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Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Saturday, 23 January 2010
Horror in Haiti

By Mike Thomson
Today programme, Port-au-Prince

A woman who lost everything in earthquake

Around the corner came a garbage truck. It moved slowly down the centre of the road, forcing my car to stop.

Unable to see what was happening behind it I wondered how anyone could even think of collecting rubbish in the wake of a tragedy like this.

But as we edged nearer a nauseating smell filled the air. It wasn't that of garbage. As we drew alongside I saw piles of bodies being thrown in the garbage truck like bags of household waste. This was death on an industrial scale.

I doubt if I'll ever forget this horrific image. It's one of many scenes of horror from the last few days that are etched in my mind.

Not that I hadn't been prepared for terrible scenes given the scale of what had happened.

I had known that there would be bodies in the street, children dying of normally treatable injuries and the plaintive moaning of the bereaved. And I found all of these, along with looters and gun-wielding gangs.

But I came across something else that surprised me much more. How strangely calm so many people seemed to be. In the face of almost unimaginable destruction and loss most were already picking up the pieces and doing their best to cope.

Though clearly desperate for food and water and distraught at the sudden loss of family and friends few seemed to have given up or lost the will to go on.

Government building destroyed by earthquake

Hastily assembled shelters were being built to fend off sun and rain, the dead were quietly being buried and small children were playing in the rubble of what had been their homes.

One woman lay in a hospital bed after spending nearly four days trapped under rubble. Medics had had to cut off her arm to free her from the debris. Yet looking up at me she smiled and said "I have lost my arm but gained my life. I am so happy."

Racked nerves

Almost everywhere I went people would crowd around pulling me this way and that to show what had happened to their houses. All in the hope that I would bring help.

At times this was very nerve racking. These were people who now had nothing: no home, no food, no water and often no mother, father, brother or sister.

Might one or more of them decide to grab my bag, raid my pockets or steal my recording equipment in the hope of gaining money to survive?

Earthquake survivor Charles
Charles was given only 24 hours to live unless given better treatment

Yet, thankfully, the worst didn't happen. In fact, I was quietly warned to be careful crossing the rubble and shielded from the baking sun by a torn old parasol. All these people wanted from me was to tell the world what I had seen in the hope that help might follow.

What also surprised me, as well as much of the watching world, was the apparent inability of UN and US troops to provide that help.

Countries around the world were generously sending planes full of aid to stricken Haiti, yet many of these aircraft were not given permission to land and had to simply fly off again.

Desperately needed mobile hospital units, medical supplies, food, and all sorts of other life or death items were being turned away. Even a large makeshift hospital at the UN base near Port-au-Prince Airport didn't seem up to the job.

I was shown to the bedside of a 12 year-old boy who needed emergency surgery. Charles's legs had been crushed in the earthquake and a doctor, who at one point was in tears, told me that he might die with within 24 hours unless he could be flown to a better equipped hospital.

Charles would probably have been dead by now if a US businessman had not flown him to a Miami hospital by private plane after hearing of his plight.

Extraordinary survival

The shortages of just about everything felt a little frightening even for journalists. We had all been advised to carry emergency rations, medical kits and water purifying tablets. In the few days after the earthquake there was little to buy in earthquake hit Port-au-Prince.

Earthquake survivor
A mother with her daughter, who was pulled from the rubble

Luckily for me and my BBC colleagues, who had all come equipped with tents, one or two hotels were still functioning. The one I found myself in even managed to cook food for us all. At first there were a few murmurings about the grumpy attitude of a couple of staff.

We then discovered that both had lost their homes in the earthquake as well as virtually all there possessions.

I wasn't completely sure that I had left Haiti when driving off towards the neighbouring Dominican Republic. In an effort to speed up the transit of aid and personnel between the two countries all the normal passport inspections have been waived.

But had I been less sleepy after a frantic few days I couldn't have failed to notice where Haiti ends and the rest of the world begins. Out of the windows you see trees again, vegetation, roads with at least some sort of tarmac, and goods in the shops.

The squalor, the destruction and the smell of death and destruction are gone. One can only hope, that with world's help, a new Haiti will grow out of the ruins of this terrible tragedy.

Given the extraordinary resilience of the country's people there seems no reason why not.


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