"The police can't restore order in Haiti and for the most part don't try"

Michael Petrou reports from Port-au-Prince on aid, amputation and an empty Penitentiary

Michael Petrou reports from Port-au-Princ

Michael Petrou reports from Port-au-Princ

I’ve been in Haiti since Friday. Much of what I’ve seen and heard will appear in the print edition of this week’s magazine, but in the meantime here’s a very brief rundown of the trip so far.

On Thursday night I flew into Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. There I hooked up with Rahul Singh and his team from Global Medic. Global Medic is something Singh, a Toronto paramedic, started 10 years ago after a collapsed marriage sent him backpacking around the world. He ended up in Nepal, worked for an NGO there, and was appalled by the bureaucracy and waste that’s rampant in so many international development organizations. He wanted Global Medic to be different. It doesn’t have a bureaucracy to speak of. Its overhead is low. Its staff of medics, doctors, and engineers are volunteers. And its goals are simple: bring clean water, medical aid, and food to people in disaster zones as quickly and efficiently as possible.

It helps that Singh could sell ashes to the devil. People give him free stuff because he makes you believe in what he does. He scored a free flight to Dominican Republic for his team of seven on its way to Haiti from a charter airline, which also lugged all their water purifying systems and medical gear. He hired a bus and jeeps in the Dominican Republic and drove them all to Port-au-Prince. We arrived around 3 p.m. By nightfall, one of the doctors on Singh’s staff, Michael Howatt, was amputating gangrenous limbs on a table at an outdoor field hospital, cutting with shaving razors instead of scalpels. By noon the next day, they had set up a water purification system and were pumping out clean drinking water to thousands.

Global Medic has an annual budget of a few hundred thousand dollars. The Canadian International Development Agency, by comparison, spends one hundred million dollars a year in Haiti alone. This doesn’t mean that Global Medic is popular with other, bigger and more established NGOs.

“They are what we call a cowboy organization. They come and do something flashy,” says Bogdan Dumitru, a security officer with Care Canada. “We could have distributed all our stockpiles and grabbed a bunch of journalists, and it would be great. But that’s not the point.”

Dumitru says the responsible thing to do is to coordinate aid efforts with other organizations, especially the United Nations. Doing otherwise, he says, risks creating a “holy mess” if word gets out that there is fresh water in one part of the city but not in others.

To be frank, it’s not a convincing argument. Care, which already had a presence in the country before the quake, planned three water distributions Saturday. One was successful. They gave water purification packets to 600 people. They say they had to work through a local committee that had a list of people designated as water recipients. The same day Global Medic delivered clean water to 25,000. There was no riot or even disorder in the lineup of people waiting. And they trained Haitians in the neighbourhood to take over the purification system when Global Medic leaves.

"The police can't restore order in Haiti and for the most part don't try"

A police officer patrols Port-au-Prince downtown to discourage looting (AP Photo/Ricardo Arduengo)

“If you look at the other NGOs, not to be critical, but they go in with clipboards,” says Singh. “When they fill up that clipboard with notes, they’ll go back and start bringing in what people need. Our job is to come in and be an expert, efficient, and immediate solution.”

International development types are welcome to fight this one out in the comments section.

I SAW THE FIRST dead body minutes after arriving in Port-au-Prince. Today, three days later, I can’t count them anymore. They’re everywhere, and some died much more recently than the earthquake. Vigilantism and score settling are on the rise. The police can’t restore order and for the most part don’t try.

I was in Port-au-Prince two years ago. Today, the city has turned into something I could not have imagined then and cannot accurately describe now. How many horror-infused anecdotes are necessary to convey what’s happening here? People carry toothpaste in their pockets so that they can re-apply a smear on their upper lip when the stench of death becomes too much. Body parts stick randomly out of the rubble, blistering in the sun. Is that enough?

I remember visiting the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince two years ago. Then, the overcrowding flooded my senses, and it took me a few minutes to trust my eyes, with men packed together tighter than animals in a stockyard. During the earthquake, the prison burned and crumbled. Some 3,000 prisoners forced their way out and onto the streets. I walked in to the prison Sunday, kicking open a gate and stepping over the razor wire that clung to my pant cuffs. It was like visiting the abandoned set of a horror movie. The cells were busted open, but inside dozens of hammocks crafted from scraps of cloth hung between bars and bunks to mark the tiny piece of air where men were once forced to carve out a place to sleep. Four dead bodies lay swelling in the prison yard. It’s impossible to tell how they died.

Aid is coming slowly. On Sunday, the joint Canadian and Norwegian Red Cross field hospital still hadn’t arrived. A handful of Canadian nurses and doctors did their best providing basic first aid to patients who lay on disintegrating mattresses and moaned under a field of tarps.

At the Canadian Embassy, mid-afternoon Sunday, Canadian Forces Captain Mark Peebles said that the Disaster Assistance Relief Team reconnaissance unit had sent its report back to Ottawa in the last “24 to 48” hours but that an order to deploy DART in full had not yet been given.

The embassy’s compound was filled with cheerful journalists and Canadian citizens waiting to be evacuated. The grounds are shaded, and there is a tennis court. There is also a small medical tent, but staff there are sufficiently underwhelmed: a man who appears to be suffering only from loneliness is attended to with compassion and time. Elsewhere in the city bodies are burning in ditches for lack of a place to bury them. It’s like stepping into a different world.