Haiti: Do Not Turn Out the Lights: Special Report From AVSI Staff Dr. Alberto Reggiori
Wednesday, 17 February 2010 00:00

Haiti; Port-au-Prince. I just came back from Haiti a few days ago, where I worked with a pediatrician, Chiara Mezzalira, on an exploratory mission on behalf of AVSI. It was our intention to find where the most urgent health needs were which so far are not covered by relief efforts.

It seems a repetition, as more than once we were confronted with the same scenario, a city which finds itself in a state of siege. The airport is occupied by the U.S. Army, the scene is like from Apocalypse Now with helicopters, C130s, jeeps and soldiers everywhere. Outside I see a screaming, agitated crowd asking for help, to leave, or simply for money from the newcomers. Fortunately for us, we already have friends of AVSI here, present here on the island for around ten years, with educational, social welfare and agricultural projects, who take us in hand and lead us to a closer look into this circle of hell set in the Caribbean.

Our first destination is the tent-city set up in Citè Soleil, a neighborhood already among the poorest of the capital of Port-au-Prince. Here 8,000 people gathered spontaneously who were displaced from their poor collapsed houses and huts. We visit this area with a certain fear: people are quite angry and there have been incidents of violence in recent days: in fact, however, AVSI is known here and loved.

We meet the local AVSI volunteers who distribute tents, pots, bowls, cans and other basic necessities. The visit confirms what we feared: in each tent there are children with fever, infants with gastroenteritis, pregnant women who are anemic and weak, with parasitic skin and more. It is inevitable in a huge crowded mall, with no toilet, no water distribution points, no cooking areas. The children, always smiling and enthusiastic about new experiences, surround us and want to give us a hand, one by one.

Then we also visit four hospitals which instead appear to be well tended: American, Italian, French and South American doctors are present here from many different organizations and are helping victims of the earthquake. In beds arranged in outdoor courtyards, one can see those who have already been operated on, almost all young people, with many amputees. It is estimated that 15,000 people have amputated limbs. This means in effect that Haiti has thousands of people who are disabled and sick, and unless there is an energetic and widespread effort to offer prosthetics and rehabilitation, they will likely become beggars and transients.

Our decision at this point is imposed in practice by the actual situation: we will do a series of surgeries in this tent city with the bright name, Citè Soleil, but its reality is terribly obscure. We write up the project to be approved quickly for some UN agency funds and we get to work. Over the next few days we start to visit people, especially women and children. Over the course of time, their number increases, and the more we help them the more we discover the scope of the problems: many are also malnourished, many of the families include the dead or missing. We start to quickly distribute medicine and food.

When we cross the city, hampered by people who live on the street, by the debris that litters the path and the lethal taxi traffic and relief trucks; we are surrounded by a Dantesque scene of collapsed and dangerously tilting houses, by mountains of rubble, with signs that indicate the dead are still buried below, the stench of mud and of people who camp near what was once their home. The inevitability of life that draws powerfully on with normal activities cannot erase the grief that has struck all: there is no family without dead or wounded.

While recognizing that aid from rich nations, with the U.S. and Italy in the lead, is necessary and valuable, we have to note that the greatest contribution the Haitian people is receiving is from the Church: Many are the congregations, individuals, and Catholic NGOs that are nearby and will continue to be even when the world will turn off the lights on Haiti.

The Italian media has already done this for a while: Flip through the Italian newspapers and for days there is no longer any news of the earthquake. Some examples of this gratuitous charity is Sister Marcella Catozzi who reopened her clinic, which collapsed in the neighborhood dump of Jeremy Wharf; near the sea is Father Gianfranco, a Camillan, who works tirelessly in his hospital imitating the love of their holy founder, St. Camillo de Lellis; or the Franciscans who have opened a clinic in the church, where we have also helped visit hundreds of patients; or the cheerful South-American sisters who have restarted clinics and distributed food and medicine coming from all the countries of South America , including Cuba.

AVSI, too, which has already started operating clinics and will continue them for months, sending doctors on rotation (those who are available, please volunteer) is on this road which draws its energy from the presence of one who two thousand years ago has given a meaning and an absolute value to pain and human suffering by saying "Blessed are the poor, blessed are you who weep now for ye shall be comforted, blessed are you who hunger and thirst for justice ...." This presence is not resigned and melancholy; it is a life full of hope and hard work. For it would be a crime not to continue to walk together with the people of Haiti.

Source: Il Sussidiario

To see pictures of AVSI’s recovery work in Haiti visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/avsigallery/