The Haiti Tragedy: another Ghastly Tale of Missed Opportunities ?

Last night, TVs around the world showed a huge American military helicopter land on the vast grounds of the collapsed presidential palace in Haiti, bringing in the first soldiers to re-establish order after the situation had (as expected) degenerated into uncontrollable looting and violence.

Then a terrible thought hit me.

Yes, a terrible thought: why haven't these nice empty lawns been used BEFORE as a HELIPORT to bring in the needed aid? And when I say before, I mean immediately following the earthquake when all other entry routes were blocked or clogged up with traffic? Why not create a heliport to fly in water, medecines, doctors, nurses, tents, electric generators etc and set up a field hospital right there on the presidential grounds? Why not a heliport to bring in additional support and fly out the worst cases of wounded victims to other hospitals in the region (Santo Domingo is near, but so is Cuba)?

WHY NOT?

Yes, WHY NOT A HELIPORT FIVE OR SIX DAYS AGO? When we were perhaps in time to prevent the situation from sliding into the chaos we are now witnessing?

Ok, I can hear you grumbling in the background. A heliport might not have made that much difference. Perhaps not, but it was better than nothing.

Still grumbling? Are you saying that it is easy to criticize with hindsight and that I should desist?

Well, I won't. I admit it is easy to criticize with hindsight, and ok, I'm not there in Haiti, but here in my studio in Rome, in front of my computer. Yes, I hear you: you're going to tell me that is precisely the point. You're going to say I know nothing of the ins and outs of the situation, that it is a uniquely complex disaster, that all the structures of the State have collapsed (the police, justice, army etc). In short, it is a humongous challenge, and who am I to pass judgment?

Sure it is humongous and I'm not saying it ain't. And who am I? Well, I think I've earned the right after working 25 years in development and humanitarian assistance to sit back, watch the world and say what I think. And I think that what we have here, amidst all the horror and tragedy, is probably one more ghastly tale of missed opportunities.

I admit it's not easy to think outside the box, to ask yourself: ok, the harbour is blocked, the airport is insufficient and overloaded with traffic, all incoming roads are jammed. Yet the solution is not something way-out. It is a military classic: the helicopter. Why wasn't it used? Why didn't the UN ask for it? Why has the solution finally come up only to bring in soldiers?

Why, why, WHY?

There may be political reasons. Perhaps the Americans didn't dare land in on the presidential grounds without the official OK from the Haitian President, or, for that matter, from the French. Or perhaps there was no request coming from the UN because of the Big Boys that won't allow the UN to bring its act together (assuming it ever thought of a heliport). Who knows...

And let me tell you, the American soldiers now coming in aren't going to have an easy task of it. No sirree, they won't.

How hard it's going to be, you can easily guess from the extraordinarily frank reaction of a Haitian policeman I also saw on TV last night, on the same news which showed the helicopter (it was on TV 5 Monde). This policeman was standing guard in front of a collapsed store on one of Port-au-Prince's biggest commercial streets. The store owner was in there trying to salvage his belongings and had asked the policeman for protection, as he explained to the TV cameraman. Presumably he was paid extra to do so - but of course, he didn't say that, nor did the cameraman ask him. Instead, he asked him why he didn't go and help to control the looting that was on-going in the supermarket next door.

I shall never forget his reply.

He said, and I repeat textually because his words are very important - they go right to the heart of the matter - , he said in his wonderful Haitian accent in French:
"Je n'ai pas le courage de leur tirer dessus!" I haven't the courage to shoot them down.

Yes, that's right: he hasn't the courage to shoot. COURAGE is the word he used. And you can understand him. These are his conationals - perhaps even cousins or brothers. People like him - only a little less lucky than he is. He's got a gun and a policeman's status, it's always something when everybody else has nothing. So he can't shoot them down, can he? Not his own blood and flesh, can he?

And how else are you going to establish order?

There are no prisons to lock the looters up, no judges to take them to be judged. I tell you it won't be an easy task for the Americans. It will take courage, that's the point, the COURAGE of professional soldiers. At least the Americans won't be dealing with their conationals as was the case for the haitian policeman. That's the only difference. But I'm not sure it will be an advantage. It won't make their task any easier. Nobody likes foreigners, especially not the threatening kind. They're bound to hit into walls of diffidence, anger and distrust.

Yet there is NO alternative. Order must be re-established to allow humanitarian aid to continue.

And that is yet another tragedy of a different order, when the HELPING HAND is turned into a FIST...
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