Reporting from Purgatory: The Haiti Experience
Make plans. Watch them fall apart. Improvise. And embrace the unexpected. That’s my credo for reporting from Haiti. It’s never failed me, in nearly a dozen visits since 1987.
Port au Prince is the ultimate testing ground for foreign correspondents. It’s where you learn what to do when telephones fail, the lights go out, the air conditioner malfunctions at 36 degrees C, your rented car breaks down, your fixer doesn’t show up, your guts are in diarrheic agony, and the hotel loses your laundry so you have to do your live on-camera hit in a dirty T-shirt. All of these things can, and do, happen simultaneously. The wise response, the ONLY response, is to shrug, and hope the hotel barman has a fresh supply of ice on hand for the Barbancourt rum punch.
But what I suffered was mere purgatory compared to the hell that correspondents are undergoing now in covering the earthquake. It’s misery magnified a hundredfold. It tests any reporter’s resolve to do this kind of work. It’s also—truth be told and forgive me for saying this under the awful circumstances—the most exhilarating place to work that I can imagine.
In 1987, my first visit, a post-Duvalier election went bad. At 10 in the morning, we heard an army convoy race by the hotel on its way to a polling station, so we leaped into our cars in pursuit. We came upon a scene of carnage, 20 or 30 bullet-riddled bodies of men and women who had come to cast ballots, and who were instead ambushed by a gang on Tonton Macoutes. My cameraman went to work among the corpses, and I had to physically haul him away when the soldiers told us it was time to leave. We left with the soldiers. A handful of reporters stayed, and the Macoutes returned minutes later, guns blazing. One reporter was killed.
I was still young and prone to existential dread, so I called my news desk and demanded a charter plane to fly me and the crew out. “Stick around for another day, and see what happens,” the deskman told me. So I stayed, under protest, and we filmed more corpses, and demonstrations, and interviewed killers and disillusioned voters. And my fear turned to morbid fascination. I knew I would be coming back.
I made it a point to go back at least once every two years, and I watched a sorry succession of coup d’etats, failed elections, spurts of democratic optimism and economic despair. I met murderers and martyrs. I met Antoine Izmery, a wealthy merchant with a Middle Eastern background who noisily supported Aristide, hated the military and the bourgeoisie, and predicted that he would soon be murdered for his activities. A couple of months after our interview, Izmery was dragged out of a church service and shot to death. I learned an important lesson: Chaos is Haiti’s default position.
Once I hired a fixer , Michel, who claimed he had “great contacts” on the streets of Port au Prince. He was good, very good. But a week later, he was found, decapitated, in a slum alley. His “contacts,” I learned, included some notorious drug dealers whom he had double-crossed. Another time, doing a story about criminal deportees, I interviewed a tough-looking Haitian-American man, and after the interview was over, he demanded my video camera as payment. “I’m sorry but I need it,” I said. “I need it more,” he snarled. He reached for me and I barely escaped.
Once, trying to economize on a freelance trip, I stayed with a deranged Canadian man who claimed he was a white voodoo priest. Every night, he would climb onto his roof and, intoxicated on whiskey and other substances, blow into a conch shell. “It’s magic,” he said, “It frightens the gunmen. They’ll stay away. You’ll see.” But it only drew more gunfire, and the next morning, I quietly left and checked into a hotel.
Make plans. Watch them fall apart. Improvise. In February 2004 I was teaching at the University of British Columbia. I had a 10-day winter break so I decided to revisit Port au Prince with my video camera. My plans involved a quiet week filming some feature stories, and relaxing. My plans fell apart. I walked into a civil war. President Jean-Bertrand Aristide’s democratically-elected government was caught in the jaws of a pincer movement of mercenary soldiers and angry businessmen.
I told my fixer to drive me north to Gonaives so I could film the mercenaries. We were stopped at a roadblock manned by young Haitians with motorcycles. If we wanted to go any further, we’d have to hire the motorcylists and pay them $50 US to Meet the Mercenaries. It was a crazy idea, but I pulled out some money and jumped aboard. Ten minutes and a wild ride later, I came upon one of the mercenaries. He turned out to be a notorious killer, named Louis-Jodel Chamblain, whom I’d met before. His eyes seemed glazed. He was drunk or stoned. Outside his headquarters, I aimed my camera at his face and asked him “What are you doing?” Chamblain answered straight-faced: “Bringing democracy to the people of Haiti.” I turned the camera off, and decided to end the interview. This was too bizarre, even by Haitian standards of bizarreness.
Two days later, I talked my way into President Aristide’s office at the Palace and he gave me 15-minutes on camera. He begged Canada and the US for help. Within two weeks, he was deposed, pushed out by the very "friends" he had appealed to. Chamblain is still walking the streets of Haiti, a free man. Embrace the unexpected.
Those streets of Haiti are broken now. I hope to go back soon. This time, I’m not making plans.