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Art Rascon's return to Haiti

Friday, March 12, 2010

Walking the rubble of this land brings back so many memories. I returned today to some of the original sites visited the day after the quake.

The most disturbing among the sites, were the locations where we were able to speak to those buried alive in the rubble. They were deep inside the fallen debris, trapped in a concrete cave. We talked with them and were able to drop them crumbs of food, but there was simply no heavy equipment to move the debris. Over the days following the quake, their cries for help eventually turned into faint whimpers, and then, nothing. Only silence.

Returning to these troubling scenes was humbling. I stood in awe and reverence over the tremendous loss of life, for below where I stood were still the lifeless bodies of those unfortunate victims, forever buried in their concrete tomb. Images of two months ago raced through my mind of when I dropped a microphone into the crevice and could hear the voices of people pleading for rescue. It was such a sad reflection. I grieve for those lost. There are so many, possibly more than 250,000 dead from this earthquake.

Not far from the collapsed buildings was a gravesite, where crushed crypts lay everywhere. The quake leveled nearly all of the large tombstones. But also buried in this small cemetery were hundreds of nameless people dumped into mass graves. I walked with the caretaker of the grounds. "There are 15 bodies here, 10 there, and over there, about 20 under that dirt pile," he said.

The mass graves were everywhere and this was just one of literally hundreds of mass burial sites where more than 100,000 people are believed the be buried. There are no tombstones, no markers to indicate a mass grave, no names to point to in reverence, nothing... Just a pile of dirt.

So many thousands here not only lost loved ones, but they lost them forever, not knowing where their bodies were taken or what mass grave they were dumped into. In the days immediately after the quake, there were so many bodies laying in the street that residents just piled them up on street corners and dump trucks scooped them up and hauled them away. It only adds to the increased tragedy and heartache among the people.

As we were leaving the mass burial grounds we noticed what looked like a hearse with a casket inside. I was driving our vehicle and we decided to follow the casket, eventually ending up at a partly crumbled cinderblock church. It was a squalid looking structure that could have dated back hundreds of years.

They carried the casket inside, set it on a wooden table and opened it. A woman, probably in her 60's, lay inside. There were only eight people gathered around, the woman's daughters, a brother and a few grandchildren. Seconds after opening the casket the loud weeping began. A man played the trumpet to the tune of the great religious spiritual, "How Great Thou Art". The loud cries quickly turned into open wailing for what seemed to be the duration of the small service. There was no speech, no tribute, no spoken word, only an open casket and cries from family. Soon enough they carried the casket away and headed to the nearest cemetery. One more victim in this enormous and mushrooming death toll.

As terribly tragic this was to witness, I thought to myself of how fortunate this dead woman and her family really were. At least she had a proper burial. At least she would have a tombstone. At least she was able to have family gathered around during her final days of succumbing to quake related injuries, while so many never had this chance.

Tomorrow, I'll share more accounts of our journey to Haiti, including our walk through tent cities, being mobbed by children as we ate our MRE's, military food, and the constant plea for money. "Give me a dollar," is the repeated English sentence that you hear again and again, and a reason I carry so many one dollar bills. Until tomorrow...

Our arrival

Returning to the scene of a disaster has never been easy for me. Racing through my mind are the images of the first, initial visit when the scenes were so dreadfully awful.

Once again, because the Port Au Prince airport is closed to commercial traffic, we had to land in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, and drive through the mountainous terrain to get to Haiti. The drive is not easy, with long, winding, pothole filled asphalt and dirt roads. It took my photographer Johnny Rivera-Marquez and me six hours to drive only about 150 miles and we didn't arrive at the border until 2:30am.

The border was closed but fortunately we were able to talk our way through a couple of border guards and get out of the Dominican Republic, only to get in the middle of no-man's land. That's the bit of open space -- usually about a hundred yards or so -- before you reach the next country. Haiti border guards wouldn't let us through, so we slept in our vehicle until 6:30 in the morning. I've slept in far too many vehicles from covering stories.

Finally we were able to reach Port Au Prince about an hour after the border agents let us through. There is certainly a difference from our initial visit immediately after the quake. Most of the streets have been cleared of debris, but all the rubble from downed buildings is still everywhere.

One thing noticeably different was the level of traffic. There were so many cars on the road during this second visit. During our first visit after the quake, our vehicle was among the few on the road, maneuvering around the bodies, debris and throngs of people. With much of the debris cleared, more vehicles were on the road, most of them being relief vehicles from a host of agencies there to provide help. U.N. and military vehicles from various nations are everywhere, helping clog traffic.

Another noticeably different scene was the number of people on the streets. The day after the quake, millions were wandering aimlessly, seemingly still in a state of shock and disbelief over this catastrophe. Over the many days we were there in this first visit, throngs of people with bags and baskets were walking all directions just trying to get out of the city. Most residents have now left Haiti. I asked a man on this return trip, "Where is everyone?"

"They've left the city, " he said. "They've gone to the country." With no home, no job, rubble everywhere and hundreds of thousands in the same condition, they have no desire to stay. They gathered what they could carry, and it was very little, and walked, some 15 miles, others 20, 30, or 50 miles out of the city, simply to start a new life in the fields.

One of my interviews was with a young teenager who we found on the street corner sitting and playing an old, partly tuned guitar. He sat next to the open garbage pile that reeked of filth and played a gospel song in his native Creole. "Thank you Jesus," he sang. "We have troubles and we have many problems, but with Jesus, all will be well."

These were the tear-filled lyrics of this young man. Some of his family was dead, the rest had fled to the countryside. "Why are you still here," I asked.

He said simply, "Because I love my country and want to help."

I was encouraged by the young teen. He had hope. He had ambition. He had a prayer in his heart that all would be better. I was hopeful for him. Tomorrow I'll talk about just how realistic that hope is.

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