Al Jazeera Correspondent

Haiti: After the Quake

Al Jazeera’s Sebastian Walker asks why a system that was designed to help Haitians ended up exacerbating their misery.

Al Jazeera’s Sebastian Walker was sent to Haiti to cover the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that rocked the tiny island nation in January 2010. His assignment was to last two weeks, but he was there for more than a year.

He saw firsthand how Haitians dug up their dead from the rubble with their bare hands. He witnessed people struggling to recover from an earthquake, violent weather and disease. Millions throughout the country were made homeless.

More than a year later, millions of Haitians are still living in makeshift camps, cholera has become an epidemic and the aid money has run out. Many Haitians feel abandoned after one of the most tragic chapters in the country’s history.

Sebastian Walker revisits many of the people he met at a time when Haiti was deep in crisis to examine how the country has coped since the earthquake struck. Where have things gone wrong since the international community promised to ‘build Haiti back, better’?

This film examines why a system that was designed to help actually ended up exacerbating the misery and how aid efforts created a state of over-dependence. 

Haiti: Stuck in a cycle of disaster

By Sebastian Walker

On the day of Haiti’s earthquake, at 4.53pm on the afternoon of January 12, 2010, I was strolling through the colonial old town of Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, on the first day of a short vacation in the sun.

Washington DC – my base for the past two years – was in the grip of an arctic chill. In fact, so much snow had been dumped on the US east coast that when my mobile phone lit up with “DC Newsdesk calling” I was confident that even if I was being called back to cover breaking news, I would not have actually be able to get there anyway.

“Where are you? How quickly can you get to Haiti? Start heading to the airport right now!”

That is how my life as Al Jazeera’s Haiti correspondent started.

I knew precious little about the country when I arrived less than 24 hours after Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital, had been ripped apart. Now, having spent a-year-and-a-half living and breathing this story, I am still at a loss to explain how so many public proclamations of international commitment can add up to so little. There is a saying I have heard in Haiti that if you spend a week there you can write a book about the place, but spend a year there and you will be unable to write a word.

That is how it was for me. In the chaos of those first few days the stories of suffering, courage and solidarity were enough to last a lifetime. For me, the Haitian response to one of the worst natural disasters in modern history should surely live on as a standard to which others must aspire. With an international rescue effort floundering, Haitians helped each other to get through the collective trauma of the devastation. It was amazing to witness.

First impressions confuse

‘Haitians are among the most friendly, peaceful people I have ever encountered’ 

I spent a week watching teams of Haitians burrow into collapsed supermarkets in search of survivors, work through the night to pull relatives from beneath tonnes of concrete, and organise themselves into communities of the displaced to better facilitate the distribution of food and water.

But as aid bottle-necked at the airport and international response teams struggled to find their way, the questions began to surface: Why was it taking so long to get help to the people who needed it most? Was it really so dangerous on the streets that international rescuers needed to go home as darkness fell? Why were mainstream news organisations calling Haitians “looters” when they were taking food and water from destroyed stores in order to survive?

The longer I stayed, the more confusing, intriguing and frustrating it became to cover the story. Haiti is a country with more NGOs per capita than any other nation in the world, but the humanitarian response to the earthquake was becoming dysfunctional. Haitians are among the most friendly, peaceful people I have ever encountered, but there is a 12,000-strong foreign military force armed to the teeth patrolling the streets at all times.

When Al Jazeera made the decision to establish a bureau to chart the course of the reconstruction effort over the next year, I volunteered to stay on permanently as the correspondent. I wanted to know more about why the earthquake had been so destructive, to try to explain the larger forces at work and to convey what I was starting to understand as huge misconceptions about why Haiti is in the mess it is.

From bad to worse

Over the course of the subsequent and turbulent 12 months, everything changed while everything remained the same. Billions of dollars were suddenly available for a wholesale rebuilding of the country. But while fixing Haiti was at the forefront of discussions among international donors, the pledging of funds far outstripped any progress on the ground.

Haiti was hit by severe weather, political crisis, and cholera in quick succession. With 1.5 million people living in squalid displacement camps it seemed like a permanent emergency was taking root. But during our near-daily visits to the camps, many of those in the most vulnerable situations told us that, despite the scale of their hardship, they had never expected that the response would be managed any better.

Why this was so became the ultimate focus of our coverage. Why was Haiti stuck in a cycle of disaster, making it one of the poorest countries in the world? As the only major broadcaster with a full-time bureau in the country, we were able to be less reactive with our coverage. Rather than parachuting in to cover the latest new crisis, the Al Jazeera Haiti team set about trying to offer context and explanation to an international audience.

We worked with a group of young local journalists; one of them became our bureau producer, all of them wanted an opportunity to try to change international media perceptions about the problems plaguing their country.

To them, and the overwhelming majority of Haitians I met in my time there, the damage was being done from outside rather than within. Foreign NGOs, the United Nations, the World Bank, USAID – walk down any street in Port-au-Prince and you will find animosity towards all of these entities.

As for the UN peacekeepers brought in years ago to help “stabilise” the country, most of my Haitian friends described their presence as an occupation. And that was before medical studies concluded that MINUSTAH (the United Nations Stabilisation Mission in Haiti) had probably brought cholera into the country, and the alleged rape of a young man by Uruguayan troops in Port-Salut.

‘Mountains behind mountains’

The Al Jazeera Haiti team stayed on to report the country’s struggle from the Haitian perspective

The film we have made, Haiti: After the Quake, is the story of our time in Haiti. In the end, I had to leave – like almost every other foreigner always does. Our bureau was only meant to be there for a year, but we stayed longer and have committed so much to this story that we will be back with more regularity than any of our competitors. But that did not make it any easier to close the operation down.

In many ways, I would have liked to stay in Haiti forever. If you spend any significant time there, you will believe, as I did, that Haiti deserves to be on the front page of every newspaper, every single day. It is a permanent, urgent and unjustified humanitarian tragedy. Whose fault that is can be argued about ad infinitum. Ultimately, it will just depend on who you are listening to.

What we tried to do in our time there was listen to one group of people more than any other as we sought to get to the heart of what has been going wrong there for so long. Haitians have been stereotyped by the media and ignored to such an extent that some visiting journalists do not even bother talking to them before filing their news reports. Our aim was to turn this approach on its head by reporting from the Haitian perspective.

Our coverage elicited diverse responses – we got a tremendous reception from Haitians, we were singled out for criticism by the US state department, and we soon developed a pariah reputation at the headquarters of the UN. I was often the only foreign journalist attending press conferences and asking for the latest figures on the number of shelters successfully constructed. The fact that those questions are no longer asked is my biggest regret about leaving.

Haiti is a complex, tragic and contradictory story – and condensing a tumultuous year-and-a-half’s coverage into an hour was always going to be a challenge. But if it gives viewers an insight into how we tried to paint the most truthful picture we could of a country that is often so misrepresented by the media, then we will have achieved what we set out to do.

As for the future, it does not look much better than when I first arrived with mass evictions, cholera spreading, and more storms on the way. Or, as the Haitians would say: ‘In Haiti there are mountains behind mountains.’ Meaning that as soon as you think you are close to solving one of the myriad problems on the ground, another moves into view.