Wednesday, September 24, 2008

This is how the world will end...

I was calm at first. Oblivious. The air conditioning in the Lexus SUV was working as you might expect... perfectly. Add to that the tinted windows and my 20 years of visits to this country that made everything outside of my windows seem safe and familiar. Though I had never been to this very spot, I felt at ease.

"So, when will we get there?" I asked.

Joel, my new friend, snapped back, "We've been in for nearly two miles now!"

In that instant, after the 8 little words sunk into my brain-matter, my entire world changed. It's funny what something as simple as language can do. The moment the information changed, my heart began to race. I felt tense. Everything outside had been commonplace just a moment earlier. Now, those same things were ominous and unpredictable.

That's when I began to see the bullet holes... BIG bullet holes... 50 caliber. Like cascading drops of crystalline water from a garden hose, the stream was almost visible from the sprayed pattern. My mind could drift away from the holes, visualizing the swing of the turret. Each pock mark seemed to point backward in time, ratting out the one responsible for its creation... each extending a finger toward the street and converging where the blue-domed UN soldier once poked from his armored transport.

The tops of buildings were missing. I don't mean to say they were left unfinished, like so many other projects in Haiti. No, these buildings had been torn apart from the explosive force of artillery. Shredded. Crumbled. Hobbled.

On July 28, 2008, I spent the better part of my birthday in a place I should never have been. I had voluntarily (albeit it through a strange set of unplanned circumstances) ridden into the heart of Cité Soleil, one of the poorest and most dangerous slums in Haiti. For a person like me (clearly a foreigner and seemingly well-off... read: expensive car, well dressed, nice camera), this was not exactly the place to be.

At one time Haiti was named the "kidnap capital of the world" * due to an increase in for-profit abductions that had risen to an all-time high. In many cases, the kidnappings were gang-related and therefore highly organized and protected. Similarly, it was not uncommon for the responsible individuals to have originated in specific regions of the city. Cité Soleil was not alone but was certainly battling for its roost at the top of that list.

Put mildly, there are certain places in Haiti that foreigner's should not go. In December of 2005, a US missionary of more than 30 years (and a long-time, personal friend of mine), Phil Snyder, had been shot in the head and torso with a shotgun and then held for ransom in this very same place. His story was right there at the back of my teeth as I stepped deeper and deeper into the "city of the sun".

As the US State Department's website puts it, "There are no "safe areas" in Haiti." For certain, there are several locations that are completely "off limits." Elsewhere on the US State Department's website it declares, "Embassy employees are prohibited from remaining in the downtown area after dark or entering Cite [sic] Soleil and La Saline and their surrounding environs due to significant criminal activity."
So here I was... smack dab in a place that I was not technically "supposed" to be. Add to that the fact that I had arrived in a Lexus and was toting around an expensive video camera (again, not by design).

"Cameras and video cameras should only be used with the permission of the subjects; violent incidents have followed unwelcome photography. Their use should be avoided altogether in high-crime areas."

- US State Department

I have been filming in Haiti for the better part of 10 years now. What the State Department says about photography is absolutely true. Simply as a matter of personal respect, I do not believe it is generally acceptable to point a camera at someone without their express permission, specifically if the resulting image can be easily defined as them. Over the years, I have personally made it a matter of common practice to spend several hours in an area where I may hope to film before even thinking to switch on the camera. As a general rule, forming meaningful relationships in a place like Haiti... a place that has been taken advantage of for so long... is not only critical, it is a matter of common respect. My experience has shown me that the average Haitian's "trust factor" with foreigners increases the further away from the big city that I get. Actually, it is very similar to what I have observed in the states; the mistrust of strangers is often more prevalent in large, metropolitan areas than it is in rural ones. Yet still, even in the most trusting of places, I am bound by the code of patience, respect, and cautious deliberation.

Cité Soleil was probably the last place I expected my camera to be an "acceptable" accessory. For a good while, I was wholeheartedly ashamed to even have it in my grip. I practically worship the people of Haiti. Forgive me if it sounds unbalanced but my love for haiti truly is more on the slant of an obsession for me. Never in a million years would I dream to take advantage of the people that I love. To think that I was now in a position where I could be extremely misunderstood (and subsequently murdered) was enough to make me sick at my stomach.

But there I was; the cards were all on the table and I didn't likely have much time, so I cautiously... and I wish to stress CAUTIOUSLY... raised the lens and requested permission to commence documenting what I was seeing.

5 hours later I was safely walking out of the bowels of what I can only describe as hell on earth. My boots were completely covered... and I do mean absolutely caked... in human and animal excrement. I hadn't strayed from the beaten path or played the hero. I was following the children, going where they went... observing. On several occasions, the young man following me would say (in broken English) "you ok man" or "I not gon let na-tin happen you." He could tell I was far from comfortable. What he didn't know was that even he made me uneasy. All of the horror stories that I had heard about the dangers of Cité Soleil could have easily happened to me that day. With one wrong move or cultural misunderstanding, I could have simply disappeared from the face of the earth.

But now the SUV was in sight, baking in the intense and unrelenting heat and I was leaving with several tapes full of astonishing footage.

To this day, I am still not entirely sure what the purpose was behind this providential day in Cité Soleil. I can say that I have never been the same since and that I now understand Haiti in a completely different way. Even the Haitian friend that took the journey with us that day was knocked clear off his seat. He expressed that he "had no idea" that it was "that bad" down there. He went on to admit "how good" he's got it. For a guy that probably makes the equivalent of about $500 US dollars in an entire year, that is really saying something. In a place like Cité Soleil, the difference between cultural idiosyncrasies and outright inhumanity are bold and flagrant. What I saw there was totally preventable and immediately condemns anyone who is unwilling to help the poor (including myself).

In light of what Haiti faces today, after the massive damage inflicted by this season's storms, it is easy to forget about the daily struggles of so many. In the past month, the area where I filmed this video was once again submerged in a river of raw sewage and debris. As all of the reports were likewise flooding in, I could not help but feel a sense of frustration with the nature of journalism today. The "hot story" seems to change with the winds (literally in this case). Right now, Haiti is a hot topic, popping up on my Google alerts in virtual piles. Story after story is tied to the damage left in the wake of the storms. Understand, I myself contributed to the appeal for aid and I stand by that appeal. Right now, Haiti is in a far worse place than she was a few months ago. Immediate aid is critically needed. But I would be remiss if I didn't also mention that what Haiti needs, in a far-greater way, are long-term solutions for sustainability. Feeding the hungry and healing the sick are great things to do, but these things alone won't really fix any of Haiti's problems. I like to think I'm being a realist when I say that after all of that humanitarian work is over and done, the people you saved from starvation or disease are still going to die. In an earthly sense, no one lives forever.

This music video (and the personal experience that went into crafting it) reminds me of the real need for storytelling in Haiti and throughout the rest of the developing world. As a professional storyteller, that is where I am focusing my energy. In a country where more than 50% (and by some accounts as many as 88%) of the population cannot read or write, mass communication is perfectly poised to be used as a tool of mass education. Through broadcasting technology, the problems of limited infrastructure are finally surmountable and the millions of people who lack basic education may finally be reachable.

When the food supplies are replenished and the flood damage has been repaired or circumvented, Haiti will still be the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. News channels will bow away silently and find something else to chase. All the while, Haiti will still be tragically illiterate. Her mountains will still be mostly deforested (approximately 2% remains), life expectancy will be staggeringly low, and people will be suffering in ways that our modern world should never allow.

"The Age of the Storyteller is Upon Us"

In Haiti, demise and progress are waging a virulent war. With an exploding population and the myriad of obstacles already in place, the odds are heavily stacked against progress. If there were ever any hope for Haiti, in a practical, human sense, it is time to present the "nuclear option". By that, I mean to say that the only way to stem the tide and tip the weight of Haiti's future away from cataclysmic catastrophe and into the direction of progress and sustainability is to introduce a strategy that can quickly and comprehensively dismantle or bypass the majority of the current obstacles.

Haiti may lack roads, water, food, and forests but it does not lack air. On that air, education can rise and fall like rain, onto the soil of a population that is starving for knowledge. Through a broadcast educational initiative, the tide of this war can be turned and a sustainable future will have a fighting chance in Haiti.

Thanks for reading. For more information on what we are doing, please click here. On October 13th, you will be able to personally become a part of this unique and lasting initiative. We welcome your interest and depend upon your support. Please stay tuned!

Luke Renner

*In fairness, I should point out that as the data naturally ebbs and flows, the title of "kidnap capital of the world" eventually passed from Haiti to another nation, due in large part to extremely violent retaliation from the United Nations. Nonetheless, the reality of what put Haiti "in the running" remains a sobering and cautionary reminder of the reality of life in this desperate place.

No comments: