lmost a generation ago, Robert Kaplan’s seminal article The Coming Anarchy in Atlantic Monthly was an etching of Haiti. Outside my hotel in Port-au-Prince was a collision of the horsemen galloping through the piece: disease, environmental degradation, local thugs replacing police, corruption and death. Kaplan’s crash site was west Africa but in Haiti the near-anarchy wasn’t coming… it had arrived.
I was in the country to write about what happens to strong, but desperately poor, people when the world used the blunt instrument of an embargo. As was usually the case with this tactic, the club hurt the destitute the most as the stuff of life – like food and clean water – got priced out of reach. And as the world, figuratively, turned out the lights in the small country, nasty things grew in the dark. Smugglers got rich, Columbians discovered that Haiti makes a good drug transshipment point and a Laval university graduate started issuing daily death sentences for slum dwellers.
Haiti in 1994 was a reminder that this is a world of hurt and pain. And like now, after last week’s earthquake, it always seems that those with so little lose so much. Haitians, like large numbers of humanity, live permanently at the intersection of tears, graft, guilt, good intentions and inevitably bad follow-through.
I’ve seen it elsewhere in the hollow eyes of an 18-year-old widower in an impossibly remote village in Nicaragua. His hurt made him breathless as he explained how his pregnant wife was swept to her death when Hurricane Mitch parked its fury overhead in 1998.
I’ve seen it in the dead eyes of a child. Together a mother and I watched the last gasps of her 4-year-old daughter in the decrepit Nazran hospital, on the ragged southern borderlands of Russia. The terrible burns caused by rocket fire on their home in Chechnya might not have killed the girl, but the one week wait at the border to scrape together enough bribe money for the Russian guards to let them through to medical help was what closed the curtain.
I’ve felt it in the frantic pacing of a Zambian mom who just discovered she had AIDS, like her husband, in a country where anti-retrovirals are as rare as UFOs. Her evident fear billowed like the red dust of her circling – what would happen to her infant daughter, soon to become yet another of Africa’s AIDS orphans?
I’ve heard it Bangladesh where a tough and tiny man rocked back and forth moaning because his house and his source of income – a rickshaw – were both shredded by Cyclone Sidr, which killed only 3,500 or so.
On occasion I’ve been a part of the crew that chases after human misery. A tsunami; a famine; a war; a flood. Others in the crew, like aid workers and disaster specialists, come to do some good. At least what they do feels tangible, even if the results are often mixed.
I go to take pictures, shoot video, record the keening cries of mourners and capture their pain in well-crafted sentences. It’s an intellectual exercise to convince myself that this too is doing good. The standard line about how getting the message out can stir the ‘world’ to respond is becoming brittle, at least to my ears.
Lots of that response seems to soak into the parched ground of bureaucracy. It pours into endless coordination meetings as NGOs try to figure out who is in charge and much of it gets sucked into the quicksand of culture, politics and expectation. So often it seems that despite the response, those with so little, receive even less.
The attention span of those of us with wealth to donate is growing ever shorter, especially for news about seemingly intractable problems like global poverty, refugees, huge natural disasters and famine. How soon will we forget about Haiti? Will its current near-anarchy still be page one news by the end of the month?
So often reporting from the front seems like doing nothing more than being a purveyor of chequebook absolution – see my pictures, read my story, feel guilty, write a cheque, feel better, forget about it because you’re absolved.
We have the luxury of forgetting. We can dismiss the inconvenient or unpalatable, because we have so many other options. But the poor and the hurting, who live mostly as statistics in UN reports and who shimmer briefly on our screens as they cry for help from under piles of rubble, don’t have that luxury.
It seems the anarchy has returned to Haiti. Let’s hope it doesn’t claim permanent residency.