Words and Photos by Simon Biswas
Day 1 – Jan 16th 2010
It has been a grueling forty-eight hours but I made it. I am at a little hotel in Santo Domingo with a bunch of French journalists. I flew in this morning. My flight was at 6:00am, but it was delayed until about 10:30am. As a result I missed meeting up the other photographers from New York who I had been in contact with back home. I was left to figure out my own way in. I am totally exhausted and terrified and have an overwhelming sense of dread. There is a wedding going on downstairs by the pool. It’s a strange juxtaposition because in less than twenty-four hours I am going to be in downtown Port Au Prince. It was the same at JFK. People on my plane were all dressed for a tropical vacation while just a spitting distance away thousands of people are dead. I guess life goes on. The airport in the Dominican Republic was Hell… I just showed up without knowing anyone and hoped someone would let me tag along. It took me four tries but it worked. Channel One News out of New York got me through customs and then everyone afterward blew me off as a liability. I waited around until I met a group of French journalists who were looking to hire a car to go across the border; they were more than happy to have me. I am meeting everyone for dinner in about half an hour. There are all sorts of weird tropical bugs in my room and for the first time all day I have cell phone service. We leave for the border at 4:00am.
Day 2 – Jan 17th 2010
We made it. I am sitting in the garden of the French Ambassador’s Residence in Port Au Prince. The actual residence has collapsed. I somehow managed to get in with two of the French journalists, Coco and Lela. They told the guards I was their American assistant. The residence is home to over a thousand aid and relief workers and is a high tech tent city of its own. There are clean water, food, chemical toilets, showers, and the engineers are working on setting up satellites for Internet and communications.
We woke up at 3:30am and had our driver pick us up from the hotel. From there we drove for about ten hours into downtown Port Au Prince. The drive was long and the closer we got to Haiti, the more tense I became. The border at Jamina was the most chaotic and stressful part. Nothing but military and barbed wire. There were journalists everywhere. Hundreds of refugees and aid workers coming and going. We drove past a truck full of refugees and nuns. All the nuns were wearing crosses around their necks and gas masks on their faces. People had warned me there were bandits waiting at the border hijacking aid convoys. Guns and drug traffic are a recurring problem even during the best of times. Once we crossed over I realized there was no turning back. We got over the border with no problem. No one even checked our passports or paperwork. The real question is, how am I going to get back? I never really took the time to think that far ahead.
I now know what the end of the world looks like. Downtown PaP is the most horrendous thing I have ever seen. There are no words to describe the destruction. The chaos is so great I can’t really comprehend what is around me. A camera is not enough to tell the
story. I watched people pull bodies from buildings and leave them in the streets. Every building has collapsed—it’s as if the city has been hit by an atomic bomb. There is no electricity, no water, no food. The smell is overwhelming. People burn garbage in the streets along with bodies. There is an acrid stench of death that fills the air. Everyone is wearing masks around their faces, but the smell is so overpowering it makes no difference. There are dead bodies everywhere. Sometimes you can’t see them but, as you walk past a building, you can smell death and you know people are still inside. We were mobbed by people asking for help and supplies. I could do nothing.
Day 3 – Jan 18th 2010
I woke up to the sound of roosters at dawn. Coco, Lela and I found the Villa Créole Hotel by accident. What a fortunate chain of events. The hotel itself has more or less collapsed, but they are still renting out rooms to journalists. We arrived and there was hot coffee and free continental breakfast. They also have electricity and Internet, and the best part is that the place is teeming with journalists who speak English. For the past thirty-six hours or so I have been with French people, saying little and understanding less.
The hotel staff takes the time to clean the pool every morning. People are trying to hold onto their sense of purpose and routine, but to me it’s just baffling. The entire hotel has collapsed but some guy is cleaning the pool? Really?
I spent the morning talking to people and gathering information. I shot at the University General Hospital during the afternoon. From what I understand, it’s the only hospital left standing. The situation is grim. The doctors there are calling it “civil war surgery.” They had 150 amputations yesterday and another 150 today, and most likely the same amount tomorrow. I have never seen such a gruesome, sad sight. So many people with nowhere to go. The doctors are completely understaffed and under-equipped. Amputees are getting Tylenol for their pain. I lost Lela and Coco in the chaos. There were thousands of people waiting for anything. The resilience of these people is incredible. One doctor told me the reason the Haitians are still alive is because of their cultural conditioning. They are used to such harsh conditions that they have the ability to endure. He said if this happened in New York, everyone would be dead in three days.
I made it back to the Villa Créole this evening with some aid workers in the back of a truck. I was told never to go out after dark. This was the first time seeing the city at night. People are everywhere and the streets are pitch black except for headlights and bonfires. When I made it back Lela was already sitting by the pool, working. She handed me a beer and a cigarette and I sat down in a daze. We had walked through the gates of Hell. I’m numb. No emotions I have experienced up until this point in my life can compare. I am happy to be safe, but dreading tomorrow. I just heard gun shots a hundred feet away beyond the hotel wall.
Day 4 – Jan 19th 2010
I didn’t get much sleep last night. We never made it back to the French Ambassador’s Residence. I slept under a tree in a little courtyard area within the hotel compound with nothing but a sheet. I spent the day on the back of a motorcycle with Lela. By far the
most dangerous possible thing one can do in Haiti, but also one of the most fun. For the first time in four days I had a smile on my face. No helmets, darting in and out of traffic at sixty miles an hour, going the wrong way into oncoming traffic. There is really no other way to get around town since all the streets are destroyed and traffic is too heavy. Here I could be killed by falling buildings, disease, gun shot, among a slew of many other things, so does it really make a difference if I ride on a motorcycle?
“Today we enjoy because tomorrow we could die.” Jimmy, a Dominican aid worker
I spent the day at the airport talking to the military about the aid effort. We just walked right out onto the tarmac with zero hassle. There are no rules here. No security. It seems as if reality has been suspended. The airport is totally destroyed. It was a ghost town.There was no one. Rooms full of luggage. Things scattered everywhere. Paperwork strewn about. I was free to do as I pleased. To get out onto the tarmac we had to crawl through the space on the luggage belt where the ground crew puts the bags on the carousel. The other side was a totally different story. The tarmac was frenzied with helicopters, planes, aid and military. We interviewed some people and left. Lela had a deadline to meet. It looked like rain. Rain is bad news. With all the destroyed rubble and dead bodies rain means disease. A doctor told me there would be different stages to a disaster. The first is the initial trauma and injuries directly inflicted by the earthquake. The second is infection, and the third is disease. If it rains, all the rotting bodies and filth will seep into the water and disease will spread like wildfire. Diseases the western world hasn’t seen in centuries. Cholera, being number one, could kill thousands of more people.
We made it back to the Villa Créole and I spent the afternoon drinking beers on AP’s tab. I wanted to go out on my own and work but I knew it was not a smart idea. Lela had to finish her story, so I waited, frustrated. “Patience and fluidity,” the two things I keep telling myself everyday. Nothing here can be planned. Nothing can be anticipated. There has been a lot of waiting so far.
Today I realized that I won’t make it here two weeks like I had originally planned. Mentally it might destroy me. But financially I just didn’t bring enough money with me. There are no banks and the Haitians know we are dependent on them to be guides, fixers, and translators. I’ll be lucky if I make it through the weekend. We are heading back to what I am now calling my other home, the French Embassy. It’s getting dark.
Day 5 – Jan 20th 2010
The earth moved under me as if it were Jell-O. I woke up at dawn to the rolling of thunder and the ground beneath me rippling like water. When I came to I was standing outside my tent in a daze with a thousand French aid workers and volunteers looking completely stunned. Without anyone having to say anything, the very core of me knew that was another huge earthquake. We found out later that there was a 6.1 aftershock. Everyone has stories of where they were when it happened. A friend of mine was at the La Plaza Hotel where CNN is satying and said all of CNN was running around in their underwear. One foreign correspondent fell two stories off his balcony and hit his head on the concrete. People found him laying in a pool of blood. Lela and Coco wanted to go to the epicenter of the second earthquake in Boucan, but decided not to when their driver said it was four hours away and would cost at least $500. I was pleased—I didn’t
want to go on another crazy mission deeper into Haiti when we had more than we could handle right here. We all decided to go back to the Villa Créole where I met up with Adam, another photographer from New York. He was one of the original people I was supposed to meet at the airport in the DR. We linked up and I split off from the Frenchies for a bit and headed out around town for the day. We went to the Hotel Montana, back to the hospital, downtown, to an orphanage in Petionville, and then back to the Villa Créole. It’s been a long day and my ass hurts from spending it on a motorcycle. Military presence has definitely increased. Today was the first day I’d seen Hummers and convoys of soldiers around PaP. Earlier in the week there were scatterings of UN Military Police and that was it. The hospital is now locked down tight. We spent half an hour talking our way in. As a result of this morning’s earthquake, all the patients had to be moved outside. It was chaos. There were people everywhere just baking in the sun. It had to be close to eight-five degrees and there was no protection from the sun in the hospital courtyard. People were covering themselves with pieces of cardboard to have some sort of shade while others just endured. The military has started setting up medical tents and moving people there. The Hotel Montana is equally a mess and there is a list of missing persons who have yet to be found, including several Americans. There are search and rescue teams camped out around the rubble working around the clock. I doubt they will find anyone alive. The orphanage was a bust. Adam and I spent an hour or so off-roading to meet up with his friends from CNN only to find we were in their way. We left. I was surprised to find out that all the children spoke perfect English.
Adam went back to hospital to spend the night and help deliver babies. Lela and Coco went back to the French Embassy, and I just had my first shower in five days. It was ice cold, but it was incredible. Some private contractors running security for the press let me use the shower in their hotel room. They said I looked three shades lighter when I came out. I am going to spend the night here. No need to travel after dark. I am sitting by the pool writing this, listening to all the journalists run around and the now familiar sound of gun shots. Everyone is worried about civil unrest and violence. A Brazilian journalist who lives here told me that now that the shock was over, people were going back to regular Haiti, which is an unforgiving place. Adam is talking about trying to fly out tomorrow. Sounds like a good idea. I’ve only been here five days but it’s time to go.
Day 6 – Jan 21st 2010
I am finishing a margarita at Chili’s Too in the Fort Lauderdale Airport. I feel like a zombie, like I’m floating in a dream. Nothing makes sense. How did I get here?
I woke up this morning at the Villa Créole after another terrible night’s sleep. I spent most of the morning with a bunch of ex-military guys, listening to their stories of Sable rounds and ethnic cleansing. One of them said Haiti was like a vacation in comparison to his tours in places like Serbia. I believed him. I waited till Adam showed up. He had had a long night at the hospital. He told me a volunteer there had a nervous breakdown. She just snapped. She screamed through the night and no one could calm her down. This place was too much for her. She was with a group of Scientologists. What is going to happen to her? They don’t believe in mental health.
The plan was to head for the airport. Adam was packed and I followed his lead. There was no need for me to stay any longer. I was low on cash and I had seen all I needed to see. It was all the same no matter where you went. Collapsed buildings, dead bodies, people suffering… I had had enough. I said goodbye to my new ex-military friends and headed to pick up my stuff at the French embassy and wish Lela and Coco farewell. By now, the US military had taken control of the airport and only let people with passports in. We waited in line. No one spoke English and the woman directing into the megaphone spoke no Creole. No one had any idea what was going on. Everyone wanted to leave. I saw one woman with a child. The baby had a US passport but she did not. The federal agent said, “This baby is good to go, we’ll take her but you have to get out of the line.” We finally made it and asked her the best way to get out onto the tarmac. She said, “As fast as you can. Hold your passport up, keep your head down, and go.” That’s exactly what we did. There was a tiny charter jet out on the tarmac with its stairs down—that was our ticket out of here. We walked straight up to the plane and asked the captain if there was room for two more. He asked us if we had US passports. We did. He let us on. I didn’t believe it. It couldn’t be that easy—but it was. I didn’t even think of asking where the plane was going until we were on. In ninety minutes we were in Miami. I wanted to weep. The plane was a millionaire’s private jet that he lent to take people back and forth between the US and Haiti. The pilot told us they had done thirty- five flights in the past week. We landed, got out, and, just as quickly as it had happened, it was all over and I was on my way home.
I can’t describe what happened over the course of that week. These are just the facts. I felt helpless from start to finish. I could have helped but chose not to. I was there to take photographs. I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t even know why I was there. The decision to go was made in a split second. One moment I thought, “What if…” and the next I was on a plane. Now that I’m home I feel like I never even went. I was on autopilot through the whole experience. I was there but not there at all. I didn’t take those pictures. Some other part of me did.
I never once thought about the ethical concerns of story telling or journalistic integrity or the fine line between voyeurism and documenting. It was only after I got back to the US that those concepts played a factor. There was no right or wrong or “How should I cover this?” There was a city that had been destroyed and everywhere you turned there was something to photograph. I didn’t have an agenda. I didn’t have an assignment. My mission was to take photographs. Whatever they may be—good, bad, horrible, or otherwise. This was real. This was around me. Why shy away from the truth?
People ask me, “How was Haiti?” and I don’t know how to answer.