Haiti is the most heart-rending place I have ever seen. Tuesday’s major earthquake, centered just 10 miles from the capital city of Port-au-Prince, means the misery, indignity, hunger and suffering that the vast majority of Haiti’s 9 million residents were already enduring will become even more acute. Which is hard to imagine. If you are already starving and living in a cardboard shack without power, clean water or proper sanitation, it would be worse to have that cardboard shack flattened. But it will be infinitely worse if the slender thread of survival you were clinging to – perhaps gathering scraps of rotted produce somehow overlooked as vendors pack up at dusk in one of the city’s teeming open-air markets – is suddenly broken because that market no longer exists.

Haiti is a place of extremes that test the limits of credulity. Now, unbelievably, those extremes will be pushed further.

Even before this latest disaster, the filth, the degradation, the desperate struggle to survive overwhelmed many visitors the minute they drove out of the airport compound in Haiti. In Cite Soleil, the sprawling slum ringing the gritty harbor in Port-au-Prince, the poor build their hovels from garbage amidst huge mounds of more stinking garbage. Shipping pallets, cardboard boxes, rusted, crumpled sheets of metal, palm fronds, torn plastic sheeting, you name it, are tacked or wired or simply propped together to make the most ragtag shelters you can imagine. The slum itself is a giant garbage dump, flat, hot, reeking from streams of sickly blue water brimming with human waste that wind their way among the shacks. Half-naked children with distended bellies and vacant stares stumble in the filth, while adults dressed in dirty rags shuffle aimlessly in a daze, whiling away their days bereft of even the merest sliver of hope that anything might ever change, much less improve.

Pigs root in heaps of garbage next to major thoroughfares in the capital. As jarring as that sight is, it becomes routine after a number of visits, yet Haiti’s capacity to surprise you with the depths of its misery is boundless. One day during a round of the nation’s seemingly endless bouts of political violence, I saw one of those pigs bent stoutly to his meal, only to recoil when I realized the animal was feeding on a human corpse. Nobody had collected that body, an apparent victim of the gang warfare between the political factions. The pedestrians crowding the route simply detoured around it, their heads never turning to a sight that in most other countries would draw stunned flocks of the perversely curious. They didn’t look because they knew that doing so might bring even more trouble into their lives. Haitians routinely endure things we cannot imagine.

One stereotypical story that nearly every visiting correspondent eventually wrote sums it up: Haiti is so desperate a place that people actually eat dirt. I had heard the tale for years and finally one day driving down Port-au-Prince’s impossibly crowded streets saw it: a woman carrying a tattered plastic disc, perhaps the dirty lid to a 5-gallon paint jug, mounded with neatly stacked dirt cookies. She hoisted that makeshift tray over her head and walked with dignity through the crowd, as if she were a waitress at some café trundling out the dessert offerings for a table of overstuffed diners marveling over the exquisite enjoyment of their high-priced meal.

In Haiti, some people eat dirt, and often even that isn’t enough to keep them alive. The next time you drop a buck and a half into a vending machine for your afternoon infusion of caffeine and cola, try to imagine that such an afterthought of a purchase represents the entire sum of money you will have to survive for the day. If you are lucky. And maybe you must feed three sick, screaming babies and an elderly relative on that buck-and-a-half, too.

We waste or throw away more than most Haitians ever see in months, even years of desperate living. The price I just paid for a sack of dog food at the grocery for our pets would feed a Haitian family for weeks.

Despite its woes, though, Haiti gets under the skin of many visitors. The need is so great, the history of turmoil, deceit, dictatorships, political pillage and murder so twisted and obscure that it boggles the mind. And then you meet a man scrambling to feed his family, and somehow doing it, or a poor vendor squatting among sacks of charcoal who is somehow sunny and positive, or a mother bargaining with determination you could never match to buy a bag of rice for her hungry children, and you marvel at the dignity many Haitians summon in the midst of such suffering. You want to empty your pockets, volunteer to build clinics or schools or dig wells, and you come away with a sense of admiration for these tough people that somehow surpasses the pity, desperation and hopelessness.

Now the people of Haiti, that wrecked, unluckiest of nations, are going to suffer even more. I cannot tell you which charity would put your donation to the best, most immediate use to relieve some of the suffering. Paul Farmer’s Partners in Health is a good one, profiled superbly by Tracy Kidder in his book, “Mountains Beyond Mountains.” But the Red Cross, Food for the Poor, Catholic Relief Services or any reputable charity that works there will probably be able to take some tiny sum that you will never miss in the unbridled affluence of our lives and put it to good use.

Mike Williams covered Haiti from 2000 to 2009 as Caribbean Correspondent for Cox Newspapers.

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Mike Williams

Mike Williams

With roots in Mississippi and Alabama, Mike Williams worked for newspapers across the South for 27 years. After earning a degree in American Studies at Amherst College, he worked for Alabama newspapers in Baldwin County, Montgomery and Birmingham, followed by stints at the Miami Herald and The Atlanta Constitution. His last job was as a foreign correspondent for the Cox Newspaper chain. He now splits his time between Florida and the North Carolina mountains. His interests include race relations, history, Southern folk culture and the environment.