REPORTER: Aaron Lewis

This was the first sign - brooding clouds rolling in over one of the world's poorest slums, Cite Soleil. It was the beginning of two weeks that would leave hundreds dead and bring an already struggling country to its knees.

WOMAN (Translation): She owes me $100 and I never say anything. But when I ask for my money back that she’s owed me for eight days, she curses me!

Here in the markets of Port au Prince, food has become so expensive in the past year that rice is now a luxury item.

WOMAN (Translation): A few months ago, it used to be $140, and now it is $280.

The food crisis that's now ravaging Haiti has been a long time in the making. Years ago, Haiti was forced by foreign aid donors to drop its tariffs and allow in cheap food from America and elsewhere. Local farmers couldn't compete and now Haiti imports almost everything that it eats.
When world food prices started skyrocketing last year, Haitians had nothing to protect them from the worst impacts of a global food crisis. To cook a simple meal in Haiti it now costs around A$7. Now, if you consider that the average Haitian, if they're lucky enough to have a job, earns around $200 a month, that's like the average Australian income-earner paying more than $100 for every simple meal that they cook, every day.
Instead, people have been turning to one of the few things they can afford to eat, mud.

WOMAN (Translation): It is not regular mud, it’s clay, it is the only one you can make it with.

Mixed with salt and butter and baked in the sun, these mud cookies cost around 12 cents each. And the mud is often toxic and causes stomach illness and diarrhoea.

WOMAN (Translation): What can we tell them when there is no food? We have to feed them something and I have to eat something too. The children will eat it because it is salty, I eat eat it because I have no choice.

MAN (Translation): It’s not just a problem of nutrition we poor people call it Bleach the Belly. It always feels like we have poison in our guts and there are people that are almost dead now from hunger. So many elderly people can’t help themselves and we young people want to help them but can’t.

So far, the Haitian Government has been unable, or unwilling, to do anything about what Haitians call "la vie chere" - the expensive life.

WOMAN (Translation): I don’t know, I don’t know what the government is doing, how can I know? It never talks, the government never talks.

According to the head of the UN development program in Haiti, Joel Bortroue, it's a miracle that the poor have survived this long.

JOEL BORTROUE, UN DEVELOPMENT PROGRAM: I've lived in Congo, in many extremely poor countries in the world. What I can tell you, in my own words, is that I don't understand, with the money that the average Haitian has, I don't understand how this average Haitian survives. I simply don't understand. I know the prices, food is expensive, over half of all the food is imported at a high price. Over half of the Haitians are living with less than $1 per person, per day. I don't understand how they survive.

When I first meet 61-year-old Paulette Camille, she's sharing a single foil-wrapped biscuit between herself and two of her grandchildren.

PAULETTE CAMILLE (Translation): Things have always been pretty bad, but this is the worst, this is really hard. This is the first time in my whole life, when a small can of rice sells for $8, in some places you can’t even buy that. You watch people eating and you can’t even buy half a can of beans! If you cook a cup of beans it is only because someone gave them to you.

Later a neighbour does just that - cooks up a meal of beans and shares it with Camille's family. Even if it is the first food a family has had in days, a meal will be shared with neighbours and friends. Sharing is Haiti's secret to survival. Camille's husband, Austilla, lets the children eat first, and takes just a few mouthfuls of beans at the end. He says that it's prayer, not food that sustains him. While he prays, he holds a photo of his personal political saviour - ex-president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who was ousted from power four years ago.

AUSTILLA, CAMILLE’S HUSBAND (Translation): Right now, this is our country’s last stand - it’s our last stand, our last chance. Even though Aristide came to power in a bad way, while he was president, people were living, they were eating. If he was here, it would be that way again.

Aristide has always claimed he was kidnapped by American and Canadian troops and forced into exile. And Camille says that she's tired of foreign governments meddling in Haiti's affairs.

PAULETTE CAMILLE (Translation): I sat “Thank you, thank you America! Thank you, all the other nations who got us where we are today!” Had they not kidnapped President Aristide, we would not be in this mess.

Earlier this year the current President, Rene Preval, argued that food prices were beyond his control and he offered to march with his people to show support. But when the protesters came to the presidential palace in the thousands, Preval refused to appear and the demonstration turned violent.

MAN: The Haitian people tried to open the gate to get inside of the palace.

Eventually UN peacekeepers had to step in to restore order.

JOEL BORTROUE: The political environment is not, I would say, the most mature in the world, let's put it that way, so the government can be easily upstaged, tension can be created at someone's will fairly easy. So I do believe that the previous government really tried to deliver - it doesn't happen overnight. And we need to support them and go in the same direction as them.

Those who dared to criticise the government were quickly and harshly punished. Denis spends most of his days looking around town for odd jobs to help feed his family. One day he was caught on the edge of the food riots.

DENIS (Translation): The police who arrested me asked for $2000, I realised they were trying to blackmail me, I couldn’t pay so they sent me to the penitentiary, and as I didn’t have a penny, I went hungry – I almost died of hunger.

He wasn't alone. Denis's cell had been designed to hold 60 men, but it was packed with 250. For three months he had to sleep standing up.

DENIS (Translation): in the jail there were 7000 men, they were so miserable, there was no food, no water to shower with.... it is only thanks to God that I survived.

Denis wasn't the only person I met who claimed to be falsely arrested. Patrick Brice spends every day banging out a bare living doing metalwork in the Cite Soleil slum. He and his brother have to cut, shape, and sell every piece of metal they can scrounge to provide for a family of 16. Brice says that he was arrested last year after he spoke to a journalist about his fears for the coming food crisis.

PATRICK BRICE (Translation): I spent 17 months suffering, locked in this hellhole, 17 months of suffering, calamities and utter misery. People were treated worse than dogs.

Brice is now home again, but food has got even more expensive since he was sent to jail. He says it's now an impossible situation.

PATRICK BRICE (Translation): If you organise a mass march against the high price of food, the government will break you – we have to bear it. Our deaths will be on their conscience.

DENIS (Translation): I would rather be shot than to die of hunger, so many young men are dying of hunger, we are all starving and we have no work so we spend every day staring at the sky waiting for manna from heaven.

But instead of manna, the heavens sent the worst storms Haiti has seen in a generation. The first hurricane, Hannah, hit at 10:00pm on a Monday night. By morning, the worst of the damage was already done. I'm airlifted on a United Nations helicopter into the flood zones. The city of Gonaives has turned into an island within an island, cut off from Haiti and from the world. The only way into the city is to wade, sometimes waist-deep, through the flooding. The people of Gonaives are either fleeing to higher ground or rescuing their possessions from the water. I find Pierre Devise surveying the damage to his home.

PIERRE DEVISE (Translation): Of all the hurricanes I have witnessed, this one has been the most destructive, especially in Gonaives. We have never faced this situation in Haiti – we have had hurricanes but not like this.

As ambulances pull through the filthy water, I make my way to the highest, driest place in the city - a church balcony. I climb the stairs and I find a hundred people, still in shock.

MAN (Translation): People were screaming “Water, water!” When I went outside the water was up to my neck, then I could not get back inside. I almost got washed away.

Avelhomme Latortue has spent the last few days lost in grief, talking to no-one. He finally tells that me his mother and one of his children were washed away right before his eyes.

AVELHOMME LATORTUE (Translation): We were in the same house but I didn’t have the strength to save everyone. My mother was too old to survive – I couldn’t save her – I was holding her hand, leading her through the water, trying to get her back to the other children but she stayed behind with one of the children clinging to her – the water came flooding in and washed them both away. I saved my wife and the other three children.

What little food they had left in Gonaives has been ruined by the floodwater, and all the clean water has been polluted.

WOMAN (Translation): We have nothing - we haven’t got anything, not even water. My baby – she is dying of hunger – we haven’t got anything.

Marie Magdala and 20 of her family and neighbours have been stranded here on their roof since the storm hit. They're surviving by pulling dirty sacks of American rice out of the water.

MARIE MAGDALA (Translation): The food causes diarrhoea and vomiting because it has been pulled out of the dirty water. The coal is also wet – here is an example of the wet rice.... we have no choice we are obliged to eat it.

JOEL BORTROUE: Already we had the food crisis, the fuel crisis. For six months we were in a political crisis. And now we have a series of four hurricanes or tropical storms. I think it has put, all these combination of factors, has put Haiti on its knees.

The UN responds as quickly as it can, providing basic medical treatment even in the dirty streets. But by now hunger has mixed with panic.
This is a food drop being run by the United Nations. Food and water are being distributed to the 3,000 people who were inside the compound when the trucks rolled in. Anyone who was still outside got barred at the gate and have formed an angry mob behind me.

MAN (Translation): There are always some tough guys starting a riot, they want to grab it all. The police have top be there all the time to ensure food gets distributed.

There are 70,000 people in Gonaives, but the flood makes it impossible for the UN to reach even half of them. Those lucky enough to make it to food drops like this one receive only a handful of biscuits and a few bottles of clean water - hardly enough to feed an entire family.

GIRL (Translation): If you give this to a child it will only last one day.

WOMAN (Translation): Since the waters came back we have no idea what is happening. The first time there were many dead and all the houses were destroyed. Mine was destroyed too and I have six children.

In the centre of town I find this jail with its prisoners crammed into flooded and filthy cells. There are 114 people locked behind this single door, yet the prisoners say they are lucky not to have drowned when the hurricane hit.

PRISONER (Translation): There are some police officers who saved our lives, the water got so high it was going to kill us – the police put us in the office upstairs – that is why we survived. We need our freedom so that we can go and help our children. We need help – we need someone from Human Rights to help us – I have a two year old child, I don’t have parents to help me and my sister is too young. I can’t do anything for my child and my husband has gone missing, my grandma could have helped me but she passed away in April, so who is going to help me now? All we know is suffering, what we need is help, we have suffered enough, no one cares about us.

The women held here beg to be released, even just for a day or two, to help relatives who are struggling to survive. Meanwhile, the Haitian Government is nowhere to be found in the flood zones. Ministers turn off their phones and refuse to talk to me or anyone else from the international media.

MAN (Translation): It’s like we have no government, if we had, they would listen to our problems and help us, we need help but we are getting none.

JOEL BORTROUE: There is this chronic weakness of the state, and even if they were present maybe they don't even have a bicycle or a piece of paper to write on, and I'm hardly exaggerating.

It's a situation that Haitians are used to. What's most striking here is not the damage it's the calm dignity with which people respond to the tragedy. On the way back through town, I meet Jacques Pepsi, He's sitting in a tree so calmly he might be in a hammock.

JACQUES PEPSI (Translation): I’m just thinking about what has happened up till now and what might happen next. I’m watching the people go by, I’m just observing and waiting to see what happens next.

Finally, I'm airlifted out of Gonaives. We fly over what is left of Haiti's rice fields. There wasn't much agriculture left here before the hurricanes, but now there'll be even less. It's obvious that Haiti cannot rebuild on its own.

JOEL BORTROUE: The money can come from the international community, and so be it, so be it. I have no problem saying we're here for the next 20 years, we're going to help the government deliver basic services, free of charge, at least for the most vulnerable, and the international community is going to help. I have no problem doing that. It's a question of life and death. It's a question of equity, and fairness.

DENIS (Translation):The way I see it, only God can save this country because this country is crushed and falling apart, there is no one really leading this country, the nation is on the verge of disappearing. The land will remain but we will disappear.






Reporter/Camera
AARON LEWIS

Editors
MICAH MCGOWN
SLAVICA GAJIC

Producer
AARON THOMAS

Fixers
JEAN SACRA SEAN ROUBENS
HARRY NICHOLAS

Translator
GINETTE CESAR

Subtitling
GEORGE BURCHETT
MICHELE ROGER

Original Music composed by
VICKI HANSEN

 

 

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