On the ground in Haiti: “I set down my pen and notepad and helped”

Sue MontgomeryAfter sleeping on cardboard boxes, helping a woman in labour, running
from a shaking embassy and telling endless tragic stories,
Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery considers her two weeks in Haiti the most rewarding of her life.

(Read Phil Carpenter’s companion piece.)

When news broke that a huge earthquake had hit Haiti, a country very close to my heart, killing countless thousands, I knew I had to go.

But with with The Gazette, like all newspapers around the world, in financial straits, I figured the chances of me being sent were slim.

At about 7:30 Wednesday morning, 15 hours after the quake struck, I sent an email to my city editor, with a subject line that read: Dumb question. And the message: Are we sending someone to Haiti?

Her response came almost immediately: Am to discuss with (managing editor) Ray (Brassard) soon. If the answer is yes, would you want to go and when could you be ready?

My response: Of course!!!! Asap!

After a flurry of email exchanges, I was on the phone, booking flights for photographer Phil Carpenter and myself. The Port-au-Prince airport was badly damaged and closed, so we’d have to fly to the Dominican Republic, which shares the island of Hispaniola with Haiti, then somehow get to the ravaged country from there.

By noon, Phil and I were at Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport, bags hastily packed, passports and US cash in hand

Getting there: the chopper is running, no baggage allowed

Our flight went through Newark, where we took on many people hurrying to Haiti’s aid, including a Spanish search and rescue team with four Labrador retrievers – they didn’t have their own seats, but they did have their own passports!

And when we landed in Santo Domingo, four hours later, at about midnight, the airport was a madhouse of aid workers, missionaries, and others headed for Haiti.

While in Newark, Phil contacted a Dominican friend of a friend named Franco, a member of the country’s armed forces. He met us at the Santo Domingo airport, whisked us ahead of the interminable line-up at customs, through baggage screening, and out to his waiting vehicle, where his buddy, Dominican cop Joel was waiting.

The two of them delivered us to the Hilton, where we had just a few hours sleep, before being picked up at 7 a.m. That buffet breakfast, with eggs, bacon, patisseries, coffee, juice, and fresh fruit, would be the last meal I’d have for the next several days.

But Phil and I decided we had way too few funds, heading into a country where banks had literally collapsed, and credit cards non-existent. So Franco and Joel drove us from bank to bank to bank, in search of a way to get an advance on our Amex cards. None, not even our very own Canadian Scotia Bank could help us because, they said, they didn’t have the amounts of US dollars we’d need.

While on this wild goose chase, I was on my blackberry, calling a lovely woman named Louise in some American Express office in the 905-area code – southern Ontario somewhere. As my voice cut in and out, she reassured me she was going to work something out, and began by sending us both PINs for our cards so we could at least withdraw Dominican pesos from an ATM, then exchange them for US dollars. But the PIN wouldn’t actually be operational until the next day and we couldn’t wait.

As I paced back and forth, trying to catch decent reception with Louise on my phone, Franco was on his cell, trying to find a helicopter that could get us into Haiti. Business was booming as demand increased by the minute, but Franco finally secured us two seats on a five-passenger chopper that was working for the Dominican Embassy in Haiti.

The outrageously inflated price was negotiated, and we settled on US$6900  (imagining the look on our bosses faces when this showed up on an expense claim – luckily it was a cash-only transaction, with no receipt issued).

But we still had to figure out how we were going to get our hands on that kind of cash. Good ol’ Louise came through by getting advances of US$5000 approved on each of our Amexes, and just by chance, while driving madly through town, we spotted a bank with a big Amex sign.

Sue Montgomery and Phil CarpenterIn we raced, as the deadline loomed for catching our helicopter. The pilot was threatening to give our coveted seats to others if we didn’t show up in an hour. Franco worked his magic again, getting us to the front of the line in the bank. The woman at the desk was told how urgent the situation was, but that didn’t seem to affect her work habits much. She slowly and painstakingly copied all our information from our credit cards and our passports in triplicate, ripping up one form when she made a mistake. Everything had to be photocopied, but the machine didn’t work, so someone had to be called to repair that. In the meantime, Phil and I were pacing, Franco was on his cell, stalling the pilot.

Finally, a full hour after arriving at the bank, the money was in our hands and we were off. Arriving at the small airport, its tarmac dotted with dozens of helicopters and small planes, journalists and aid workers sitting dejectedly on the grass, trying to explain via cell phone to bosses a world away why they couldn’t get into Haiti.

Our chopper was already running, its blades swirling above our heads. The pilot Emil held up both hands and said, “No baggage.” He was completely packed with aid and medical supplies for the Haitians.

I zipped open my backpack, grabbed three pairs of underwear, two t-shirts, some almonds and cashews, threw them in my laptop bag, while Phil scrambled with his own gear. We climbed aboard and were off, on our way to hell.

About an hour later, the chopper hovered down onto a landing pad at the Dominican Embassy, just metres away from the hotel where our office had made online reservations for us. The El Rancho, while still standing, was badly cracked and crumbling, and abandoned.

Arrival: the ground below begins to shake

The embassy building was also badly damaged, belongings inside knocked off walls, partial ceilings missing and furniture coated with plaster. Deep menacing cracks snaked up the outer walls. As if to welcome us to Haiti, the ground below began to shake with the first of many aftershocks we would feel throughout our time in the country. I swear my feet didn’t even touch the ground, as I ran down the terrace stairs of the embassy and as far away from the teetering building as possible.

Not sure where to go or what to do next, Phil and I headed out on the road on foot to observe the horrific scene – dead bodies on the ground, people digging through the metres-high piles of rubble with just their hands and pathetic shovels, people setting up what shelter they could fashion from salvaged materials from the ruins.

Realizing there was no electricity, let alone Internet, Phil and I had to figure out some way to file.

Walking back through the embassy, we ducked into a building separate from the main structure. There, as if a miracle, was a group of Dominican journalists with Internet AND electricity. Exhausted and without having eaten since that morning, we settled down to get our first dispatches out.

Sleeping under the stars

That night, we slept under the stars, on cushions removed from embassy furniture, but with no blankets – and it was cold! Remember, we had left all our clothes in the Dominican Republic, so dressing in layers wasn’t an option. We were also woken up, if we were even in fact asleep, when the ground below us shook violently for what seemed like several seconds.

The next day, David, a UN worker who’s slept under the stars with us, gave us a lift to the Canadian Embassy, where other Canadian journalists were camped out near the tennis court and swimming pool. Following good luck wishes exchanged with colleagues, Phil and I headed out on foot with a few other journalists en route for the nearest hospital – a good 90-minute walk away. (There was lots of gas at the pumps, but no electricity to get it out of the tanks).

The apocalyptic scene

Sue Montgomery It’s hard to find words to adequately describe the apocalyptic scene. A baby’s bloated and bloody foot peaks out from under a dirty sheet-covered mound on the sidewalk.

Unidentifiable parts of human bodies, sticking out from or lying on top of a dusty mass of twisted metal, cement and household belongings: a desk, a chair, a picture frame.

At one scene where the body of a young woman had just been pulled from the rubble, and three hysterical, flailing women were being comforted by by-standers, I turned to the young Haitian next to me and asked what the relationship was between the dead and the living. In perfect English, Carl-Henry Jean-Baptiste, 36, said, “They were sisters.”

He continued to walk with me, telling me his own earthquake story, and by the time we reached the hospital, I’d asked him if he’d like to work as our fixer – the guy that knows how Haiti works and where to find anything, even when there is nothing to be found.

Phil and I continued to stay on our piece of grass at the Dominican Embassy, until their army set up camp there and we had the sense, for the first time since our arrival, that we should find another place to stay. The wife of the consul general, who was on our helicopter, was a sweetheart, smoothing things over with the army so we could stay, and even gave us a flashlight and water. But eventually, we headed out anyway to the Canadian Embassy.

There, journalists were having their own shelter crisis, after embassy personnel told them they’d all have to leave to make room for the growing number of Canadians seeking refuge and a military flight out. I’m told that top media bosses got on the phone with the PMO, telling them that the move was unacceptable, since there were no functioning hotels, and after all, many of the journalists were in the country to cover the Canadian angle – what was the army, foreign affairs and aid groups doing in the crisis?

25 journalists, two toilets, two women

The next day, there was a180-degree turn in the embassy’s attitude, and we were offered a 25-by-five-metre rectangular piece of grassed land, on part of the embassy’s roof, right outside the room where, in normal times, interviews for immigration take place. They assured us that the tall wall in whose shadow we slept had been checked by an engineer and it was secure.

We shared two toilets and two sinks among at least 25 journalists, just two women among them.

The army provided us with MREs – ready-to-eat meals that pack 2500 calories with such tasty treats as macaroni and cheese, omelettes, beef ravioli, chocolate bars, canned-type fruit, and cereal bars, but we had no hot water with which to heat the ready-to-boil bags, so everything was eaten cold, including coffee (My name is Sue, and I’m a caffeineaholic). Plus we barely had time to eat, leaving our base first thing in the morning, running all day, then returning before sundown to write and file. The first night, I filed an entire story by SMS on my blackberry. (Eventually, we shared a sat phone with the National Post and Global television.)
Phil and I slept on flattened cardboard boxes we managed to scavenge from embassy garbage, and while Phil had had the wherewithal to pack a sleeping bag, I accepted a donated polyester duvet from a sympathetic embassy staff member.

On the Sunday morning following the big quake, I was in the washroom, trying to wash my body (finally!!!) the best I could with water in a sink. Suddenly, the room began to sway, I heard yelling outside the door, and knew immediately I had to get out. But my hand was shaking so violently, I couldn’t get the door unlocked for what seemed like forever. I tore across the perhaps four metres of the immigration interview room and out onto the grass. In front of me, a massive metal flagpole boasting the Canadian flag swayed back and forth and my mind worked furiously to figure out which way it would fall. It was only when it was over that I realized I was standing there naked from the waist down, which quite possibly may have traumatized my male colleagues more than the actual quake.

But as the desperate crowd outside the embassy grew by the day, I found it more and more emotionally difficult to flash my Canadian passport and white skin and be waved to the front of the line. Refugees, their wide pleading eyes filling with tears, clutched my arm, asking if there was anything I could do to help them, since they’d lost any number of relatives.

Delicious Haitian food, hugs and lots of laughs

My chance at better digs came the day I interviewed Raymond Chouinard, a Quebecer who’s been in the country for years and working, among other things, at a construction company armed with all kinds of heavy equipment – backhoes, bulldozers, caterpillars – all things you’d want in a disaster like this. At the end of a long day together and with the sun dropping by the minute, he offered me a bed at his house. It was heaven! A shower (and hot water, no less), a bed, a plate of spaghetti bolognaise, garlic bread and a bottle of red wine – my first real meal and shower since landing in Haiti. I wrote my story on Raymond’s computer and easily sent it by Internet.

The next day, he said if I wanted, Phil and I and another colleague could stay at the office in the yard housing all the heavy machinery. There was a fridge, stove, shower, groceries close by – and luxuries of luxuries – air conditioning! I cried and hugged him, making the otherwise gruff guy feel a bit uncomfortable. He said something like “Come on, don’t start that.”

We were all set to move the next day, when Carl Henry took us past Nickel Nicolas’s house, a huge-hearted Haitian with a brother in Montreal, whose house was just down from the Canadian Embassy. Nickel’s entire extended family – some 23 people – had miraculously come out of the quake alive. Since Nickel’s house was the only one in the family that suffered no structural damage, the whole family set up camp in his yard. Nickel, who is the director of the trade school that employed Carl-Henry before that fateful Jan. 12, asked if we wanted to join his gang. Nothing fancy, he said, but we could sleep inside with him and his wife Sonide, or outside in a makeshift tent with the rest, who were too afraid to venture inside.

We gratefully accepted, and every morning were served breakfast of bread and (hot!) coffee – one morning precious eggs were on the menu. At night, we’d return from a long day, hot, exhausted, hungry and emotionally spent and were pampered with some warm water for washing, delicious Haitian food, some hugs and lots of laughs.

The stories

The stories themselves were heartwrenching, as everyone knows by now, and there was one every step or so. Getting to particular stories – at an orphanage or hospital – was extremely challenging, especially in the early days when it was next to impossible to find a driver whose vehicle hadn’t been crushed, and if they had a vehicle, there was no gas to be had.

So I resorted to getting around on foot, on the backs of motorcycle taxis, hitching a ride in the backs of pick-ups or any vehicle that would stop for a desperate looking white woman. (Two characteristics that I believe worked in my favour because I didn’t pose a threat, and most were worried about me).

I had been in the country for about five or six days before I shed a tear, and when the torrential downpour finally came, I happened to be with the Canadian Army Cpt. Mark Peeples. It came on unrepentantly and suddenly. Peeples took a few minutes out of his crazy day to sit with me and reassure me I was doing everything I could to help the Haitian people, and that my stories would help raise awareness back home. The cry was over as quickly as it began and I felt immediately better, as if I’d just vomited out some rotten food.

I had a few more such crying jags during my stay, one at an orphanage where 60 kids were living outside with inadequate shelter should the rain begin to fall, and very little food or water.

Setting down the notepad to help

And the stories were never ones that I could keep at arms length, as I would in Montreal. I became known in my newsroom back home as a one-woman humanitarian organization. I bought food for the orphanage. I counseled new moms with their newborns, soliciting help from my midwife sister in Toronto. While with a young mom who was worried about her fresh C-section scar in one of the tent cities, I e-mailed Ann my questions using my blackberry, and she responded almost instantaneously using hers.

I received texts from people in Montreal, anxious to find relatives. One woman e-mailed me that they’d received a quick cell phone call from her grandmother, saying she was on the terrace of such-and-such an address. We went to check, and the woman had just been rescued and taken to the Canadian Embassy. The granddaughter was overwhelmed with relief and the quick response I was able to give her. I located about four people this way for frantic people back home.

While at a “clinic” in one of the tent cities set up by 7 buddies who were former US marine medics, I set down my pen and notepad and helped a woman in labour, helped stitch up a gaping wound in a man’s head, fed what little food I had to an elderly man laid out flat with back and leg fractures. As he inhaled the food, and gulped down the water, he thanked me profusely, and I could have sworn the colour literally came back to his face.

A Montreal woman, who flew down Sunday after the quake, after hearing her two sisters had perished and that her mom was alone in one of the horrible tent cities thrown together almost instantaneously by the Haitians themselves, was put in touch with me by an email from her husband. The Canadian Embassy refused to let Nicole take her mother home to Canada with her, because she had no documents – only family photos – to prove she was her mom. After the story ran in the paper the next day, things moved in Ottawa, Nicole’s mother was granted a minister’s permit and was on a plane to Montreal within days.

I received flak from a few international organizations, after writing Haitians’ observations that they weren’t doing enough, and that help was only going to the better-off areas. It seemed to me that theses organizations depend on positive coverage, and can’t afford their reputation tarnished at a time when the world’s eyes were focused on Haiti. Was that their biggest concern, I wondered, after getting their e-mails?

My family and friends were understandably terribly worried about me, but through the magic of blackberry, we were able to keep in touch constantly – and I was able to reassure them almost immediately after the 6.1 aftershock that I was fine.

“How on earth can I go back to my beat at the courthouse?”

Far from being a depressing, soul-destroying experienced, this has been the most rewarding, inspirational two weeks of my life. My biggest worry now is how on Earth I can go to my beat at the courthouse and approach my job with any kind of passion. I fear it will all seem so unimportant.

The Gazette insisted that I leave Haiti after 12 days on the ground, to get some rest and recharge my batteries. I begged them to let me stay longer, there is just so much to do, but I see now that they were right. They sent in replacements the day before I left, so at least the coverage will continue in The Gazette, and I’ve been told I can come back.

I left my Haitian family this morning, once again in awe of their strength. Here I was returning to a safe home, well-stocked fridge and cupboards, healthy children and no fear of an earthquake destroying my country, and they were the ones comforting and encouraging a blubbering me.

It breaks my heart.

Sue Montgomery is a journalist with the Montreal Gazette. She was in
Port-au-Prince, Haiti, from Jan. 14 to Jan. 26.

(Images courtesy of Phil Carpenter and the Montreal Gazette.)