Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Face of Tragedy

From the Encyclopedia of Nations: "Haiti occupies the western third of the island of Hispaniola, between the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea, which it shares with the Dominican Republic. Haiti has an area of 10,714 square miles, slightly smaller than Maryland. Haiti is one of the most densely populated countries in the world, estimated at 699 persons per square mile. Land shortages and urban overcrowding have led to many Haitians attempting to emigrate , either to the neighboring Dominican Republic or to the United States. The capital, Port-au-Prince, had an estimated population of 850,000 in 1995, but much settlement in slum areas is unregulated, and the population probably exceeds one million."

On Tuesday afternoon, January 12th, the worst earthquake in 200 years - 7.0 in magnitude - struck Haiti less than ten miles from their capital city of Port-au-Prince. The earthquake was such a devastating event in a place so ill-prepared to cope. The pictures on television are almost too much to bear, and we are looking at the terrible images from the comfort of our homes... imagine what those poor people in Port-au-Prince must be experiencing. Every so often, Mother Nature reminds us that no matter how superior and technologically advanced we think we've become, we are still at her mercy. In Haiti's case, it wasn't a fair fight.

To describe Haiti as a backward country would be putting it mildly. While the Dominican Republic has thrived as a tourist mecca, Haiti has languished. Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, even before the government was taken over by the corrupt Duvalier regime, except that the gap between Haiti and the other poor countries in the West grew under the Duvaliers, Pappa Doc and Baby Doc. Haiti's very poverty was the key note of their private economy. Foreign governments, and religious and humanitarian organizations poured hundreds of millions of dollars into Haitian development and relief in the Duvalier years, but not much of that money found its way into the projects for which it was intended. The Duvaliers and those on whom they smiled, stole the overwhelming bulk of this money.

The earthquake could have been a killing blow for Haiti, but amidst the death and disease, people from all over the world responded. Doctors, nurses, firefighters, police officers, military personnel, rescue organizations, churches...all without regard for their own safety and welfare, delivered food, water and medical supplies, but most of all, hope, to a country badly in need of some. My hat is off especially to the doctors, who left their lucrative practices behind and rolled up their sleeves to save lives in conditions that were deplorable. I sometimes become more cynical about life than I should, but heroic actions like the ones undertaken by so many angels in Haiti help restore my faith in humanity.
Unlike the citizens of New Orleans, who responded to a similar tragedy with looting, violence and scamming the government out of money that poured into the area with no accountability, the people of Haiti were much better behaved. They welcomed all the outside help they could get, but helped each other as well. There was one negative note...the recent plot by some American "missionaries" to sneak 33 Haitian children (some of whom still had parents and relatives living in Haiti) out of the country, allegedly to be sold in the child adoption market. I hope this was all a misunderstanding and that their intentions were to care for the children as they claim, but if not, then their fate should be simple...tie anchors to their legs and drop them in the Caribbean.

I want so much to believe that humanity is essentially good. It's easy to become cynical when we see greedy politicians like the Duvaliers fatten their Swiss bank accounts at the expense of the people they are supposed to be helping. May God spare the poor Haitian people any more misery for a while, both at the hands of men and nature.


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