compound where we are storing the supplies in order to to rent a vehicle to distribute them. As I stepped out of the compound, an elderly man with a weathered face grabbed my hand. "You must come with me," he said in Spanish. "I will show you what God has done to us."
Gripping my hand tightly, he led me down a flight of steep concrete steps, badly broken by the tremors. At the bottom was a small terrace high in the bank of a creek. Turning me around, the man pointed to his tiny house, already half-fallen into the creek, and the other half listing in the same direction.
On the way to the airport, we passed CEPOZ, an HIV/AIDS clinic and psychosocial support center. The two-story building was completely flat. Edner didn't have to explain that anyone who was there when the quake struck never had a chance. And, if the strong stench was any indication, the clinic had been fully occupied by both patients and staff. We later passed a second AIDS clinic. This one is still standing but clearly not for long. PHAP+ desperately wants to open a temporary clinic for the surviving patients of these two clinics.
After helping to sort out allocation of medications, Vaty, Patrick and Edgar have gone to visit family members in something of a wake.
About 7pm, someone brought Jobanny and me a hot container of fried plantains, pork and pikliz, the deliciously spicy Haitian cabbage-based relish. Only then did we realize we hadn't had anything to eat since sharing a tin of sardines that morning.
As we sat to eat, people were lined up waiting patiently for food distribution to begin. Whether it was the scenes of the day or the thought of other hungry people watching us eat, neither one of us could work up much of an appetite. We managed to eat about half a serving and gave the rest to a boy and girl who had been sitting patiently waiting for their parents on the food line.
Later, playing with the same two kids, tickling them and making jokes together, I was struck by the good fortune that they had not been in school three days before.
It's tough to drive at night here. People have piled up cinderblock barricades somewhat randomly to provide protection for people sleeping in the streets. People sleep as far away from buildings as possible, and the middle of the street is usually the safest spot.
Jobanny and I laid out our sleeping rolls in the yard behind the CCM building, a few yards away from Edner's mother, Simone Sejour, and stepfather, Gerard Philemon. Fortunately, I had remembered to bring cans of mosquito repellent because it was too hot to get in the sleeping bag.
Laying under the open sky, Jobanny recounted the visit to Vaty's home, digging to find the bodies, wrapping them in sheets, digging the graves, and then Vaty conducting an impromptu but, from what Jobanny described, moving funeral service.
Sleep seemed impossible, but exhaustion overtook the images of the day. I woke at one point to find Simone, gently covering the two of us with a sheet. Jobanny had rolled right next to me. With the stars shining bright and the smell of charcoal from the fires of the night, we could have been on a camping trip in the countryside.
Roosters wake early in Haiti. It was 4am when the crowing first woke me. I dozed off and on for another hour as the chorus grew louder and louder. Then morning ablutions the old-fashioned way, hauling buckets of water to flush the outback toilet, and to shower and shave.
It was like I was back on the farm where I grew up. We each had a half of a plastic bucket of non-potable water to bath. With all the dust, I was regretting I couldn't just cut my ponytail off myself.
After a quick bit of bread and coffee for me, made over charcoal with a traditional recho, Jobanny and I returned to the Diaspora clinic, at Nadine's request, to give the caretaker, Martha, some money. Only then did I notice that her leg was swollen. A beam had fallen across it. I noticed another woman with an ankle swollen three times its normal size. We promised we would return with medical help.
The situation here is clearly deteriorating. It is hot, and in some streets, the stench of death has everyone covering their faces with towels or anything they can. Today, the garbage trucks are not treating bodies so respectfully. There is too little time and too many bodies. They still raise the back to lift the bodies in. Then they drive around the corner before they use the compactor.
The radio keeps announcing that the authorities are urging everyone to leave the city and go to the provinces. But most people have no cars, and most who have cars have no gas. Fights are breaking out at the the few gas stations that are open.
Jobanny and I killed time late morning, hanging a tarp awning over the patio. People with AIDS have started gathering for food. Organizations that have medical staff are taking some of the medical supplies.
There are about 15 children in the compound. I have been organizing dancing games. Who knows, maybe I can teach them the Electric Slide? Meanwhile, the PHAP+ leadership was meeting as a group for the first time since the quake, and the usual arguments in activist leadership coalitions commenced.
Jobanny and I, beside ourselves with impatience, and not having talked with the others all day, finally decided to go back to CCM to see if we could catch a signal. At CCM, we learned that Vaty, Patrick and Edgar had been by looking for us twice. Fortunately, after a short wait, we were united again.
We decided to go to the Diaspora clinic to treat Martha and the other woman. Losing our way, we became stalled in traffic including sirens and a flurry of activity. On the side of the road lay the now bloated body of a woman. Turning around, we passed the same way just in time to see a police SUV carrying somebody that rescue workers had miraculously uncovered alive.
Arriving at the clinic, Vaty, Patrick, and Edger began treating first Martha, then the other woman, then at least a half dozen other people with various injuries, contustions, fractures and sprains.
Jobanny and I helped where we could, holding people's hands as bones were reset, helping to form splints out of cardboard, and directing traffic. Before long people were coming to lead us to locations a block away where people with injuries lay.
It felt good to finally be doing the sort of thing we came here to do. Because I am "blan," people one the street kept assuming I was the doctor. My response was, "Mwen pa dokte, mwen selman chofe." I'm not the doctor; I'm just the chauffeur.
One man in his mid-30's, St Louis Josue, came up to show me an injury. I sent him inside. He later returned, Tylenol in hand, and, thanking me, asked if he could show me his neighborhood.
As we walked down the steep street, he pointed to every pile of rubble and recounted to me who lived there and how many had died. Seeing I had a camera, he insisted that I take pictures.
Some distance from the clinic, he turned into a narrow passage, with a partial building on one side and a multi-story pile of rubble on the other. Once past these, the passage opened into a tiny clearing, backed by more rubble, with some 20 people encamped.
It turned out, this was his entire extended family, from great-grandmother to his own three children, plus aunts, uncles, and cousins. He asked me to take a family portrait and then several. As St. Louis was posing people, one of his aunts came up and began making an appeal I had heard over and over: "We are all injured, we have no food. We are starving here. Can't you please give us some money?"
St. Louis quickly intervened. "No money, no money tonight," he said. "This man is going to go back to New York and tell our story. He is going to show them our pictures and tell the world what is happening to us. That is more important than any money he could give us."
Read all of King's posts at housingworks.org/activism
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Charles King Blogs From Haiti
Charles King is the president and CEO of Housing Works which has been providing services since 1990 to homeless men, women, and children living with HIV and AIDS in New York City and beyond. King is one of a handful of people living with HIV at the head of a major AIDS organization. He cofounded Housing Works with his life partner Keith Cylar. When Cylar passed away in 2004, King took the reins.
Born and raised in a small town in Texas, King attended Yale University's law school and divinity school and was ordained as a Baptist minister by an African-American church in New Haven, Connecticut. He conducts a weekly Bible study course at Housing Works' Keith D. Cylar House, where he lives in a small, book-lined studio. King also leads Housing Works' advocacy department and has been arrested dozens of times.
Subscribe to Charles's Blog:
March 1, 2010 - UN and UNAIDS Must Address Needs of Haitians With HIV/AIDS
February 22, 2010 - A Slow Recovery in Haiti
February 16, 2010 - Haiti Progress: St. Marc Clinic Opens, ARVs for Patients Secured
February 14, 2010 - On Haiti Day of Prayer, Activists Discuss Long-Term Goals for HIV Clinics
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