Some pictures taken during a registration drive at the old military airfield in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. Same pattern as last time – we gave out flyers, sent in the sound trucks to inform and entertain, created a bit of a party – and then the registration began.
I love some of these photos. It is amazing how high-spirited Haitians remain, especially if you offer some hope. Music can be enormously powerful in these situations.
After I create a set like this, I like to make a quick iphoto slide show, and add on a nice nostalgic tune – in this case to Fool on the Hill by the Beatles.
It’s quite an experience – you see and do all these overwhelming things during a day, but it goes by so fast you don’t really register them until later. A relaxed photo viewing session, set to music, puts everything into focus, the historic nature of these events. This is really significant stuff. I sincerely hope the world doesn’t walk away this time.
Here’s a short video I made of our registration process, currently talking place around the country. Our first stop was the large settlement in Champ de Mars, the public park outside Port-au-Prince’s destroyed presidential palace.
It is an important part of the big picture. The information we get gets plugged into a larger strategy to (as far as we can) beat the rains, which consists of four main approaches – enabling people to go home (debris removal from home areas etc), helping people find host families, to support the ad hoc sites where people have gathered, and to plan and create new sites. (We have a very cool map on cccmhaiti.info which, with Google Earth, you can fly around the city examining all the sites in intricate detail.)
In all of this communications are crucial: and that means talking to Haitians in their own language and culture. As the media and communications officer for the International Organization for Migration, I have four jobs – dealing with international press, coordinating within the UN system, producing my own media (like the video below) and local outreach.
The last part is in many ways the most important; absolutely crucial to the success of the entire operation here.
Traditionally people had a sense of “this is the project” and “this is the communications of the project”. That is changing – albeit not fast enough. The humanitarian aid system is learning that you cannot delink the success of a project from the communications around that project, especially in a country like post-earthquake Haiti which has very limited local communications capacity.
In the first days after the Jan 12 earthquake, radio was central. An organisation called Internews organised a regular slot on 27 local radio stations in creole. There was also a lot of activity around SMS, which is clearly a growth area worldwide – with Thomson Reuters organising messages out, and Ushahidi organising messges in – but it’s effectiveness remains a little unclear.
Then there are more direct forms of communication. The video shows one: the soundtruck, with a DJ, going around playing music, talking to people.
Haitians, as all people, need more than food and shelter. They also need entertainment, and fun. These are basic requirements for a fulfilling life. So we try to address both with the roadshow – we play some nice music, and also talk about what is happening.
The result was heartwarming. Kids and women dancing in the street, smiles, a good mood all round. This was a valuable outcome in itself.
Even more encouraging, people the next day lined up peacefully in their thousands. What could have been a threatening tense affair, was remarkably relaxed. I like to think we had something to do with that, although I am also constantly amazed by the internal discipline of the Haitian people during this crisis. Given the situation and context, there has been remarkably little violence.
We have also created flyers with a local comics artist, Anthony Louis-Jeune. I have a new guy on the team – Bertrand Martin – who set up a marketing agency here before the quake, and who is proving invaluable at taking some of the load.
This is the flyer we are using in our next registration:
In the longer term, I have many ambitions. I would love to create a radio soap opera, starring Haiti’s best comedians, charting the life of a family dealing with displacement.
It’s a winning formula, that has worked in many countries. Again, the mantra is to both entertain and inform. We let the artists do their thing, make it a good laugh, a fun event, but also push one message per show – which could range from wash your hands, to how to form a local community structure.
So much we can do, so much we can do. Interesting times.
Taking pictures in the camps of Port-au-Prince is an exceptional experience.
There are almost 350 spontaneous settlements here, ranging in size from a couple of dozen to several thousand people.
We have been visiting these sites, ensuring they have sufficient infrastructure, water, medical support. We are now going to start a major effort to remove rubble, in order to clear the areas where the people come from, giving them a chance to get back to their home areas and rebuild. A gargantuan task, a truly gargantuan task.
The Haitian people are extraordinary. If you take the time to chat, be polite, listen to their stories, they are delighted to pose for pictures, and take great joy in looking at them, giggling. I have come to believe that in some ways, taking a photo, and sharing it, offers an opportunity for people to act with dignity, feel significant, even in the most undignified of surroundings.
Yesterday, we took Kris Allen – last year’s American Idol winner – on a tour of one of these sites, in Place de la Paix. It is a breathtaking scene, a massive labyrinth of temporary shelters, crammed together but well organised, supplied with water, latrines, and a population of deeply welcoming people, delighted to chat about our respective philosophies, the future of Haiti, the international system, footballers, and rock stars.
Out of nowhere a kid came up and started rapping with Kris Allen, playing guitar on a condom. Hilarity ensued. Amazing scene. I hope the US showbiz industry isn’t too nervous to show it.
A letter by the UN Humanitarian Coordinator John Holmes was leaked to the Washington Post.
UNITED NATIONS — The United Nations’ top humanitarian relief coordinator has scolded his lieutenants for failing to adequately manage the relief effort in Haiti, saying that an uneven response in the month after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake has undercut confidence in the world body’s ability to deliver vital assistance, according to a confidential e-mail.
Well, so be it.
No doubt many things could have been done better. For example, it would be better if so many emergency workers didn’t only come for two weeks. I understand everyone has lives, family, friends etc, but this constant throughflow of people really does make it difficult to get things going.
But I wanted to comment on what was not in the article. (And this is no reflection on Colum, who wrote an entirely fair story based on the Holmes letter. And this is in a purely personal capacity, no reflection of my organisation).
A lot of UN people died here. We were decimated.
This is not even mentioned any more.
For the first week, everyone was running around shellshocked, with no working communications.
We lost friends, partners and children. Families were ripped apart.
We were victims. Yet we have not been allowed any time to grieve, to cope with our loss. We are not considered victims, despite our lives being traumatically disrupted. Would have been worth a mention, I would have thought.
And people gloss over “logistical difficulties” as though it is a mealy mouthed excuse.
It is not. Haiti is a very poor country with very limited infrastructure that has just suffered a catastrophic earthquake, disrupting social systems, disrupting all governance, leaving roads clogged with traffic, rubble everywhere; with a road from the DR that floods, a small airport and a half-broken port. This isn’t just a logistical difficulty – this is a herculean challenge. Why is it so hard to get this message across?
It is as though one month after the world’s largest natural disaster we are expected to have reversed two hundred years of stunted development.
Have you ever tried adding a garage to the side of your house? How long did that take? Getting the planning permission, desgning the garage, contracting the builders etc etc. In the richest countries of the world, with working government and infrastucture, from start to finish how long would that take? A couple of months?
In Haiti, an entire capital city has to be rebuilt, with no infrastructure. With the rains now falling. With a hurricane on the way. With regular aftershocks and a new earthquake expected. While we all live in tents ourselves, moving around constantly, operating on very little sleep.
I am not saying don’t criticise where criticism is due. We must always search for better systems. It is important to recognise shortfalls.
As we all work overtime to help Haitians recover, I wanted to touch on the crazy world we all inhabit here in UN camp.
There is a large logistics base by the airport, called UN log base, which is overrun by hundreds of aid workers, all crammed into tents and containers, trying to run an enormous logistical operation under quite tough conditions. The heat in the day is stifling; there are clouds of mosquitos, open sewers and very few showers and toilets. Overall, pretty disgusting.
IOM has had to build, then dismantle, then rebuild its offices twice already, and will have to do so again in the next few days. It’s a little like one of those games where you move tiles around slots, with only one free space, trying to make a coherent picture. Only the free space is a toxic sewer. I made a fun video of our most recent relocation.
On the flip side, it is actually really fun interacting from people and organisations from all over the world. A small bar is crammed with aid workers and soldiers of every cast and colour; quaffing a few overpriced beers after a tough day. A PX sells various drinks and nibbles, as well as giant TV sets (who would buy one, I don’t know) and rows of hair conditioner, but no shampoo. The single street of the central compound was for days littered with people hanging out by the curb, chitchatting, ocasionally pulling out a guitar and strumming. A camp dog appeared, which nibbles people with sharp teeth, is widely loved, and is creatively known as “camp dog”. Tonight we heard a Middle Eastern call to prayer at sunset, possibly from the Jordanian battalion.
Over the past few days we have slowly been moving into tents at a new Swedish camp, 15 mins from log base, staffed by Vikings who are militant about handwashing. The sleeping tents are giant white rubberised affairs separated into 16 little cubicles each – with a cot and mattress, and European plug sockets (very useful for a system that uses American plugs).
But it has hot showers! Ah, a hot shower after two weeks of a rancid cold dribble. People pay between 20 and 40 bucks a night for this privilege, but also get a slow wifi and two meals a day – one decent dinner (no pudding) and a rather meagre breakfast (to my British palate anyway) of cheese and porridge. In the evening aid workers gather around two long ranks of tables, and tap late night emails into laptops, chat about the day, sip a whisky and wind down a bit before getting up again at the crack of dawn.
People are getting very tired, and its beginning to show – especially in those who lived through the quake. People are also rotating in and out quite often – which can also be hard to manage, as every two weeks you have a whole bunch of new faces to get to know.
Tough it is. But it also very special; we are all very aware we are part of something rather remarkable, and it keeps everyone going.
Drive to the distribution point at Eglise Bolosse – an extraordinary trip through often apocalyptic scenes; an ad hoc tent camp under the ruins of a former gas station…
…hillside houses crushed; overflowing gutters filled with rubble and plastic and rubbish; a makeshift infirmary under blue plastic awnings, a child with a swollen foot, welts and flies, who squeals with delight when I snap pics and show him the results.
We are handing out tarpaulins, water and jerrycans to a thousand destitute families; an old woman comes to me and asks “di ri, di ri”. I realise she wants rice. “Desolee; on n’a pas du riz ici.” She walks off, despondent.
A small scuffle later on as some men sneak round the back and try to steal boxes, but overall an amazingly disciplined affair, hundreds of women patiently in line waiting their turn, happy some help has arrived.
We continue to explain the shelter strategy – why starting the basis of a transitional shelter is better in the medium term than tents – but it can be difficult to explain.
So many demands – why haven’t we fixed everything yet? But even in the insta-twitter age, some things simply take time, and in a deeply poor country, clogged by traffic jams, where the government and international aid community were themselves devasted, with only a small airport, port, and a bad overland road to the Dominican Republic, there are absolute limits to what even the most powerful nations on earth can do.
We have seen those limits plainly enough in domestic tragedies, in rich countries with working systems, let alone here. We are all working very hard to get a difficult job done.
A guide takes me through a hillside slum. Some of it still stands, some of it has been destroyed. I will post video tomorrow. Spirits still seem OK. Simple kites are flying. Local markets are working – a woman carries a panful of courgettes on her head. Re-establishing basic social systems. Coping.
It’s been an exhausting few days, doing many jobs at the same time. Emergencies are both horrifying and exhilarating – so much to do, structures in flux, time-frames so tight, that you can often determine what you want to be involved in, and get stuck in. No waiting on ceremony here.
I am doing three main jobs right now: liaising with the international press, taking photos and making videos (in itself actually a 3-person job), and helping design a comprehensive strategy to reach local populations with crucial information – using all sorts of tools, from radio, to sms, posters, mobile cinema units. So much going on, so much going on. Information structures are in crisis here, and we need to help support the reconstruction of the entire media world.
I made a quick film of a distribution we did by helicopter in the far hills beyond Port-au-Prince. Tough conditions, but a real community there. In the capital things can get chaotic fast, many people trying to get political and financial advantage from the situation, but here it was a delight to work with people who knew each other. We were working closely with a religious order, doing great work. I am not religious myself, but these sisters and brothers are really on the front line, in tough, tough conditions.
Meanwhile Port-au-Prince is reverting to its former two worlds status. Petionville, the more wealthy area, is returning to form. Most buildings there are fine, the restaurants are up and running, shops open, systems are back in place. The main noticeable difference is a vast number of displaced camping out in the town squares, but you can feel some kind of normality creeping back.
But other parts of the city, and in the regions, remain utterly brutalised. Great deprivation. Everyone wants to know why we haven’t fixed it yet. But please realise – this is the country’s major city, and it has fallen to pieces. Not only buildings, but community structures, society’s glue. And us also. Many of us died too. It is amazing that Haitians continue to bear their load with such patience. This is a long long job.
So, a return to what we already knew in Haiti: the wealthy and the deprived, side by side, but magnified, exacerbated, many times.
Every so often, driving around, I get hit with an overwhelming sense of the momentous times I am living through. This is unprecedented stuff, it will be in the history books. I hope we get it right.
I plan to start posting many more photos of what is going on here – the sights we encounter when we distribute items, help organize temporary settlements, create shelter and so on. They can all be found at my flickr photoset called Working for Haiti.
I’ll pick a few every couple of days and post them. I will also be regularly posting videos on my youtube channel markyturner. My first video, of a distribution in all its complexity, is here.
If you like any of this media, I would strongly encourage you to repost, share on facebook and other social media – whatever you can. (All photos are taken by me, except where explicitly stated otherwise; I have permission to disseminate them all).
The international press is going home, day by day. That leaves people like us to keep the message alive. With the decline of journalism, we all assume a responsibility.
Everyone with a computer is a media person these days. Let’s do what we can to keep Haiti present in the world’s conscience.
I put this video together on a day distributing goods in Haiti. It’s complex, with the positive and the more complex. People always get scared towards the end of a distribution, and trouble often breaks out. It’s a very complex situation – but overall Haitians are, amazingly, holding it together.
Tomorrow I am heading out on a helicopter delivery of items to a remote hillside location which cannot be reached by road. (By an aid convoy, at least). Will report on that.
Meanwhile base life continues – there is a high turnover, but more long termers are beginning to arrive, which will help. I spent the evening chatting with a number of UN survivors; there is a big range of reactions, from people who have found focus in their work, to people who are clearly totally frazzled, and in need of a break. This exhaustion manifests itself in many different ways, from a certain blankness to a tendency to blame others for the situation, an inability to accept that those who did not live through the quake can play a valid part in the response.
It’s sad. This was a deeply traumatic event for a community, and that community is struggling to adapt. Every question regarding Haiti is now “was that before, or after”. There is a strong sense of two worlds. I straddle them uncomfortably – we were settling in here, but relative newcomers when it all happened, and in Miami of course.
That makes us, to a degree, outsiders, yet there is recognition our lives are totally disrupted also. Putting in place contingency plans to move our household out, but not quite willing to come to terms with the fact that it’s all over quite yet.