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Letter from Haiti

Public Health alum Amelia Shaw writes from a UN compound in Port-au-Prince.

In the Fall/Winter 2004 issue of Yale Medicine, Amelia Shaw, M.P.H. ’03, wrote of her experiences in Haiti during the turmoil that led to the ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide [“A Film to Finish”]. We learned in January that Amelia was still in Haiti, working for the United Nations as a television producer. She was in the UN headquarters when the earthquake struck on January 12, but got out of the building unscathed. More than 50 people on the UN team died, and many more are missing. Shaw, who is expecting her first child in May, has remained in Haiti. Her husband, Eduardo Braga de Sousa, a security officer with the UN, was on a training mission in Italy but has since returned to Haiti.

So far the Haitian government has confirmed that at least 150,000 people died in the earthquake. The true number may never be known, as many people remain unaccounted for in the rubble.

From a UN compound near the airport in Port-au-Prince, Amelia sent us this letter.


Friday, January 15, 2010

It’s funny how your entire world can change in just 45 seconds.

I went to work on Tuesday morning wearing a strapless maternity dress, black pumps and a red beaded necklace. At 4:48 p.m. I was sitting at my computer, talking with my cameraman about going home soon. I heard what I thought was a huge truck rumbling down the road. As I walked to the window to look, I realized the building was vibrating, then swinging wildly from side to side.

I wasn’t scared. I was just perplexed and trying to remember what to do—should we hide under our desks or run outside? For some reason, I thought the safety rule was “stand in a door jamb,” so I tried to get to the door. But I kept falling down. My cameraman lay on top of me to cover me—I guess he thought the right answer was “lay on top of your colleague.”

I remember our photographer bouncing off the walls behind us screaming, “GET OUT! GET OUT! GET OUT!” He grabbed me by the hair and I suddenly found myself sprawling down our front steps. The shaking stopped. Then started again. Then everything was calm.

Someone stuttered, “But where is our office?” All we could see was dust. No sunlight, no buildings, nothing more than four feet in front of us.

It took 20 minutes to verify that our six-story headquarters was no longer there. It did not compute. New Yorkers after 9/11 will understand how a building is supposed to be there, but you look and look to see it, and your brain can’t figure out why there’s only empty space.

Those of us who survived gathered in the parking lot. We sat together, but each of us was alone, huddled in the dark, listening to the world outside our walls. In the shantytown next to our office, the fates were the same. Across hills of shambled shacks, tens of thousands of people screamed and wailed, like a rolling tide. At every aftershock, the hills moaned in panic and fear.

I spent the night watching the rescue operations. I sat with a colleague whose husband was missing and whose one-year-old boy was in her fourth-story apartment in the hills above the city. She was stone-faced and silent, eyes wide watching the rubble. She finally went home and rescued her child at 2 a.m. Her husband’s whereabouts are still unknown.

We are just now beginning to understand who is not showing up, whose faces have been absent in the logistics base we’ve set up by the airport. It’s an awful experience. To know that the people that you meet for coffee, the ones you say “hi” to at parties and bars, the ones you have stupid arguments with about catty, dumb stuff—suddenly those people could be dead. Or worse, trapped in a small space, without air, in pain.

Many of us get by right now on certain things. First, the notion, “I survived.” I survived. I am still alive. That building came down, and by some miracle, I’m still here. So I’d better be happy and not waste it because many people are not so lucky. And second, “There is very important work to do.” Tons of it. Tons of rock to be moved, tons of people to be saved, tons of bodies to be picked up, tons of food and water to be handed out. And for me, tons of TV to be sent out to the world. So we throw ourselves into these things. It’s better than sitting around waiting and feeling helpless.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Six days after the quake, it occurred to me that there is a word for what I am: refugee.

My entire office of more than 30 people is squeezed into three small rooms in our compound by the airport. We sleep on camp cots or on the ground outside the building, because no one is quite comfortable with a concrete roof over their head. We have rationed water, and one MRE (meal ready to eat) per day that the Sri Lankan peacekeepers donated to us stranded civilians. We scrounge for other snacks.

We listen to the drone of military planes landing and leaving the airport all night. I can see the lights of the massive planes fly over my face when I lie on my cot. It is the only time I stop to think about what has happened and sometimes I cry. Then I fall into a dreamless slumber until 7 a.m. and wake with the sun high. We stumble into our office with rumpled hair, smile sheepishly, and smooth out our clothes. If we have other clothing we might change. If we don’t, who cares anyway, there’s too much to do. Yesterday I wore my boss’s shirt. No one even noticed.

Then starts a frantic dash to get from thing to thing—Bill Clinton pays a visit, a food distribution goes awry, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon lays a wreath at the site of our offices, a survivor somewhere is pulled from the rubble, alive, by God! Alive! News, news, news, it never stops, it is an insatiable animal, and I have to keep feeding the machine.

Meanwhile, from time to time, a colleague sits in a side room with a counselor receiving some very bad news. You know this happens when they come out red-eyed and broken, but somehow relieved. The news has arrived, the body was found, and now the knowledge sits like a boulder on every movement and thought this person will ever have. But at least they know. And there is a relief in it, to have a place to bury the body, to have a confirmed reason to grieve. And then, more often than not, they go back to their desk, wipe clear their eyes, and get back to work.

One of my colleagues told me last night about his girlfriend, who is lost in the big rubble graveyard that was my office. “I don’t hope for her, I know she is dead.” He says it and looks at the sky where the planes are passing. He shrugs. “What can I do? Maybe she will come now and visit me in my dreams. I love her. And I don’t know how I will go home and clean up her things.” And he comes to work every day. And he smiles and tells jokes. And sits apart and cries sometimes. Stares, sighs, gets up. And then goes back to work.

The city is ... well, I don’t really know how to describe it. It’s like everyone you know—EVERYONE—getting into a serious car accident on the same day, at the same time: some come out without a scratch, and others don’t. Some go home and find out their house fell down. Many of my colleagues lost everything. Some lost children, others a husband or wife.

I guess this is why I don’t think about anything until very late at night, watching the taillights of the planes that bring help across the sky.

I work in the news business, so I see the things that the media say about us. They decry the slowness and the disorganization. “Why isn’t the aid getting through!” they scream. I would like to invite them to Port-au-Prince on a good day and see how long it takes to cross the street, much less deliver hundreds of thousands of tons of food and water to 3 million people through stench and wreckage and shooting and burning and blockades built of the dead. And I look around my office, at my colleagues who have lost their husbands and their secretaries and their homes, who sleep on cots by the airport and slam their way through the day so quickly—probably so they don’t have to spend too much time thinking—and I think, “Hey, man. Cut us some slack. We’re doing our damnedest, and the truth is that we are victims, too.”

Today is my mother’s birthday. We talked by phone about how we have so much to be thankful for—our families, our friends. Heck, I even have clean underwear. But for me, the best thing came from my cousin today.

“My wife and I have been following your updates since the earthquake and have been touched by your courage and dedication in the face of the horrors you have witnessed. Tomorrow evening we are headed to the hospital for the birth of our daughter. We decided midway through this last week to change our daughter’s name from what we previously decided (Ginny) to something that represents the courage that you have shown in Haiti. We have decided to name her Amelia Grace Macaulay.”

Now if that doesn’t beat all.

As I write this letter, I feel the kicks of tiny baby feet inside of me. And I bow my head in thanks that amidst this tragic landscape of apocalypse, life is determined to go on.