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.

Places to contact to offer help and donations.

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.

  1. Terri Evans

    Oh, Mike. You have given us a unique, informed and tragic view of hell that has become more hellish. (This analogy of hell is not intended to suggest any alliance with the absolutely absurd and mean-spirited idea that Pat Robertson is floating about the Haitian’s making a deal with the devil – yes, he has actually said that). Your admiration and sorrow for the Haitian people is so clear and authentic in this piece that I suspect the news of this tragedy is more painful to you, and your memories, than to those of us who lack the intimate reference you shared.

  2. My visit to Haiti over 30 years ago drove home to me 1) the amazing luxury of having a sturdy roof over my head and good food to eat and 2) the amazing resiliency of the human spirit in the face of any adversity.

  3. Mike, What vivid descriptions of the depths of despair and poverty that plagued Haiti before the earthquake. It’s hard to imagine how horrendous a place it is today. Yet your story also captured the proud human spirit that somehow survived within the rubble. The earthquake brings up so many questions, starting with why, why, why. How can life be so unfair? How could a God allow such tragedy on the poorest of the poor? How can there be such a gap between those of us who have so much and those who have so little? What I do know is that your voice is missed at Cox Newspapers and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. This commentary should be on front pages of newspapers across the country. Thank you for sharing. Sure do miss working with you.

  4. Frank Povah

    Yet on our local news last night I was informed that a Frankfort, Kentucky-based missionary group is worried about its missionaries, and that all the work they have done building churches maybe as nought. Reminds me of an old Wobbly song.

  5. Incomprehensible tragedy. I wish everyone in the United States could read this powerful account of Haiti’s unimaginably deprived communities. Great reporting and yet another reason that The Dew is one of the strongest voices in blog journalism today.

  6. Mike what is to keep the “political factions” from useing this horrific tragedy to hoard food and clothing for profit? This was one of many problems that hit Indonesia along with the tsunami. The UN doesn’t seem to be strong enough to handle the job. Mike I am not being a negative ass here. I am asking someone that has seen the carnage first hand before the earthquake for any ideas other than military intervention which seems to be inevitable.

  7. Mike Williams

    The Haitian government is weak, ineffective and subject to corruption, but it also provides very little in the way of services or infrastructure and therefore isn’t capable of acting as the main agent in the relief effort. I am confident the vast majority of relief aid will come in under the auspices of the Red Cross and other charities, along with USAID, the UN and possibly our military. I believe the distribution will be reasonably free of graft, at least initially. But it is not a perfect world and none of those are perfect organizations. No doubt there will be waste, hoarding and profiteering. I’m willing to accept that and give anyway because the need is so great. Even if only pennies of my donation actually get into the hands of some starving family and the rest is wasted or stolen, those desperate families need the food and medicine those pennies will buy and may well perish without them.

  8. Thank you Mike for your responce and the idea that any part of a contribution could make a difference.
    I would like to respond to Maria Saporta’s comment about how a God or “higher being” (which ever is politically correct these days) could “allow such a tragedy on the poorest of the poor”. Maria could it be as Mike has described above the rest of the world was not paying attention to the human condition and situation in Haiti and God “GOT THEIR ATTENTION”. I know Indonesia and that part of the world was in much of the same conditions as Haiti and GOD GOT OUR ATTENTION! It is a shame it takes a tragedy to recognize and help other human beings!

  9. Beautifully written article, Mike. Sorry you’re not with me.

  10. Keith Graham

    Mike: I’m so sad for Haiti. I’m also so sad for the Cox Newspapers chain, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and, far more important than any of those media companies, the readers who saw your stories through the Cox papers or the numerous other papers that subscribed to The New York Times News Service, which always carried your articles, that you are not there telling these stories now. You could always get to the heart of a breaking story quicker than anyone I ever knew over the decades. When you really got to know a place, as you did with Haiti, your reporting was even more incredible and penetrating. This piece by you is a great story informing us about a huge tragedy. I don’t know about the best place to contribute but I picked three: CARE USA, which is based in Atlanta, MAP (the medical assistance program based in Brunswick, GA) and Doctors Without Borders. I have personal experience with both CARE and MAP and believe them to be smart, caring and responsible. All three have a history of operating in Haiti and know the country well.

  11. Jingle Davis

    if hearts and wallets don’t open to your plea, mike, nothing will move them to do so.

    what a beautiful and heartbreaking portrait of our near-neighbors who live such radically different lives than we do.

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