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The road to Jacmel

Article & Photography by Gary Moore

Kelowna, British Columbia would be the starting line. Jacmel, Haiti. The finish.

On this leg. Glen Lahey, of Kids Explore International is unshaven and transfers his weight often to accomodate his dodgy hip, made dodgier by the agonizing flights and waits at the gates in the various buzzing airports. Lahey from Williams Lake, BC was on a mission to pave a safe route from the Dominican Republic to Jacmel for a steady stream of Canadian doctors, nurses and paramedics he would be bringing over for post operation care for the thousands of injured Haitians over the next three months. 

Kids explore International, a non-profit family run childrens charity has been bringing aid into the Dominican republic for seven years, hand delivering to desperate orphanages, schools, clinics and hospitals. The January 12th earthquake jolted the Lahey's into action as soon as they heard the news while coincidentally vacationing in Puerto Rico.

Their first trip to Haiti three weeks ago brought in 15 BC doctors, nurses and paramedics to Jimani on the border with Haiti. The volunteers worked countless hours and slept in a military zone dust pit surviving of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the kindness of the Dominicans with rice and beans for supper as an added bonus. Those Canadian medics would save lives and forever change and be witnesses to the human carnage from the earthquake.

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The thick, warm air smothers you and doesn't let go as you exit Cibao airport in Santiago. We make our way to the Centro Plaza hotel where a cool shower beckoned. We caught our breaths before the next leg of our trip which would ultimately land us the disaster zone in the coastal town of Jacmel, Haiti, where an estimated 5,000 people died and 80% of the buildings were rendered condemned.

The next day started like any other. Never knowing what to expect. It was Sunday, a holiday, it was spent planning our attack with the help of a dozen Presidente beer on rickety chairs outside a family run bar on a gritty downtown street. The area is coming alive with bass pumping Dominican music, people yelling and cracking whips which would snap inches from faces near to them.

Because of our two day delay getting to the Dominican Republic and SnowMeggdon, canceling thousands of flights along the eastern seaboard we landed on the day of the carnival.

The yearly tradition was an explosion of raw energy. Thousands dressed in various costume and make-up, transvestites and demons, gorillas and leggy dancers lined the packed streets in a swirl of color and beauty and bizarre sights and sounds.

Kids Explore Internationals contact in the Dominican Republic are the Messon's. A powerful yet beautiful family with huge hearts and headed by the matriarch Maria Messon, who has been helping the underprivileged in her country for countless years and runs a charity foundation. If it wasn't for the Messon's and her daughter Luisa Morales nothing would be possible.

At the gates of the Santiago airport, tobacco could be seen growing in a field for as far as the eye could see. It was a constant battle between the icy breeze from a blasting air conditioner in the vehicle or swimming in sweat even in the deepest, darkest shadow of shade if you could find it.

In a massive hanger, organized by the Lahey's and the Messon's, supplies from donors both Canadian and from the U.S was piling up in a corner. JetBlue, an amazing aircraft carrier has selflessly been bringing in countless pounds of aid destined to the struggling and desperate people of the devastated Haiti. Airport employees stack aid and supplies on a rusty and dented flat bed destined for a Santo Domingo orphanage housing earthquake injured children three hours from Santiago, it would also be up there as one of the most uncomfortable rides ever recorded.

Three hours later our contorted bodies and creaky sore backs stood in the entrance to the first bit of evidence we were nearing the border Dominican/Haiti border. Dozens of injured children peppered the small yard shaded by a massive low hanging tree. An older woman is at a portable chalk board teaching the cast wearing children and their parents Spanish. Their lives laying in pieces in a country that is not theirs. In the eyes of the children was vacancy and confusion, some cried now and then but for the most part there was silence, but they were safe for now in the hands of this Dominican orphanage.

The rental car would now be our traveling companion and mode of transport for the border leg of the trip. Pedernales an off the beaten track place, hardly touched by tourists or maybe for people trying to get away from tourists. It would be Pedernales that we would get a Dominican navy boat to Jacmel.

Except for a few wrong turns and a crucial piece of advice that would take us 100 kilometers to the wrong place things were going to plan until we starting coming across large rocks strewn across the road mixed with glistening pieces of jagged, broken glass and small smoldering fires. Our curiosity was soon fulfilled as we rounded a corner we were met by a roadblock and an angry group of stick carrying youths who surrounded the insured car, which if you read the fine print does not include "damage done by angry youths at roadblocks". The Dominican military were heavily armed but were congregating at a fence as we envisioned getting dragged from our cars and beaten to death. But the heavily armed military supplied us comfort.

If this was a normal occurrence we wouldn't make it to Jacmel never mind the medical staff who were follow on later trips. This route would be too complicated and dangerous for them. The protesting youths eventually let us through after a meeting with one of the Dominican soldiers. We found out later that they were protesting for electricity in the homes.

The rest of the trip was uneventful we had had enough Adrenalin leakage to last us the week.

Cabo Rojo or Red Cape in Pedernales is known for it's bauxite mines but is also home to two Dominican navy ships. One would take us and aid to Jacmel. Pulling teeth is a nice phrase when you compare to getting permission to get even close to the navy boats visible in the distance. Once in it was like we were one of the family. The Dominican navy and the men who ran it quickly became our friends. After the earthquake the Dominicans were the first to hit the ground getting aid to the people and the Dominican navy traveled everyday to Jacmel, sometimes twice a day to take aid to the desperate people. The Dominican people, the navy and the Messon family are credited to saving countless thousands of lives.

5:00 A.M. came quick and the vibration from the Caterpillar engines on the navy ship could resurrect the dead. Paz, a Spanish aid organization had filled the ship that night before and we would be sharing the ride with them.

The Dominican navy and guests jockeyed for space on the cramped ship, rocking and diving through the Caribbean sea pushing closer towards the troubled country.

The port at Jacmel was secure. Sri Lankan UN soldiers manned the port and looked more curious than authoritative but the AK47 they were carrying could change that instantly. There was word on the dock that the Canadian military and the Sri Lankan soldiers were in a bit of a power struggle.

A battered pick up truck moved us through the rattled and rubble strewn city of Jacmel. Large trucks, taxis and motorbikes snaked through the streets until we arrived at Jacmel airport controlled by the Canadian military, most from Petawawa or CFB Trenton bases in Ontario.

We were let through by the Canadian soldiers at the security gate with ease. The nondescript, vaulted ceiling, open air airport was an oasis from the sweltering heat outside. It was filled with Canadian troops, there home away from home. In one corner at computer station, soldiers e-mailing family or playing games or just wasting time, donned in camouflage two CF women sit at a makeshift cantina, a list behind them rattles of the prices. I thought $3.00 for a cylinder of Pringles was steep.

On a collapsible table out of the way of the passing civilians sat a coffee urn, some sugar and coffee sticks, a visiting South African made the mistake of asking for a cup of the weak non-Tim Hortons coffee and was on the receiving end of a bitter tattooed soldier barking "They're only for the troops!".

Glen Lahey had disappeared and was worried since we had just got word that the Dominican navy had left us in Jacmel and had returned to the Dominican with most of our belongings on board. We later found out they were ordered off the dock the Canadian Forces stationed at the port.
They tried to return several times but were waved off repeatedly.
I was getting bored watching the soldiers unloading Dasanji and eating from aluminum pouches using cardboard holders if the meal was too hot to handle.

The next stop was a hub for kindness and love and the combination of the people from all walks of life in this rented home near Jacmel's center were saving life literally with their bare hands.

Kelly Dunn and partner Joshua Sarvis from Argenta, British Columbia who run Bumi Sehat along with Robin Lim are miracle workers. Their organization sets up clinics in disaster areas to help pregnant women give birth as stress free as possible in such dire situations and conditions.

They work at a local hospital in Jacmel where there is witness to dead babies in buckets and arms and legs thrown over a ravine cliff for instant disposal.

They invite us to stay the night but not before we take a post disaster tour of a couple of hospitals and a refugee camp.

Kathleen Curran, an US Emergency Medical Technician leads us through the pock marked streets and back alleys to a world of hurt.

10 minutes later we are walking through field hospital tents in Caje-Jacmel where Dr. Liz Drum works up to 15 to 18 hours a day on hundreds of patients who come and go. Drum a anesthesiologist from Philadelphia is dressed in green scrubs with a tropical featured hat, wears thin rimmed glasses and has a friendly face.
1/3 quarters of her patients are earthquake related the rest are a potpourri of disease and sickness. She admits things equipment is primitive with basic maintenance and hygiene and her days are filled with anxiety and hardship although she never complains once. For Drum the language barrier is grating and tiresome but the resilience of the Haitian people keep her going into the lonely nights.

She is headed home soon and on her face is the uncertainty of what will happen once she goes home just weeks away.

Next stop San Michele hospital, Jacmel. The earthquake has rendered it useless, wheelchairs and rusty bed lay crushed in a pile and rubble sits in large piles surrounding the injured in the cramped and oven-like tents as a cruel reminder. The days are long and miserable for the sick and dying. Food is still scarce and the aid workers fall over themselves to keep tabs on their patients god forbid another agency would come in and steal it away. "Welcome to the vicious and back stabbing world of disaster relief,"

Next stop. Portail refugee camp in Jacmel houses 1162 families. Thousands exist in the makeshift camp, life went on, a woman cooks, a young braids another childs hair and little kids fly kites made from garbage. Although they are good solid tents, many of the basic necessities are still not getting to the camp.

"Although there are tents there is little else," says Jacmel activist Charlotte Charles and the woman in charge of the squalid camp. She is working non-stop to organize the camp but she has the weight of the world on her shoulders.

At the camp we meet Roland Zenny, a Canadian citizen who grew up in Jacmel and has returned to help his people. He is also the President of the Chamber of Commerce in Jacmel.

He not only the president of the Chamber of Commerce in Jacmel but he also is a rich business man who owns a water making company, a radio station and some other obscure small businesses. He is not a happy man. The village has turned to him for support and guidance and he feels he is not getting help to do that. His water company "Rolando already pumps out 4000 liters of clean drinking water a day for his people but it is not enough, "I have lists and lists of people who want water, he flips through a folder holding countless pages of hand written pages with peoples names while a lone woman waits at the door factory door in the chance of getting free water. "You see, she is waiting for water," he says.

In Roland's air condition-less vehicle and a broken passenger side window we were melting as we crept towards the heart of Jacmel, pancaked buildings holding bodies in a concrete tombs passes us by one by one. People on the street yelled their concerns and pleas at Roland and I could tell everyone knew him in the village and he was expected to help but it was getting to him. He too had the wait of the world on his shoulders.

At a round-about Roland stops his car and it is not long before he is surrounded not only by devastation and tragedy but by angry workers demanding answers.

Roland begins translating for the workers.

"They are complaining because they are getting a $4.00 US a day from foreign aid agencies to pick through concrete for bodies and they are not even getting paid for three weeks and are never given any food, it's as if the international community forgot about them, while they drive around with brand new trucks and they're doing shit for my people, I'm going to report these bastards," Zenny says angrily.

Zenny who employs 50 people through his companies has a strategy plan he says will rebuild his devastated city with the help of the international community. "We were already living in poor conditions, it's even worse now," he says. "We have to tear everything down and start over. 80% of the buildings here are condemned."

Nearby engineers with the Canadian Forces bulldoze the road of jagged concrete jutting with re-bar, armed soldiers keep watch but red mist fills the air in front of Zenny and he approaches a soldier.

"We still have people under this building. We have been asking you for so long. My employees mother and children are under there. So far they (Canadian military) haven't done shit! What the hell are you doing here!, he yells. "You can't do anything because it's against their orders. So far we haven't gotten anything from the Canadians," Zenny yells.

Glen Lahey follows a soldier through the dusty, twisted re-bar and rubble and asks him to try their best to find those bodies for the people and the soldier nods and they shake hands. we live the somber may behind us in a cloud of cement dust.

We've had word the Dominican navy were on their way to pick us up at the port and we were dropped off by Roland. He thanked us for coming to his city we shook hands and he disappeared back into the damaged city.

On the way to the dock what we encountered a British Columbia couple Laura and Bill Allan of Shelters International Disaster Response, a registered NGO out of Kaslo, B.C. hunkered next to a destroyed wall of a school near the beach. A down to earth couple, builders by trade, who along with a dozen volunteers from Gonaives, Haiti, literally try their best to fix the school they found via a UN helicopter flight over the area. The La Familia school would test them all over the coming weeks.

"Two teachers and two children died in the school and you can tell they just ran by the way the belongings were left and the pieces of undone school work still on the desks," Laura said.

The Allans are experienced and have worked disasters in Morocco, Bangladesh, US, and Haiti several times over. There home is a makeshift camp next to the Minstah UN building next to the airport and they are the only volunteer NGO on the ground.

"We get dirty looks at the hippies from the passing NGOs," Laura said.

The Allans who were in Haiti when the quake hit almost had to ditch this trip since they were robbed of $4000 dollars and a laptop. They recovered the laptop and their crew captured and tied up one of the thieves until police arrived but all their food money was gone.

"An American DJ Brennan McNolte came through and put on a fundraiser for us and sent us $1600.00 US," Allan stated.

As dusk fell over Jacmel the navy ship crested the horizon and we departed from Jacmel after unloading a group of nuns and their aid from Spain.

Night came fast as the ship headed towards the Dominican Republic. It was a warm night and dolphins rocketed through bio luminescence as they swam with the ship popping up for air as it bow rides into the darkness.

Glen Lahey was satisfied that he could bring down the medics and will be looking to organize a trip next month back into Jacmel.

To be continued...

To help go to:

www.bumisehatbali.org. For more information.
www.jacmelchamber.org. Visit to see the reconstruction strategy.
www.sheltersinternational.org. To help.
www.realworldimage.com
www.digitalvillageproductions.com

Or phone Glen and Deb Lahey of Kids Explore International on 1 250 398 8050.

See similar articles:

Hell in Haiti, the descent into Port Au Prince. http://www.realworldimage.com/photo-essays/hell-in-haiti.php

Kelowna photographer finds hell on earth.
http://www.kelowna.com/2010/01/30/kelowna-photographer-finds-hell-on-earth-in-haiti/

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