From Catherine Lengyel, International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies reporting delegate in Haiti:
The first thing that strikes me as I drive along the main road into Port-au-Prince is the sight of Haitian flags snapping sharply in the breeze, along the flowery median, as if this were a place with not a care in the world. It is disconcerting, and I feel a bit like Alice. My eyes need only stray a fraction either way for the illusion to be shattered.
The mirror breaks into millions of shards, each as painfully sharp as the next.
Concrete slabs pancaked one atop the other, next to houses teetering at gravity-defying angles, next to tents, next to tarps, next to sheets, and old curtains, and shawls, and plastic, and anything that could possibly serve as a semblance of shelter, teetering and tottering up and down the muddy, worn hillsides.
This is where people now live, three months after the earthquake. Not for a day, or a week, or even a month. But on and on, into the unforeseeable future. This is as far from Wonderland as one could possibly get.
I have seen how hard my colleagues have been working to help, and there has been much progress. Blue tarps, and tents with red crosses or crescents dot the cityscape. Solid-looking latrines stand in professional rows. Children cavort at water points, before carefully balancing buckets of clean water atop their heads. Healthcare is being provided where none existed.
But turn another corner, and the mirror shifts once again. Hand painted signs cry out for help. ‘Nous avons besoin d’aide ici’. An arrow points this way or that, to yet another pocket of misfortune, where the latrines, and water, and tents or tarpaulins have yet to materialise. Our driver, neatly attired in a crisp shirt and pressed trousers, tells us simply that he too is living on the streets. We drive past what was once the university, now a field of rubble, and where many of his friends died.
I feel ashamed to have complained, the day before, at being drenched by the rain as I ran between my tent and the canteen, at the Red Cross base camp. A woman well into her sixties is pounding a hand-hewed stake into the hard ground. Some bits of cloth are folded to one side. She is re-making her small shelter, a rickety construction of cloth and sticks, which was washed away by the same rains I was cursing. She smiles politely and pounds tirelessly. A little farther up the hillside, a young man opens his door – a long piece of cardboard – to let me peer into his narrow A-frame structure. There is just enough room for him to sidle in next to a bed, neatly made up in vibrantly-coloured ‘Little Mermaid’ sheets.
The mirror cracks again, at this glimpse of individuality amidst such potentially soul-destroying hardship. But that is the point, I suddenly realise. Because we are working to help so very many – up to 400,000 people at last count – we end up counting our progress in terms of the tens of thousands of households that we have assisted.
Life may be nothing but a pack of cards, as Alice said, and indeed much of Port-au-Prince remains as precarious as a house of cards. Still, what we can and are doing is to help to re-stack the deck in their favour, despite what sometimes feel like insurmountable odds. Nevertheless, in our race against time and misery, it is important for us to remember that each and every one of these people has a story, and a life, of their own.