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UI student: Hope still present in earthquake-devastated Haiti

BY KIRSTIN RIGGS | MARCH 11, 2010 7:30 AM

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I saw a body in the ditch the other day.

She was alone, partially wrapped in a tarp. Police waved us on, but I couldn’t peel my eyes away until the sight was well out of view.

It was the worst, but far from the first horror, I’d witnessed since arriving in Haiti. A thief came in with a deep machete wound in his shoulder. A baby was born with its intestines partly outside its body. A riot began on the premises of the medical compound — nearly 100 people determined to take vengeance on an injured man involved in a fatal automobile accident. The doctors had to hide him in the pharmacy.

And the earthquake is recent memory — shown in the land and in the people. All the people we met had stories of how they survived the Jan. 12 earthquake and of their loved ones who did not.

One man was standing outside, unable to move on the snake-like sidewalk as he watched the building his wife was in shake like Jell-O. After the quake, he heard “eerie” screams coming from the city in the valley below. A thick cloud of cement dust from falling buildings traveled up the hill and stung his eyes and nose. Then, unexpected shouts of thankfulness followed the screams: “Praise God, we’re alive.”

Without rebar, cement buildings fell straight down, and levels stacked like pancakes. The presidential palace collapsed, the once-grand domes now sunken on the wide stairway. The road cracked in places, at times nearly impassable. A countless number of people live in tent cities. The nice tents are made of tarp; most are made of cloth. In the hills away from Port-au-Prince, shelters are made of woven palm branches.

Haiti is full of tragedy, yet not empty of hope.

As we drove into Port-au-Prince, the sun was setting. Lamp posts were scarce along the rubble-lined streets, and I wondered what the vendors would do without light. Many had begun cooking on the side of the street, grilling sausages and vegetables over hot coals. As the darkness began to tire my straining eyes, the vendors began to light tall, white candles. The surrounding devastation faded, and the soft flickers seemed at once a memorial and a resolution.

One last ride in the back of the pickup this morning took us to the airport. I sat on the suitcase closest to the back, choking on the black fumes from cars so close I could touch them. A man passed us on a motorcycle, wearing a gray T-shirt with black letters: “You don’t know me.”

I didn’t bother to check my stare as he whizzed bravely by, and I let the truth of the statement sink in.

We were in Haiti for a quick 10 days. We saw hundreds of patients, delivered a dozen babies, doled out thousands of prescriptions. We held the hands of those in pain, played with children, embraced those who rejoiced as well as those who mourned. But we weren’t heroes.

The bustle continued around me as we arrived at the airport, but I continued to reflect. As we took off, I gazed out the window until the shining tin rooftops of Port-au-Prince disappeared beneath a burst of cotton clouds. My eyes stung with emotion as I felt the distance between myself and this country I had grown to love.

We didn’t bring hope to Haiti. Hope is already there. If anything, Haitians gave hope to me.

Kirstin Riggs is a UI journalism student. This is the final of three guest opinions on Haiti from Riggs, who is now back in Iowa.


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