The nation of Haiti was born in 1804 following the violent overthrow of Napoleon’s army and its French colonial masters by the nation of black slaves. Since then, Haiti has suffered continual dictatorships of military rule by the elites, characterized by violence, megalomania, corruption and even a 20-year occupation of the U.S. (1915-34).
In 1991, in its first fair and democratic elections, Jean Bertrand Aristide, a Catholic priest and follower of liberation theology, became President of Haiti. After seven months in office, he was overthrown by the Haitian army.
When I arrived in August 1992, the people of Haiti were reeling from the successive blows of the military coup 11 months earlier, the ensuing U.N. initiated international embargo on aid, the absence of civil security and the presence of ongoing violence against the Haitian people by its army, police and hired thugs.
Haitians were also trying to cope with the devastating effect on farming and food supplies brought on by a severe multi-year drought and the cumulative effects of ongoing deforestation. Because of the coup, the United Nations member countries suspended all projects except emergency humanitarian aid, further crippling the poor Haitians.
I had several assignments in Haiti. CARE asked me to photograph and write about their emergency aid: the feeding of tens of thousands of people in the cities and countryside. I also photographed the multiple emergency humanitarian aid efforts for Catholic Relief Service. For the United Nations Development Programme, I interviewed, photographed and wrote about the effects of the international aid boycott on the U.N.’s development efforts.
Another assignment was to photograph the impacts of extensive deforestation and desertification, fields of drought-killed crops throughout the country, and women and children lining up for food at emergency aid canteens. The impoverishment and suffering was profoundly saddening. Poor Haiti seemed condemned to suffer violence and poverty for another 200 years.
I met many Haitian and European development professionals and doctors who, despite the overwhelming odds of the country’s poverty and violent political history, were dedicated to helping the Haitians survive.
In the midst of the horrific poverty and political repression, I could see that many Haitians had strong spirits, were proud of their country and believed in the transformative power of education.
Above all else, they wanted their children to go to school. The cost of education – not only the school fees but books, pencils and clothes to wear – were beyond the reach of the great majority of the people and education remained unattainable for most Haitians living in the countryside.
In the cities, some families were able to send their kids to schools, often with the material assistance of international development agencies. The kids who attended schools were eager and enthusiastic students, highly motivated to learn.
I listened to Haitians I met in the countryside and wrote down what they told me in my field notes. Here are their words:
Inelis S, age 30, and her husband have four surviving children ages 12, 10, 8 and 15 months. “The baby has been sick for two weeks with ‘sickness.’ I will bring the baby to a doctor tomorrow. The other children had the same sickness. The doctor is free but the medicine is very expensive.
“I live according to what God wants to give me but he has not been good to me, everything that was planted produced nothing. If it had not been for CARE many people would have died- some already have- some died by God’s will, others by hunger. There is nothing in the country, there is no work, no food. I live by going to the market, 6 km away, to buy food and then resell it in the village. If you have money you can live – without money you live by Earth. If Earth gives nothing you have nothing.
She continued, “Yesterday we ate flour for breakfast, then we had juice and bread in the afternoon. We have not eaten yet this morning [10am]. Maybe we will eat at noon.”
Derilien A is a 33-year-old mother of six children aged 16, 14, 12, 10, 6 and 4. All are recipients of a U.S. emergency food aid program. Derilien explains quietly, “We are peasants. My husband works four small plots of sorghum. Nothing comes from it. He just sits and waits for rain. The children wake at night, hungry. I tell them ‘wait until tomorrow’.”
Starvation gives them little opportunity to dream. Derilien feels tired and hungry. To pay off debt at the food market she works in a salt mine, six days a week, from 4 am till noon. In water up to her waist, she bends down and scoops enough salt to make five 250 pound blocks a week. Her pay for this work is 10 Gourdes, about $1.10 a week. Derilien would like to start a little business selling food, to become a market lady. More than anything else, she wishes that her children could somehow go to school.
I meet a teenager, Rosemary F, at a communal water spigot. She is filling a 5 gallon pail of water to carry back to her house, almost 2 miles away. She carries the 43 pound bucket on her head. Rosemary makes the trip several times a day. She is not sure of her age. She thinks she is 14 but looks older. She lives with her parents and three younger sisters.
Her father is a farmer. “We have no animals and no food because there is no rain. Ever since I can remember, from when I was little, my dream was to go to school. I still would like more than anything to go to school but cannot because my family does not have the money to buy clothes and books, and because my mother needs my help at home. The country is hard. I would like to be able to spend more time with the other girls at the water spigot but I have to bring the water home.”
When not carrying water, Rosemary spends much of the day sleeping.
Suffering the effects of natural disaster, with no relief imaginable, the Haitian farmers voiced their fatalism and despair.
I meet Clotilde J, age 45-50. She is sitting on the ground. She tells me she has 12 children and 8 grandchildren. “We don’t do anything, just sit and wait to see what God will bring.” Her brothers and sisters live nearby. “We are all poor and cannot help each other. We just stay where we are.”
With great effort, Clotilde gets up from the ground and hobbles over to a nearby corn field where all the stalks are shriveled brown. She grabs a tiny dead ear of corn. “Look, this is what we have to eat. The birds don’t even eat it.” She throws it on the ground, spits and hobbles back to her house.
An ancient stick figure, bending completely over at her waist, hacks furiously away at the barren, rock-strewn ground with a worn machete. Choisina L. painfully straightens and says, “We are miserable, we have nothing. I work with my sister and her husband – we have to help each other- the children had to stop going to school because we could not afford it. My husband left seven years ago and I have not heard from him since. He said he went to look for work. I don’t know where he is or if he is alive. I have four children living, a daughter sick in Port-au-Prince and a son sick with fever.”
“We are only eating at the [CARE] canteen. It’s the only meal every day. This year is worse than ever. In other years we had four goats; two to eat and two to sell for school or clothes or food. Earlier this year, we had to sell two goats and then later, we sold the others. Last year, we grew a little corn but this year we got seeds [from CARE] and the corn died because no rain came.
“We really thought we were going to die this year because of no food but then the canteen came in April. We thought God would help us. All we had to eat were green mangoes. We felt weak and prayed to God who sent foreigners to come and help us. I pray over there, [she points to a scraggily tree] pray for food. He [pointing at her brother-in-law] gave me this plot of land.”
Choisina’s brother-in-law, Exius P., is age 60 or 70. “She had to eat. She would have died! It’s the poor who help the poor. My hopes are in God’s hands. I want whatever God has to give me.”
Canteens dispensing emergency food aid throughout the north and center of Haiti provide the only meals for tens of thousands of Haitians.
Only women and children are fed. I follow a child carefully carrying his bowl of gruel to his house to share with other family members.
None of them are getting enough calories.
At one food dispensary, a child sits listlessly on the ground and eats a bowl of gruel.
This picture is used as the cover of the U.N. Population Fund magazine for my article, “No Relief for Haiti”, which describes the humanitarian disaster there.
Starving and desperate for work, Haitian farmers go to large sugar cane plantations, called bateys, located just over the border in the Dominican Republic, and become virtual slaves.
They are charged by the batey owners more for their housing and food than they earn. They are not allowed to leave the plantation if they are in debt, which all of them are. CARE has installed a simple pump in the housing compound that supplies potable water, a first for the batey community.
Surprisingly, I came upon a happy, healthy young woman bathing a well fed baby. These are the happiest two people I’ve seen.
A child, about 9 years old, is bathing and washing her one dress in a filthy irrigation canal.
A woman waits for a ride to medical care with her very sick 3-year-old boy.
Traveling In the cities, I saw Haitian’s suffering condensed and intensified. The urban slums appear unending and inescapable. Cite Soleil takes up most of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, spreading down the side of a mountain into the harbor. The few rich Haitians live further up the mountain, in Petonville, in beautiful brightly painted homes.
Cevertu P sits on the dirt floor of her hut. Her two children have just walked about a kilometer from the CARE canteen in Robateau, an enormous slum in Gonaives, the largest city in northern western Haiti.
Everything in Robateau is slime gray or dusty brown: there is no other color to be seen in the landscape except for green scum covering the many pools of water. The ground is gray mud strewn with dead animals, garbage and excrement. Children, dogs and pigs root around looking for food. Old women sit in the deeper filth-filled pools washing themselves and their clothes.
The shabby mud, plaster and twig homes crowd together. Broiling heat and revolting stench fill the entire scene. No one smiles. People’s faces are clenched into frowns of disgust. Cevertu tells me, “God only knows how we will eat and still live.” The horror of the scene challenges belief. I do not take any pictures and leave as quickly as possible.
Twenty-five years later, Haiti still cannot catch a break. Little has changed since the devastating 2010 earthquake. Suffering remains the constant experience of life for most Haitians.