Fury, fatalism and the field hospital
By Itai Engel • Ha'aretz
PORT-AU-PRINCE - Kiki and Nicolas have this thing. Every time we pass a police vehicle or a government official's car, they intentionally cut it off with their motorcycles, as wildly and scornfully as possible. Sitting behind Kiki, I shrink with fear at the thought of a crash, since we're not wearing helmets. Even before we complete the pass, though, I remind myself that in Haiti today, it's a luxury to be scared by things like this.
Kiki and Nicolas aren't crazy drivers. However, in the 10 days since the earthquake, their government has revealed itself to be so ineffective and impotent that they, like every other Haitian, feel a need to show their contempt for any official representative of it who may come their way.
The motorcycles enable us to be the first ones to arrive anywhere. They can thread their way down roads mostly blocked by the ruins of collapsed buildings. They can swiftly evade the incidents of looting and violence we encounter among the alleys, and they manage better with the strange blend of gas and diesel fuel being sold on the black market to anyone who doesn't want to wait for three hours at a gas station.
For the past five minutes, we have been hurtling toward a plume of black smoke in downtown Port-au-Prince. When we arrive, I am shocked to discover it's the "1882" church that's on fire - one of the most beautiful churches in Haiti, known by the year it was founded.
Just a day earlier we were at 1882 to film the tearful Sunday prayers of the remaining believers. And now it is burning. The pictures of saints swell and slowly turn to cinders, and the impressive cross on the steeple, which stood stoic in the face of the earthquake, has toppled sideways.
As the huge conflagration rages, a few neighbors move haltingly toward the church entrance with buckets of water, but a few meters away, the heat overwhelms them and they throw the water impotently toward the church and retreat.
After a few nerve-wracking minutes, I suddenly flash Kiki a smile of relief - a fire truck is coming. But Kiki is unmoved by the sight, and I quickly understand why. The fire truck slowly trundles past the church and continues on its way. The firefighters in this area have no water.
Despite their nervewracking driving, I'm grateful for every minute on the motorcycle with Kiki and Nicolas because riding fast, with the wind blowing and cutting our faces, we don't notice the smell. The nausea and the sticky heaviness of the corpses lying in the street penetrate every mask or scarf, and each breath brings the death deep into your lungs.
And now I am breathing it again. A corpse lies on the sidewalk. Another corpse is covered by a thin sheet, with hands and feet peeping out from both sides. Next to the body, silently and meticulously, Jean is building a coffin. He nails loose supports between thin planks of wood, which often collapse from the weight of the corpse. He is doing this, he explains to me, so his cousin lying on the sidewalk will have as decent a funeral as possible.
Some people who hear what he says to me push in front of my camera and shout: "Did you hear him? Did you understand what he said to you? It's we who are doing this. It's not the state that's doing this - we are. Where is our f---ing government? Where is our drunken president, whom we haven't heard from since the disaster? Now it's just us for ourselves!"
What is astonishing is that alongside the fury, the fists in the air and the hysterical weeping, certain people evince calmness and resigned acceptance of fate. One of them, a smiling young man, steps in front of my camera and introduces himself. His name is Pierre, and he asks me if I am Italian.
"No. Why did you think I'm Italian?"
I'm wearing the hat of my soccer team in Italy, Fiorentina. I am surprised he's heard of it, and just as surprised by the fact that a meter away from a corpse, we're discussing soccer. Pierre is impressively knowledgeable about the top European leagues, and smiles serenely at every mention of a team or a player. He looks serious only once.
"It's terrible what is happening here. Soccer is our favorite sport and now you can see how our national stadium looks."
Haiti's national stadium is just 100 meters away from where we are talking, and it is now serving as a giant field hospital. The lawn is full of improvised tents sheltering bleeding survivors, bandaged and in some cases, post-amputation.
Incidentally, the first doctors who came to treat them were Israelis. Every day the Israelis handle about 200 of the injured. Some die under their hands on the beds behind the western goal in the stadium.
Pierre has lost three family members. One was the corpse on the sidewalk, which in the meantime has been put into a coffin. It is the body of his mother-in-law.
"So if you aren't from Italy, where are you from?"
"I'm from Israel. You know it?"
"You're from Israel? Sure I know it!"
He starts smiling again. This week, Israel became loved and admired here. The Israel Defense Forces rescue unit and field hospital are the most professional of all the delegations and organizations here, and word of their activity has spread quite quickly.
While I'm usually hesitant to say where I'm from when I'm traveling abroad, fearing a hostile reaction to the word Israel, in Haiti today, I feel great, rare pride in my country.
"There's a footballer from Israel who plays in the English league ..."
I don't really believe we are continuing this conversation, and I begin to feel especially uncomfortable because Pierre's sister is weeping and keening beside the coffin.
"Yossi Benayoun! The Israeli player is called Yossi Benayoun. He plays for Manchester United."
"He's in Liverpool," I reply instinctively, and immediately regret it. In an attempt to return to the horrific reality two meters from us, I swivel the camera from him to his sister.
"Right. Liverpool. Sure. Sorry, man. Benayoun is in Liverpool ..."
Then seeing my consternation, he reassures me. "That's life," he says. "We have to go on."
Itai Engel is a reporter for the "Uvda" (Fact) program on Channel 2.