In January 2010, a devastating 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti: affecting an estimated 3 million people. Possibly over 200.000 deaths and for sure many – very many – injured. 2 Years later, in 2012, I took on a mission and went to work as a clinical rehabilitation trainer in Léogane, where the epicentre had been. Once I reached the area, I couldn’t believe that 2 years had passed already; it was as if disaster had struck the night before. On my way from the airport to the mission base, I wrote in my diary: ‘it is just one hell of a mess here’. With time passing by, this impression only grew stronger.
The time that I’ve spent in Haiti is stored in my memory under ‘the Haitian Hell’. It was a tough year, both professionally and personally. After the first few weeks I drew up an HTS-list – my abbreviation for ‘how to survive’. It was a list with things and thoughts that I could turn to during difficult times … I often used it! It wasn’t until much later, that I realized how similar my own list was, to the principles of surviving during captivity that international aid workers are instructed with (in case of i.e. kidnapping which wasn’t uncommon that time in Haiti).
It was a turbulent time in a (for me) very demotivating environment. International organizations were tripping over each other – yet most of the available resources didn’t reach the areas with the highest need. A worldwide willingness to help doesn’t do much in a country where the government is not interested in the lives of its own people.
After 3 months I was evacuated by helicopter to the Dominican Republic as the internal bleedings due to haemorrhagic dengue fever were getting out of control and a storm was threatening to close off the country from any incoming and outgoing transportation once again. After I returned to the base a few weeks later, I struggled to serve the last long months of my contract.
But there were also positive sides to that period of time. The temperament of 2 Italian colleagues, a huge bush of fresh basil and a compound goat brightened up the days. Even if it is on a small scale, still I noticed the results of our involvement. As always, I tried to visit as many patients as possible ‘at home’ (instead of having them visit the clinic) and got to see a far different Haiti than the cruise ships mooring to the shore from time to time. The memories that I collected were not so nice, but even more so impressive.
Looking back, I am happy that I had the chance to experience life behind barbed wire on a closed compound where armed guards can’t manage to stay awake during their duty; it did put some things into different perspective. What I found most challenging was to deal with being deceived by my own colleagues and even the students that I was tutoring, rather than to process the overpowering destruction and despair. Questions like ‘how far should I go for my job?’ and ‘why do I do this job in the first place?’ or ‘does it make sense it all?’ accompanied me through the months. Although I didn’t find the answers until today, surviving ‘the Haitian Hell’ made me be better prepared for the variety of jobs in the emergency and development field that followed.