We Were a Small but Efficient Brigade And the Haitians Grew Fond of Us
This young Haitian, who has lived in Nicaragua for years,
accompanied the Nicaraguan Army brigade
led by Brigade General Mario Perezcassar
that offered help to the Haitian people for 37 days
following the earthquake that devastated their country.
He talked to envío on his return, just before an earthquake battered Chile.
His tale allows us to make some comparisons between the two tragedies.
We flew from Managua to Jamaica and from there to Haiti. When we landed in Jamaica, General Perezcassar called us together and asked us to work with great respect, without being invasive, side by side with people, listening, acting in solidarity and contributing all we could. From the first moment to the last this was the hallmark of the Nicaraguan brigade’s work.
Nicaragua sent 36 young soldiers, a very small brigade if we compare it to those sent by other countries that arrived with a lot of people and plentiful resources. We were few but we turned out to be very efficient. The brigade consisted of three components: rescue, medical and security.
When we arrived in Haiti we saw there was no government. Before sending us, Nicaragua’s government had coordinated with Haiti’s internal affairs minister. We did see him on arriving: a very nice, well educated man, but he couldn’t offer us anything. By way of welcome he told us: “Guys, you look for somewhere to stay, I can offer you nothing because the government is in pieces and no one is in charge.”
In the airport a UN mission was parceling out the city. They assigned us to quadrant 4. As I knew the city I took them to the spot. We saw dead people, piles of dead people in rows upon rows on all the streets. From the very first moment we smelt the overwhelming stench of death all around.
As soon as we arrived at our assigned place, people in the neighborhood who saw us started shouting at us: “There are people over here!” They’d heard voices in the ruins. That was our first task. At first it was only us but when the word spread that we were rescuing someone a brigade of very professional experts from Peru came over to help us. Those Peruvians were carrying some probes they put into the ruins to pick up heartbeats, a sign that people were alive underneath. We Nicaraguans arrived without sophisticated equipment. We had cutting gear, measuring gear, picks, shovels… We didn’t have dogs or anything else. From that first day the Peruvians, a private brigade of volunteers, hooked up with us and we worked really well together. That day we worked with them from 9:00 in the morning to 3:00 in the afternoon. I was working as an interpreter. There was someone under the rubble. I spoke in Creole: it was a woman. I asked her who she was, where she was, who she was with… She told me there were four people in that house with her: she and another lady looked after two little girls. “But by yesterday the girls weren’t talking any more…” she told me. They were dead.
I never thought getting that woman out of there would take so long. It takes hours getting a persons out! The specialists say it has to be that way, because if you don’t do it really carefully, the person could get crushed and die… They take measurements, wedge a piece of wood in, measure again, push, rescuers go in and come out… They go in with helmets and flashlights and a bottle of water… It’s hard… with that suffocating heat, that smell of death… They had to come out every half an hour, they couldn’t bear it. Every half hour I had to climb up the rubble to talk to the lady: how do you feel, be patient… I had to raise her spirits, give her hope and explain to her that it was slow work… It hit me hard when she said near the end: “It’d be better to cut my hand off so you can get me out sooner!” When we finally got her out there was round after round of applause for the brigade. The people cried and shouted with joy after seeing so much effort. It was the same with the five other people we managed to rescue. Each time it was a long job, lots of effort, and my task was always to give hope, to ask for patience.
After we rescued that woman the general gave me permission to go look for my own family, my parents, my brothers and sisters. I still didn’t know if they were alive or dead. I headed off at a run. At a traffic light I met someone who works with my brother and asked him. They were all alive! Only my sister’s husband had died. They’d only got married 20 days ago. He was crushed under the house and my sister was rescued by her father-in-law and my brother with a sledge hammer, pick and shovel; with their bare hands. Brave people, because to get someone out you had to go in through piles of rubble and that takes courage, because the tremors continued and you could end up trapped down there too.
The Haitians themselves did the most and best rescue work, with a lot of courage and solidarity. In those days I always asked the people in the camps: And you, who got you out? Most of them answered: My father, my mother, a cousin, some relation… I reckon that out of the 100,000 injured people who were rescued and in the camps, 99,000 were rescued by the Haitians themselves in the first 24 hours before anyone arrived to help them.
When my family saw me they were astounded. How had I got there if there were no flights? I explained to them that I came with the Nicaraguan brigade. One of my brothers got enthusiastic when I told him about the rescue work we were doing and wanted to join in, but when he got there and saw it he went back. He couldn’t do it. It was the first time he had seen the rest of the city and he couldn’t handle it. It smelt terribly of death and there was too much desperation for him.
We Nicaraguans set up our base at the airport. We ate cold army rations three times a day. They ordered us not to eat anything or drink the local water because if someone got ill it would be a big problem. We always slept on the floor on cardboard, but it was hard to sleep because the noise of airplanes landing at the airport was hellish.
The second day we got up at 6 a.m. to carry on looking for survivors. That day we rescued another two people alive. The brigade split into two groups because there were too many of us to be in just one place: some of us would look and when we found someone alive we’d all get together to help. I always had the same job: talking to them, giving them hope, asking them to by patient and trust that we were going to get them out… In the brigade the rescue section was the one that worked the most during the first week. We managed to get six people out of the ruins alive. We found the last one after a week, a 21-year-old woman who came out with a seriously injured leg.
People asked us for everything. They asked for food and medicines, and a place to sleep. In the camps people slept under stretched out sheets which protect you from the dew but nothing else. Or they slept under plastic tarps, which were incredibly hot in the day and very cold at night. Thousands and thousands of people were living like that. People asked first of all for us to listen to them. They wanted us to help them search for their dead and we had to tell them that we were there to look for the living. People wanted to be able to get their dead out. But some dead couldn’t be gotten out. The house fell on top of one of my mother’s cousins and killed her, her two children and eleven people from her husband’s family, and they couldn’t get them out. People wanted to see their dead, be able to bury them…
My brother went through a total tragedy trying to bury our brother-in-law. After extricating him from the rubble, he wanted to bury him in some land he had because the cemeteries were already full, but the neighbors wouldn’t let him, so he went from place to place with the body, with no idea what to do with him. Finally he bought a space in a private graveyard and buried him there. It was either that or leave him in the street so the truck would pick him up when it went by and throw him in a mass grave. A lot of bodies weren’t even collected by the truck because many neighborhoods had streets too narrow for the truck to enter. A lot weren’t counted… We’ll never know exactly how many died in Haiti.
One of the things that caused people the greatest despair was being unable to see their dead, get them out, or bury them. The pain of seeing your dead tossed aside with nothing you can do has happened everywhere. Nearly a month later there were still dead bodies abandoned in the streets. People had to just wrap them up the best they could and leave them there. We have huge respect for the deceased in Haiti and even the poorest always want to do well by their dead in burying them… The pain of not being able to do it will be there forever; it will be historical.
In the first days, lots of people would appear in any spot where they thought they heard someone alive under the rubble. “There’s someone here shouting!” Many people would get their expectations up and set to work. We’d go running to the place but usually couldn’t hear anything… People would be let down, sad, they’d get all nervous… That’s how we spent the first seven, eight days: searching, searching, searching… The brigade from the United States had the most people, it was huge. They were very imposing. Because when you see a pick-up with ten heavily armed men in the street, aiming their weapons at people, you feel either fear or angry rejection. That’s how they went around, patrolling the streets for security reasons or who knows what. Surely they also had medical brigades, but I didn’t see them.
The Haitians don’t like seeing people with weapons. We’ve had really bad experiences with military people in our history. Of course there had to be armed people looking after the doctors who were working everywhere, but they didn’t aim their weapons at people. In the first days our brigade carried rifles, but after a meeting with the Cubans and Venezuelans we decided to just carry pistols and not have them visible. The Cubans didn’t carry any arms. “We came to cure everybody, not to kill anyone,” they told us on the first day.
The first concern the Americans had when they arrived was to rescue their people who lived in Haiti. The French were the same. They very discreetly set about saving their own people, getting their dead out first of all, and afterwards… we’ll see. Those were also the priorities of the big agencies: first get their living out, second their dead, and then help. We had the advantage of having no Nicaraguans in Haiti and our brigade’s priority was always to help, treat, accompany and offer any other assistance we could. The Cubans were the same. All the Cubans in Haiti are doctors. And they dedicated themselves to medical care all the time; that was their only focus.
When there was no longer anyone to rescue, we all joined the medical component. Our doctors were treating people from the first day, most frequently dressing wounds and seeing to queues of people with broken bones: loads of amputations. We had taken a lot of medical supplies, we never ran short. At first we were in an outdoor medical camp, with three to four stations depending on demand. The Nicaraguan doctors split up. There was a check-up station and a treatment station. We had anesthesia but kept it for the worst cases. A lot of people were treated without anesthesia. One man had to have his finger cut off like that, and outdoors… Even the general became a nurse. When we couldn’t keep up he pitched in too. Our brigade was all men except for one young female doctor. She was very special: she worked eight to ten hours at a stretch standing up, without eating or drinking water, sweating, sweating… They’d pour water into her mouth while she was operating, so she wouldn’t have to stop.
We had 10 to 15 treatment points throughout the city. We’d take the doctors from one point to another, we’d find them… Like that, all day long. Our doctors could treat a huge number of cases. They treated not only earthquake victims but a lot of other people who were sick from before too: terribly serious preexisting cases. There were really sad earthquake cases, like the little 13-month-old girl who had to have her leg amputated… And horrible cases, like one woman who had all the bones of her leg exposed…
The Nicaraguan brigade decided to work with the Cubans who had the capacity to treat really serious cases, so when we had such a case we sent it to them. My job then was to get the case to a Cuban hospital at a run. They’d already been in the country a long time and had lots of experience. They’ve had 12 or 13 hospitals in Haiti for years, with specialties. Their hospitals didn’t collapse but they did have cracks in them. So the Cubans worked outside because no patient wanted to be inside where walls might fall down, given that there were still aftershocks and the ground continued to shake… There was always a Haitian working alongside every Cuban doctor, accompanying them, interpreting for them… The Cubans are very simple, fearless, really committed to the people. They know the Haitians well, so aren’t shocked by them. Haitians talk a lot, and they use really tough, strong language. Some people think we’re fighting. “No,” I’d say, “they’re not fighting, they’re trying to explain.” We also coordinated with the Venezuelans, who brought a lot of food. The problem wasn’t food, but distribution: Handing out food to thousands and thousands and thousands of people every day isn’t as easy as you might think…
It was the first time the Nicaraguans on the brigade had ever been to Haiti. Thanks to negative hype they thought Port au Prince would be an ugly city, but they realized it was beautiful, with big houses on the hills and well laid-out streets. We’ve been given a bad reputation. Every day on CNN it was reported that my people were mugging and looting. But I never saw that. We were there for 37 days and never, not even once, did we see any muggings. What did happen was that when the trucks arrived to hand out food in the Champ de Mars park opposite the National Palace, some strong men muscled into line several times and stole food from the women. That did happen, but nobody was looting or mugging or killing. There was no violence.
The general told me that after the 1972 earthquake in Managua some people, particularly National Guardsmen, stole everything out of the houses that had collapsed: refrigerators, televisions, anything… Not in Haiti, thanks to respect and self-control. In Haiti if someone steals it’s serious. Some people told me they saw somebody stealing from a damaged house and they almost killed him. Furthermore, although people were in the camps, someone always stayed behind in the neighborhood doing rounds and looking after it… My sister’s little house was new, with new things inside, the door stayed open but nobody stole anything…
The general compared what had happened in Managua with seeing refrigerators, televisions, suitcases full of clothes in the houses in Port au Prince that people weren’t stealing… I’m Haitian and maybe I’m wrong, but I think there are fewer thieves in Haiti than in other countries. People are more respectful. They’re poor, so they asked for help, but they didn’t go into houses and steal.
I also saw a young generation willing to volunteer their help. Groups of interpreters showed up who spoke Spanish, English, French… The general tried to give $5 to one of the translators for his work but he wouldn’t take it. The general was astounded, because in that situation anybody could use $5. It’s true: a truck would pull up and give out rice, another one would turn up and give water, still another would hand out noodles, but no one distributed salt, cooking oil, firewood to cook with… Everybody needed something. A sack of rice would last a family a few days and after eating it three times a day they would be desperate… there were two types of people in the camps: those who had a few cents and were working and could buy salt and sugar and those who had absolutely nothing. Lots of canned tuna and sardines arrived with the humanitarian aid but people weren’t used to eating that. It would have been much better to buy dried fish off the people who sell it, hand it out and be able to eat it with noodles or rice. That’s what my people like. I also saw middle-class people whose houses were still standing and who opened their doors and gave 40 people shelter in their homes. My brothers have jobs and if they saw a child sobbing, they’d buy him milk. Solidarity has grown. If someone has two sheets they’re willing to share one. People have also learned to relativize things, to value life and what they have.
The Nicaraguan brigade was very special. That solidarity, that risking oneself for others, a sense of mission, a spirit of service, of professionalism… We learned that the doctors from the Puerto Rican brigade joked when they were about to amputate an arm or a leg, which was very poor taste. I also heard racist comments against the Haitians in the brigade of Dominicans who came to help. At moments like that any help is welcome but … To me the Nicaraguan brigade displayed exemplary behavior of solidarity, patience and dedication.
After the first seven days we went to work in a place called Juvenat, where there’s a religious community in which my brother is a priest and where there was a camp of 5,000 people. There too we worked in coordination with the Cuban doctors in the central hospital. In a few days many Haitians started showing up who spoke Spanish and could translate for the Nicaraguan brigade. So my work started to change: taking the sick to the hospital, taking medications from one place to another, accompanying the general to talk to the Americans who were all over the streets, talking to them half in English to explain that we were a Nicaraguan brigade and that they should let us pass… I was a driver and something was always needed: a cord, some medicine, even cigarettes, because some people smoked and at times I had to drive all over the city to find cigarettes… I was a real gopher. But I did it with pleasure; I felt I was helping my people. I left Haiti after secondary school to study and afterwards I always worked in Central America, never in Haiti. Now for the first time I had the luck to be able to help my country.
One day I had to take a young girl of 14 to give birth in a Haitian hospital. It all worked out well. Three days later I went to see the newborn girl, who was now in a camp. The conditions weren’t suitable for a baby there, but that little girl will learn to survive. The parents thanked the brigade because we took her to the hospital when her water broke and they had no money to pay a taxi. A few days later I took another young woman to give birth.
Everywhere we saw queues: queues of children, of old people, of women, of damaged people… For every sort of ill there was a queue… And my people were so patient. Patient and grateful. Because in Haiti people go to the doctor only when they’re dying, and when they go they don’t find any medicines. Now they were being treated for free, and even if it was only a pill, they were very grateful for it.
My people were very fearful too, speculating, expecting more horrible things to happen… People are still holding a lot of pain inside. They don’t express much; they don’t want to talk. It’s better to talk, to get it out, to cry, but they still don’t want to… A lot of people still didn’t understand what had happened. Haitians don’t know about earthquakes. A girl who worked with my brothers said that when she felt the tremors she went and hid in the bathroom instead of going outside. People didn’t know what it was, and that not knowing made things worse. The only advantage was that the earthquake happened early and children weren’t yet at school. If they had been, they would all have died.
A highly popular evangelical current is preaching that the earthquake was God’s punishment because people practice witchcraft, because they behave badly thanks to voodoo, because people drink, because they don’t repent, because they’re not good Christians… I heard them saying this over loudspeakers. You hear it on the radio, at their services, in the camps… Another current of younger people understands it was a natural phenomenon. Yet another current says it was because they dropped a bomb. And then there are people like my brothers, priests in the place where we were, and other people who understand that there was so much destruction because Haiti wasn’t prepared for an earthquake and Haiti’s extreme poverty is why there are so many deaths and so much disaster.
We left before we could see the outbreaks of epidemics that are being seen now. But on our return we were already comparing how the children were: when we arrived they were well, but when we were leaving they all had flu and a lot of them had to be given antibiotics. That was the big worry we took with us when we left, because the rainy season was starting and everything would get complicated. If things get wet everything gets complicated: the mattress gets wet, clothes get wet… and you get more illnesses: fungal outbreaks, infections. We treated a lot of women with vaginal infections because they were bathing in dirty water. A truck would turn up carrying water and people would be pleased, but where did that water come from? Spending the day in the camps was unbearable, putting up with the sun all day. And at night it was terribly cold. And the wounded children crying. I remember a little boy with a broken pelvis, with that sun; it was torture for him… No one had a bed. Even all the sick people slept on the floor. The beds were in the houses that had partially or completely collapsed and nobody dared enter them for fear they would get trapped in the ruins.
The doctors had folding tables on which people laid to be operated on or to have an injection… Men and women with their buttocks exposed, all together getting their injections. Any sense of privacy had disappeared. In a huge park called San Pedro I saw several young women naked, washing themselves in full view of everyone. And it was understandable: after five days without a bath people no longer felt embarrassed.
Ah, and the latrine problem. They’d get full… and they stank all night! It was worse in the daytime when the sun came up. Where we were we dug a hole in the ground and there was a committee that filled that hole in after two or three days and made another. But in the camps in the parks there were portable toilets and that was even worse, because if the company didn’t come to clean them, they’d be there stinking surrounded by loads of flies… There were thousands of people in the streets and enormous amounts of rubbish everywhere. And the rubbish services weren’t taking it away because they were working to clear the rubble and take away the dead.
On the brigade we always wore masks; we took anti-malaria and anti-parasite medication because we were working in a highly contaminated environment. I didn’t see a hygiene section during the time we were there, even though it’s always so important in any brigade. We didn’t have a sanitary section in our brigade to collect rubbish or fumigate against the mosquitoes either. When we left, sanitation wasn’t a priority yet, nothing had been done.
When we got back to Nicaragua we could no longer smell that intense stench of death. But I’m sure that stench is still there in Haiti’s neighborhoods. Because I believe there were still people alive under the rubble even 20 days after the earthquake, but as nobody went to get them out they died one by one. If after a month you can still smell that stink of death, it’s from recently dead people who survived the earthquake and couldn’t be rescued; death arrived while they were waiting to be dug out. Even a week after getting there we saw a row of 40 corpses on the sidewalk that had been dug out of a building that day.
The Nicaragua soldiers are very satisfied with what they accomplished. It was a profoundly human experience. They also felt the support and backing of all Nicaraguans. They behaved with military discipline. The general used to say to us every day: you’re young men and there are a lot of young women here. I don’t want you giving presents, I don’t want any abuse, I don’t want you taking advantage of this tragedy. We’d get back at nightfall totally exhausted but pleased with being able to help. We felt that someday, somehow we might find ourselves in the same situation, in which we would need help and someone would come and help us.
The Haitian people got very fond of the Nicaraguan brigade. They saw they were young men in military uniform but very humble. No Haitian even knew where Nicaragua was. A lot of them heard us speak Spanish and thought we were Dominicans. Only one person we met had been here and every time he saw us he shouted, “Long live Sandino!”
The saddest moment for me was when I saw a man ripping the heel of his foot off. It was rotting and in the wait for the Cubans to amputate his leg, he pulled it off himself. If someone who is already in a field hospital does that, it’s because he’s reached a devastating level of desperation… I couldn’t say anything to him, I couldn’t even approach him.
The happiest moment, after meeting up with my family, was going to see the last girl we had pulled out of the ruins. In the desperation to get her out I hadn’t even seen her face. She was in a serious way when we got to her, but when we went to her house she was already out of danger, although she still couldn’t move. I was enormously happy for her, and also for the Nicaraguans who had gone in to get her out, because doing so means putting your life in danger. They risked their lives for her. That day when they went into the hole, they didn’t know what they were getting into… They came out sweaty, sweaty and completely red and they kept on going back in again and again. There were dead people in that hole too… and that stink of death and the suffocation. Like that for hours and hours … When we got her out alive it was a grand moment for everyone. In those moments you understand that when they want to, human beings can be God to another human being.
Before the earthquake the Venezuelan government helped Haiti the most, and after the earthquake too. The trucks going through the streets picking up the dead were donated to the government by Venezuela, heavy road-building machines. After the earthquake some wanted to speculate with fuel. Venezuela docked a ship in the port with fuel, which was a big help. Venezuela also installed a warehouse full of food and lots of people went in and lots of trucks came out taking food to the camps. For me the Venezuelans gave the most material aid. And those who have done the most for us with their presence and closeness are the Cubans. The good Cuban doctors with good medicines are the ones saving Haiti from a crisis of illnesses. And people are really grateful to them. These days people who go to see a doctor first ask “Is there a Cuban?” If there is, they go in… if not they don’t want to!
In the last four trips I made to Haiti in the past few years I saw that the country was improving: there were better streets, traffic lights, they were a great novelty, there was water in the neighborhoods and the electricity was on for longer… Haiti was getting better. All that has been lost now.
Turning this tragedy an opportunity to have a better country depends on Haitians. I know we’ll get help, but I don’t have much confidence in international aid because there’ll always be tragedies in other places. Right now we’re news, we’re on CNN every day, but the time will soon come when we’re no longer news. I believe if Haitians can agree on political, social and human affairs the country will rise up.
We’ll rise up but we won’t have a nice country like Puerto Rico in five years. I don’t have that illusion. We’ll carry on being a poor country. Let’s hope we’ve learned and that the aid is put to good use and we’ll see another Haiti in ten years, a different one; although I don’t know if it’ll be better than the one before the earthquake.
After seeing the interior minister at the very beginning, we never saw any other authority again. The only government presence we ever saw was the National Civil Police. They behaved well, always very friendly and giving us support. At this moment the police force is the strongest institution; in fact it’s the only institution. The government has fallen apart. The Catholic Church is in pieces too: the archbishop is dead, churches fell down, the most important Catholic schools collapsed… this doesn’t mean to say there are no priests or nuns doing field work, but there’s no institutional work, no leadership. The same is true with the government. People criticize it for not speaking, not appearing. But I don’t criticize it for that because when you haven’t got a lot to give it’s better not to talk, not to go out, because it might make things worse. The Haitians are demanding that their government talk, that it commit itself to building houses, doing this and that… the government is very cautious and doesn’t want to commit itself.
There are demonstrations demanding Aristide’s return. I think he’d do a lot of good by coming back. Aristide is a tremendous communicator: he’d speak to people, give them peace of mind, generate hope. Some say this would polarize the country because he has powerful enemies who don’t like him. I think that if he came back and stood by the government it would help a lot. Aristide is everything that President Préval isn’t. He’s a psychologist, he’s a priest and at moments like this, his words would do a lot of good. Préval is a pragmatist. He prefers digging out the dead with a pick and shovel to giving strength to the people who are getting the dead out. And in Haiti we prefer the one who gives the speech over the one who gets the dead out!
When we came back to Managua, life was beginning again in Port au Prince. There were taxis in the streets, the supermarkets that hadn’t fallen down were open again, the banks and gas stations had reopened, the hospitals that were still standing had started functioning again, there were people in the street selling mangos and people were already leaving the camps to see what they could do… Life was starting over again. When we came back to Nicaragua, aid was being organized and people were learning to distribute it. Everything has to be learned. We learned a lot too. Now I have to learn to sleep again. I still can’t sleep without sleeping pills.