Horror in Haiti

Maclean’s cover story: after the earthquake, the desperate fight for survival amid the ruins

Michael Petrou in Port-au-Prince with Charlie Gillis, Jonathon Gatehouse and Luiza Ch. Savage

Horror in Haiti
The earthquake that broke the back of an already ailing nation struck just before 5 p.m., a time when many Haitians were still at work or school. The 7.0-magnitude tremor was centred near Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital, and lasted a mere 45 seconds—a temporal eyeblink that will go down as the nadir of the Caribbean country’s long history of misery and chaos. Shantytowns that litter the island’s southwest peninsula went down domino-style. Larger buildings comprised of cinderblock and unreinforced concrete collapsed like wedding cakes, in many cases with a full complement of their day-to-day occupants inside. The ones left standing quickly emptied; survivors scrambled to help those still inside, tugging at the shards of cement with bare hands.

Fredson Demostherma, a resident of Léogâne, 30 km west of the capital, Port-au-Prince, jumped to safety from a second-floor window in his house when the ground started to rumble. He turned around and watched the building collapse, trapping seven members of his family inside, including an infant. He paid someone with a sledgehammer to help him dig his family, who survived, out. “Haiti’s future is in the hands of other nations, and God,” Demostherma told Maclean’s. Pierre Cherami, who ran an auto parts business in Gressier, just outside of Port-au-Prince, was in his house with his wife and daughter, who perished. “Their names are Denise and Myrline,” he said. “Myrline wasn’t feeling well and was sleeping. My wife was with her. When the quake hit, I saw the wall begin to topple. I tried to hold it up but couldn’t. I recovered both of their bodies. It will be difficult to rebuild my life. I’ve lost everything.”

There were precious few rescues that first evening, and as night fell, residents found themselves in a netherworld of darkness and grief. Magalie Boyer, a World Vision worker based permanently in Port-au-Prince, described the eerie calm of a city cut off from power and deprived of most phone communication. Throughout the night, groups of residents rattled through the streets, offering flashlights and water to the few aid workers who ventured forth, stumbling over the rubble of fallen garden walls, calling out to loved ones. “Every once in a while you would hear this wailing go up,” she said. “It would be someone who had heard bad news or couldn’t find a family member.”

Only when the sun rose did the scale of the destruction set in. At least two-thirds of the buildings in the downtown district of Port-au-Prince known as La Ville were levelled or left teetering. “A sea of devastation” is how one aid worker described the disaster, and even that fell short. René Préval, the Haitian president, drew expressions of disbelief when he floated the possibility that the death toll might top 100,000. Yet by the middle of the next day, crews had recovered more than 50,000 bodies, and Interior Minister Paul Antoine Bien-Aimé pegged the number of dead at 200,000—the greatest human loss since the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean.

On the streets of Port-au-Prince, corpses were everywhere. Most were rotting, unreachable, under rubble, filling the nearby air with a sour smell that locals fended off by rubbing toothpaste in their nostrils. A woman, a tangle of limbs and rags, lay in the centre of a rubble-filled street. There may have been another body beneath her, but it was impossible to tell. A dust-covered arm reached from the rubble. Elsewhere, another body, charred black and smoking, lay in a ditch, lips burnt away to expose a seemingly brilliant row of white teeth. “People have nowhere to bury their dead,” one man said, pointing to it. “What are they supposed to do?”

Some churned up the few patches of soil available on street corners between the road and the wall of the nearest building. Dozens of bodies were crammed into these tiny spaces. Occasionally a garbage truck made the rounds to pick up corpses piled onto the street overnight, to take them to mass graves outside the city. One such truck tried to park with its cargo of corpses overnight on a street in the Carrefour neighbourhood where hundreds of Haitians without homes, or afraid to sleep in the ones they have, lay thickly on blankets spread over the ground. They rose up and chased the truck away. “The truck had dead people inside,” Jocelyn Mitchell, a burly man of 38, said, scowling. “We can’t have that where we sleep.”

The next morning, Carrefour’s mayor arrived with a security detail of police to deal with whomever had led the demonstration the night before. His men chased a teenager down the street, firing a shotgun above or at him until he stopped running. They drove away with three men under arrest. “That’s the first time I’ve ever seen the mayor come here,” a local resident told Maclean’s. “Because people didn’t want corpses around them. Not to ask how they’re doing, or if they need food or water, but because they protested being surrounded by dead people.”

In a nearby residential neighbourhood, survivors showed a visitor each destroyed home and named those who escaped or died when the building collapsed. “There was a pregnant woman and a baby here,” one says. “We rescued them. Two died here, a man and a woman. We cut the legs off the man to get him out but he died anyway. I helped pull 20 bodies from this building. There are many more inside.”

Horror in Haiti
RESIDENTS of Port-au-Prince walk down one of the capital’s many blocked roads

Among the debris were more personal artifacts—furniture, a crushed clothes hamper, stuffed animals. A wallet-sized wedding photo lay outside one house. It depicted a couple kissing. A neighbour, Dadou Legé, recognized them. The man is dead, he said. He rescued the woman.

Madlern Francois, 73, sat on a stool on the side of the road across from a factory whose roof collapsed with dozens of workers inside. “Yesterday we could hear them,” she said, nodding at the wreckage. “They were crying to their families, asking for food. Today we don’t hear anything.” Francois Senville, a frail man about 50 years old, stood on the roof of one ruined building, hacking at the rubble with a pickaxe. “I found my wife’s body,” he said. “I haven’t found my children.”

Nearby, a mango tree with ripening fruit towered above another collapsed house. There was a strong smell. Boys threw stones to knock the fruit from branches they couldn’t reach. One mango fell into a puddle. The boy who threw the stone rushed to pick it up and bite into it. One of his friends teased him. “That’s dead body water,” he said.

Horror in Haiti
LOOKING FOR SURVIVORS: A team of international rescue workers combs a destroyed building looking for anyone trapped inside

In the wake of the disaster, the pledges of assistance poured in. Canada, in particular, wasted no time in offering equipment and personnel, including the military’s Disaster Assistance Response Team (by Monday, Ottawa had upped its commitment to $135 million in aid and 2,000 troops as well as ships anchored off Léogâne, where some 90 per cent of the buildings had been destroyed, and Jacmel, a town of 40,000 south of the capital and the hometown of Governor General Michaëlle Jean). The United States immediately offered US$100 million in aid, along with troops, ships and helicopters to deliver it. So too did the European Union, which committed more than US$600 million for emergency aid plus police units.

But as donor countries struggled to get food, water and medical supplies to the needy, the depth of Haiti’s long-term challenge began to emerge. Racked by poverty and insurrection at the best of times, the country was now paralyzed by blocked roadways, tangled phone lines and the utter absence of governmental authority. Worse, it was shorn of the few institutions it had to receive and oversee the distribution of aid. “Parliament has collapsed,” Préval told the Miami Herald in his first interview with foreign media. “The tax office has collapsed. Schools have collapsed. Hospitals have collapsed.” Haiti was now officially the failed state it long threatened to be.

By Friday, three days after the disaster and with little aid reaching citizens, Haitians were increasingly desperate, leaving Port-au-Prince facing a breakdown in security. There were reports of looting and sporadic gun battles throughout the capital. Reeling from the disaster and frantically trying to account for their own missing and dead—including two RCMP officers, Supt. Doug Coates and Sgt. Mark Gallagher—the 9,000-strong UN force of military peacekeepers and international police, a long-time presence, was able to offer only limited assistance. And local authorities were quick to declare themselves outmatched. Mario Andresol, chief of the Haitian National Police, told the foreign press that his men were “not trained to deal with this kind of situation,” adding that he was only able to find 2,000 of the 4,500 officers under his command in the capital.

Nature’s capacity to destroy frequently outstrips man’s capacity to respond. Humanitarian workers faced a crisis: even international aid groups who have become all too accustomed to epic disasters like the 2004 Asian tsunami were shaken by the scale of the Haitian earthquake. “It’s just the extent of the devastation and the extent of the need,” said David Orr, the UN World Food Programme’s spokesman in Port-au-Prince. “It’s impossible for us to be everywhere at once.” The capital’s port had lost several piers, and all of its off-loading equipment. Bridges were destroyed and the control tower at Toussaint Louverture International Airport was toppled, with just one runway serviceable. Land lines in many communities had been knocked out and mobile phone service was spotty (for the first few days after the quake, texting was the most reliable form of communication).

Against that backdrop, the initial aid efforts fell far short. Traffic jams in the skies over Port-au-Prince, and on the ground at the cramped airport, saw dozens of relief flights turned away or diverted to Santo Domingo, the capital of the neighbouring Dominican Republic. Aid groups and governments bickered openly over priorities and best practices. Alain Joyandet, the French minister for co-operation and the man in charge of his country’s aid efforts, complained that the U.S. military—now running the airport—were allowing dignitaries and troops to land at the expense of desperately needed supplies. “It’s a matter of helping Haiti, not occupying Haiti,” he sniffed. Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the medical charity founded by Bernard Kouchner, now the French foreign minister, also expressed frustration after five of its flights carrying a total of 85 tonnes of supplies, including equipment, surgical supplies, drugs and an inflatable field hospital, were diverted to the Dominican. “We’re absolutely overwhelmed. We have so many patients waiting for surgery that our teams are working around the clock,” said Marilyn McHarg, general director of MSF Canada. The shortage of supplies was compounding an already difficult situation on the ground, she said, as the organization struggled to find safe spaces to treat the injured, and account for many of its local staff, missing since the quake struck.

Horror in Haiti
RCMP officers, masked to cope with the stench, help rescuers on Champs de Mars

Many aid groups resorted to trucking in food, water and other supplies overland from the Dominican, an arduous 18- to 24-hour trip over clogged and damaged roads. That was the route taken by GlobalMedic, a small NGO founded in 1998 by Toronto medic Rahul Singh, and one of the few aid agencies that did manage to set up shop in Port-au-Prince in the days immediately following the quake. Singh, who had worked for international NGOs in Nepal and rebelled against the waste and bureaucracy he felt plagued many aid organizations, wanted GlobalMedic to be different: it has a narrow focus on providing water, food, and medical help. Singh’s team of five medics, a doctor and an engineer landed in the Dominican Republic on the Thursday after the earthquake struck, rented a bus and several pickup trucks, and drove into Haiti.

Horror in Haiti
A Catholic nun comforts a dying patient

They reached Port-au-Prince that afternoon. Singh had made arrangements to work with the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, which has a hospital, university, and warehouse in Port-au-Prince. But the actual hospital was empty, damaged by the earthquake and too dangerous to enter. Doctors there were treating patients outside, where thousands of injured Haitians lay on the ground under flimsy shelters. The hospital’s medical director, Lesly Archer, said more than 50 had died the day before. Two more bodies lay loosely covered beside the curb. Patients with broken bones and open wounds now faced gangrene. Haitian Eddy Sagage’s infected leg was cut off in a 20-minute operation on an outdoor table at dusk.

Michael Howatt, the doctor on the GlobalMedic team, put on a medical gown and gloves and spent most of the night operating, taking part in six amputations with surgical equipment that included shaving razors. In the morning he would ask for a better bone saw. Singh, meanwhile, scouted locations to filter water, and found one where river water could be diverted to fill a swimming pool. A water purification system was operational the next morning, a little more than 12 hours after the team arrived. They set up other filtration systems elsewhere in the city over the following days—a process that increasingly involved enlisting local help.

“Yesterday you were trainees,” Singh told about a dozen teenagers and young men who had been hired to help him, speaking in French. “Today you’re professionals. You’re going to be giving potable water to your youth, to your elders. You’re entitled to some attitude. So shift your caps sideways on your heads, like this.” Singh moved the brim of his own cap sideways as if he were a teenager, and then led the Haitians in a cheer in which they pledged to save the day. Speaking to his own Canadian team, Singh explained his attitude. “Set an example. People are going to be watching you. If you look like you’ve lost hope, so will they.”

A coffin is taken to the capital’s morgue
A coffin is taken to the capital’s morgue

It was brave talk, but in truth, hope was in desperately short supply. And the few aid and humanitarian workers who did manage to make it to the scene were understandably apprehensive, as the small number of Haitian police still functioning tried to maintain order. “The Americans are welcome here, but where are they?” Dorsainvil Robenson, an officer in the capital, told reporters. “We need them here on the street with us.” On the Friday after the quake, the 60-member Belgian First Aid and Support team manning a UN field hospital evacuated for the evening, leaving behind the injured who had come for care. The chief coordinator later explained that his decision came after he was told that UN peacekeepers would not be available to guard the facility during the night.

Still, the search for survivors continued, while the mourning began in earnest. Alex Pyrono, 41, worked as a driver for a Haitian politician who died in the quake. He was outside when the tremors hit, in the Delmas neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, and “saw houses on the hill coming down just like when you let air out of a balloon. I knew a lot of people were dead.” Among them were his cousin, maid and sister, who was visiting from her home in the United States, where their mother also lives. “Yesterday [Friday], I finally talked to my mom,” he said. “She didn’t know about my sister and dropped the phone when I told her. My sister left her three kids up there. They’re 12, 9, and 7. I spoke to them last night. Only the 12-year-old knows. Her dad doesn’t want to tell the others.”

The voice that rose through the rubble on Sunday morning, more than four days after the earthquake, was the raspy whisper of an asthmatic and barely conscious woman.

Yves Emanuel was picking his way among the broken cinder blocks of what had once been a hotel. The ground floor had collapsed, and the hotel’s upper storey fell down on it before sliding sideways and coming to rest like a house that had been dropped there from the sky. Emanuel was hoping he might recover something in the debris. He had been dancing at the hotel on Tuesday when the quake struck. “Two women died, Harmony and Rosemarie. You can see their corpses there,” he said to a Maclean’s reporter, pointing to a blackened and barely recognizable human head protruding from the ruins. “The DJ died, too. I thought everyone died. But I heard this voice, a cry. I said, ‘Who’s there?’ She said, ‘It’s Mona. I’m alive.’ I know her. We danced together.”

Horror in Haiti
Digging through concrete by hand

Emanuel ran into the street and called to a Spanish search and rescue team that was working nearby, accompanied by an armed UN contingent, including Canadian police. A strong smell of death wafted from the wreckage. The heat was suffocating. And most Haitians said that pleas for help from those trapped in ruined buildings had faded away to silence days ago. But the Spaniards began to dig and soon heard Mona’s voice. “She’s speaking French,” one said. “I don’t know what she’s saying.”

The rescue team clawed at the shattered slabs of cement, called for hammers, chisels, and saws. They reached Mona’s face and shouted for more tools. A crowd of Haitians gathered. Some ran off to fetch equipment. One pulled a steel door from the ruins of a nearby house to use as a stretcher. Others stood and did nothing. A Canadian police officer complained about them. “They say God will take care of everything,” he said. “Well, sometimes God needs help.”

“We’ll have her out in half an hour,” one of the Spanish rescuers said. He asked for more water—a small bottle that could be squeezed through gaps in the debris and poured into Mona’s mouth, and larger ones for the rescuers. They were sweating now, peeling their heavy uniforms down to their waists. They widened a hole in the rubble and descended into it, passing up buckets filled with broken concrete.

Other teams arrived but weren’t really needed. Someone brought a rescue dog. Another man carried a stretcher. They all stood nearby with the Canadian police and Jordanian UN soldiers. A half-hour passed, then longer. The sun got hotter. The Spaniards said they were getting close. They had ordered heavy equipment and then said they didn’t need it. They pounded the cement with hammers. They called for a doctor.

Horror in Haiti
A woman is pulled out of the wreckage just after the quake struck

Gunshots sounded nearby—the sharp, popping sounds of small-calibre weapons. A short while later, more gunfire, this time from a different direction. There had been scattered violence for days, but none of the Haitians in the crowd panicked when they heard the shots. The United Nations did. “There’s no security in the streets,” said one of the Canadian police officers. “We’ve been ordered to withdraw.”

The Canadian police and Jordanian soldiers were there to protect the Spanish search and rescue team. If they pulled out, the Spaniards would have to go also. They didn’t want to. One, a young, handsome man with curly hair and facial stubble who had been most active, begged for time or for another squad of soldiers to be dispatched. “Tell them to get her out right away,” another Canadian police officer told him. The Spaniard ran back to dig again.

The radio inside the Canadians’ UN vehicle came to life. More soldiers were on their way. The radio crackled again. Now they weren’t. “We need to go. It’s an order,” an officer said. “If you want to die here, stay.”

Horror in Haiti

Within seconds, a multi-vehicle UN convoy was loaded with soldiers, police, and rescue workers. There were more than 50 men and women in those cars and open-backed trucks. Almost 20 carried guns. They blared their horns and motioned for the surrounding crowd to stay back. The trucks reversed and advanced until they were in a single file, and then drove out on a street made narrow with collapsed buildings. A few Haitians chased after the convoy. “She is going to die” one shouted in French.

In one of the trucks, the Spaniard who had pleaded for more time to complete the rescue was crying. If the Jordanian soldiers and Canadian police were ashamed to have abandoned a helpless woman because of a few gunshots from men no one had seen, they didn’t show it.

Back at the ruined hotel, past streets supposedly too dangerous for peacekeepers with assault rifles, Haitians were still digging. They pulled Mona out, alive, a couple of hours later.

Horror in Haiti
An armed looter threatens a man as shops are stripped of supplies

UN overcautiousness aside, there were reasons to fear for one’s safety. By Saturday, looters were bursting into shops in Port-au-Prince and fighting each other in the streets, sometimes with knives and pickaxes, occasionally with guns. Among the major buildings hit by the quake was the National Penitentiary in Port-au-Prince. Most of the 4,000 inmates managed to flee, and there were reports that they were engaging in battles with authorities and reclaiming their turf in the Cité Soleil slum, once a gang stronghold and still one of the most violent neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince, although the Préval government had enjoyed some success in stamping out crime there.

Horror in Haiti

Cité Soleil, where most of the houses are single-storey, often tin-roofed structures, suffered fewer casualties than neighbourhoods with large apartment complexes or houses with concrete roofs. One resident, Sonel Occident, told Maclean’s that some gang members who escaped from prison during the quake indeed returned there. But, he added, they were keeping a low profile. Haitian police and UN soldiers don’t control the slum, Occident said: “We provide security ourselves. We’ve set up committees to protect our homes and neighbourhoods.”

Some Haitians did more than just form committees, and turned to vigilantism. On one of the main streets in the Port-au-Prince suburb of Carrefour last Saturday, a man lay wearing only one shoe. The lace from his missing shoe had been used to tie his hands behind his back. The blood that leaked from a bullet hole in his head was bright red, not dried and discoloured, because he, like the man sprawled beside him, or the third man dead and washed downstream in the garbage and sewage-filled canal below, was shot only hours earlier, four days after the earthquake.

The three had escaped from prison when the walls containing them crumbled, and returned to their old neighbourhood, where local residents—or, some say, the police—recognized and murdered them.

At the penitentiary itself, where the three had likely been held, the gate was unhinged and razor wire lay across the entrance. Inside, there had been a fire, and ashes lay amidst the rubble. Roofs had fallen in, but most of the walls were upright. Those who escaped must have forced their way out, overwhelming whatever guards had stuck around when the quake hit.

Men were once packed in here like pigs in a feedlot. Scraps of cloth still hung everywhere in the empty cells, where prisoners had fashioned hammocks so they could sleep off the ground. The less fortunate slept on concrete, the odd bunk, or their fellow prisoners. Now, the prison was the least-crowded place in Port-au-Prince. The only people here were four men, their bodies swollen and blackened in the empty yard. It was unclear how they died, but their fate might not be much different than the one awaiting the ones who got out. Every day more escapees were being hunted down and shot.

Meanwhile, even last weekend, there was still little evidence of the international aid finding its way to those in need in Port-au-Prince. The joint Canadian and Norwegian Red Cross field hospital, for one, was not yet operational on Sunday. Eleanor Rose, a nurse with Canadian Red Cross, explained that two of the trucks carrying material overland from Santo Domingo had been “lost.” Other equipment hadn’t yet been offloaded from planes at Port-au-Prince airport. She hoped the hospital would be ready in a day or two.

Rose and a few other Canadian and Norwegian nurses and doctors worked rapidly to treat patients who lay moaning under a canopy of sheets and plastic tarps held up with string and sticks of wood. She tended to one large woman, whose foot was crushed and whose leg was split open, exposing inches of yellowish flesh and fat inside. She may need an amputation. Rose cleaned and covered the wound.

Horror in Haiti
DESPERATION: Thirsty boys reach for bottles of water handed out by U.S. troops

In a weekend visit to the capital to survey the damage and repatriate the bodies of some of the more than 45 UN staffers who died in the quake (around 300 were still missing or unaccounted for), Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued a plea for not just aid, but the troops to secure it. He called on member nations to second more police and soldiers to the multinational force. Canada was among those that responded, as did U.S. President Barack Obama, who backed up a promise of “unwavering support” with the swift—according to some critics, too swift—deployment of 12,000 military personnel.

Even as the flow of aid intensified, it was becoming clear that far more needed to be done. A full week after the quake, the UN and the various militaries were only distributing 250,000 food rations a day, a far cry from the two million meals a day that were said to be needed. Hard-hit communities outside of Port-au-Prince had hardly received any assistance. Léogâne was flattened during the earthquake, and then ignored. Virtually every house or building collapsed, and thousands were left homeless. But most aid sent to Haiti in the days after the quake went to Port-au-Prince. Léogâne did finally receive its first aid delivery, 5,000 food rations, four days after the disaster—and event that went unnoticed by many. “Nobody has come,” said Rigal Joseph, a 48-year-old businessman and voodoo priest. “People in Port-au-Prince think they are better than us in the backcountry. We’ve all had to bury all the bodies ourselves. But nobody cries for the dead anymore—even if it’s your own mother. And there aren’t any funerals. Parents wrap their children in blankets and put them in the ground.” Jacmel was similarly cut off, despite being only 35 km from Port-au-Prince.

Horror in Haiti
Haitians crowd a ship near Port-au-Prince’s port, which was heavily damaged

The halting response has raised questions about what the world community could have done differently to mitigate Haiti’s suffering. But the answer seems to be: depressingly little. “When a disaster strikes, aid groups normally count on something to attach themselves to—a stable government, infrastructure, local organizations. But none of those hooks are there in Haiti,” says Ben Ramalingam, head of research and development for ALNAP, a U.K.-based group that evaluates the effectiveness of international aid efforts. The intense poverty, poor construction standards, a lack of infrastructure, and social chaos that plagued Haiti before the quake make dealing with its aftermath even more difficult. “It’s an incredibly challenging environment.”

And emergency aid is never really sufficient to deal with the long-term economic and social consequences of a disaster, says Ramalingam. Haiti will require a new level of international commitment to the unglamorous and painstaking work of recovery if the poorest country in the Western hemisphere is to be improved, rather than simply rebuilt. “It will take at least five years, if we’re going to do this and not just recreate all the vulnerabilities,” he says.

The depth of that international will should be on display in Montreal next week, as Foreign Minister Lawrence Cannon hosts a meeting of his counterparts to lay the groundwork for an international conference on rebuilding the shattered island state. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, France’s Kouchner, Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive, high-level UN diplomats, and representatives of many Latin American states will be in attendance.

Horror in Haiti
One of the many tent cities that have sprung up in the capital’s parks

What form will rebuilding take? While the effort to help Haiti is global in scope, that debate is particularly acute in the United States. This is, of course, not the first time that Haiti has figured prominently in the American discourse. In 1915, 124 years after the beginning of the slave revolt in this former French colony that eventually ushered in Haitian independence, the U.S. occupied Haiti. As a republic, the country had enjoyed a chequered existence, with leader after leader killed in office. And so Washington established a “protectorate,” under circumstances described in eerily similar language to today’s. “People are starving in the streets of Port-au-Prince because they cannot secure the supplies of food which abound in the country. Things have been going from bad to worse, and something must be done,” reported the New York Times on Aug. 25, 1915, under the headline “Plan Protectorate to Control Haiti: American Forces to Stay Until Finances are Established and Order Obtained.”

That occupation lasted until 1934; after Washington pulled out, Haiti was again thrown into a vortex of uprisings, instability and dictatorship that conspired to keep it the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere. From 1957 to 1971, the country was under the bloody and corrupt rule of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier and his murderous secret police; he then passed power to a kleptocracy run by his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier, who left office in 1986 under pressure from the Reagan administration. A succession of governments and instability again followed, leading to the establishment of a UN peacekeeping force in 2004. It was not until May 2006, when President Préval took office—for the second time—that Haiti, still desperately poor, overpopulated, deforested, began to experience relative stability, a growing economy, and the beginnings of foreign investment.

And now, disaster—and new promises from Washington. President Barack Obama has said the U.S. is committed for the long haul. The US$100 million in humanitarian assistance, pledged as a starting point, “will grow over the coming year as we embark on the long-term recovery from this unimaginable tragedy,” he said on Jan. 14, adding later that U.S. help “will be measured in months and even years.” Former president Bill Clinton, who was last year appointed a UN special envoy to Haiti, told Haitians this week, “I will grow old and still work with you.”

Horror in Haiti
Bill Clinton, who is helping to spearhead U.S. aid efforts, helps unload a plane

Some Haitians welcome the commitment. Those who jammed the fence around the grounds of the ruined national palace in Port-au-Prince, as U.S. troops emerged from six navy helicopters on Tuesday, cheered. “We are happy that they are coming, because we have so many problems,” Fede Felissaint, a hairdresser, told reporters. “If they want, they can stay longer than in 1915.”

Not all Americans are thrilled by the prospect. On Jan. 13, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh portrayed the administration’s aggressive approach to the crisis as, “We should take it over, we should do something, annex it, make it a state. Imperialism, yeah, make it a state, take it over.” He also, controversially, accused Obama of exploiting the tragedy for domestic political ends. “They’ll use this to burnish their, shall we say, ‘credibility’ with the black community.”

But the extent of U.S. involvement has also raised hackles elsewhere, and not just among the French. Echoing French minister Joyandet, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez accused Washington of “occupying Haiti undercover.” Sensitive to accusations of a takeover, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton have gone out of their way to emphasize that the increased U.S. presence in Haiti is at the request of Préval, whose administration they support. “We are here at the invitation of your government to help you,” Clinton told Haitians during her visit on Saturday. By Sunday, she and Préval issued a joint communiqué that included the statement that “President Préval, on behalf of the government and people of Haiti, welcomes as essential the efforts in Haiti by the government and people of the United States to support the immediate recovery, stability and long-term rebuilding of Haiti and requests the United States to assist as needed in augmenting security in support of the government and people of Haiti and the United Nations, international partners and organizations on the ground.”

Horror in Haiti
Soliders of the U.S. 82nd Airborne land at the National Palace

Many observers, though, say that a more paternalistic role by the U.S. or the UN is the only way to improve the lot of Haitians. Gabriel Marcella, a Latin America specialist at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Penn., proposed in 2005 that Haiti could not survive as a sovereign state. In a paper for a Washington conference on the country’s future, Marcella argued for “co-operative sovereignty,” under which the UN would set up a “trusteeship” over the nation. “The notion of sharing or ‘co-operative sovereignty’ with an international body may be deeply unpopular with some people,” he wrote. “But it may be the only dignified alternative left, so that domestic sovereignty can be strengthened to such a degree that Haitians can resume full control of their nation at some future date.”

At the time, the idea was resisted, Marcella told Maclean’s in an interview. “When I got reactions from people in Washington and New York I came to the conclusion that there was really no stomach for the UN taking on a trusteeship in Haiti.” However, he says, the UN mission in Haiti essentially took over the security role as he had envisioned. And now, since the earthquake, he is hearing a different tone from international leaders.

“I’m beginning to see a significant change in the language of national leaders in the U.S., Europe, and Latin America,” Marcella says. “I’m hearing very strong language about wanting to be more effective for the long term. There is a greater consensus now than ever before that something more dramatic and sustained has to be done. My current thinking is that nine million Haitians, with two per cent of the forest cover left on the island, where charcoal comprises 71 per cent of the fuel used for cooking, where 43 per cent of people don’t have enough food, and 80 per cent are unemployed, need a massive, multi-year effort to reconstruct the economy and the ecological basis for human habitation.” And Washington should take the lead. “I think the U.S. would gladly hand it off to the UN,” he notes. “But I very much fear that in doing so the effort might be diluted. The kind of commitment we need will simply not be there.”

Horror in Haiti
A Canadian military medic treats the injured in Port-au-Prince

To some, it’s the sort of proposal that should make international leaders leery. Roger Noriega, for one, a former assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs under the Bush administration, rejects the scenario of a U.S. or a UN protectorate: “I think it’s a shortcut to say we have to put it under international trusteeship. I think Haitians should be given the opportunity to run their own affairs. We need to accompany them in that process.”

But many of those now picking through the rubble of their former homes want more than just company—for the good of their country. Gary Joseph, a Haitian businessman and aspiring politician who once lived and studied in the United States, is among them. “People used to come here to see what they could get from this country,” says Joseph, whose home was destroyed but who remains hopeful for the future. “This time they’re not here to take stuff. They’re here to bring stuff. I believe this time it’s going to be for real. Everything happens for a reason. And I believe that we’re going to take advantage of what happened to rebuild this country.”