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Sensationalizing Suffering

Struggling for Dignity and Survival in Haiti

by TONYA GOLASH-BOZA

I left the Dominican Republic on Monday, January 25, 2010 with a team of five people from Fondation Avenir to meet with members of Haitian civil society to assess the possibilities for rebuilding Haiti in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake.

Driving from the border to Port-au-Prince, and around the city and outlying areas, we have found the city to be remarkably calm, especially at night. Many people sleep in the streets. Some do this because they have lost their homes, others because their homes are presently unsafe, and still others because they fear there will be another earthquake. At these tent cities, despite the poor conditions, there is order and community. People arrange their tents into straight lines, leave spaces for public use, and organize a security crew to watch over them at night and to ensure that cars do not trample the tents.

Port-au-Prince is a city filled with people searching for survival, organizing the few resources they have to provide much-needed services for their communities. I have not seen any evidence that people are hijacking cars on the roads and stealing provisions, as we had been warned by friends and the media. This trip has provided me with insight into many ways that the mass media misrepresents the current situation in Haiti.

The mass media’s portrayal of Haiti is sensationalist because major corporations need to make a profit. Advertising dollars flow with images of looters, destruction, and social disorder. The media’s perception of what will sell is one reason for the misleading portrayal. The other underlying reason is racism. The idea that Haiti is filled with robbers and rapists is one that fits into the racist mindset of many Americans. It is easy to believe that Haitians – black people in a poor country – are prone to violence and banditry.

It is harder for white Americans to believe that Haitians are actually working together to survive under very difficult conditions. The idea that Haiti has people organizing themselves into orderly tent cities and that the major role of the United States has been to patrol around with soldiers and guns is not one that fits the image of Haiti or of the US’s role there.

During the day in Port-au-Prince, some people continue with their daily routine. People with roadside stands set up shop where they can; police officers show up to work; doctors – Haitian and foreign – do what they can to ensure the survival of Haitians.

However, many others are idle. Many businesses have been shut down because the building has been destroyed or rendered unusable. Schools are not operational because of damage. Many people are not going to work because their job is not there any more.

At the same time, there is a lot of work to be done in Haiti. Some people are coordinating rescue efforts and cleaning up buildings. Others are providing security for those who must sleep on the streets or in tent cities. Others are rebuilding walls or salvaging bricks from destroyed buildings.

There is much more work to be done, and, as yet, no clear plan for how it will be accomplished. The three million people left homeless is a testament to how many buildings have been destroyed. The international community and the local government have yet to lay out or implement a plan even to clear the damage. There are a few sites with bulldozers, as portrayed in the media, but many more with people digging rubble with their bare hands. With all of the aid coming in, it is hard to believe so many people are working without even the most basic equipment – gloves and mason hammers.

There are a lot of soldiers all over the city. It is unclear what is their function might be. They patrol the streets with big guns at the ready, yet I have not seen any soldiers engaged in the clean up effort. And, it is clear that the function of the US soldiers is security. Some soldiers protect food deliveries, but there are far too few deliveries. Food distribution is a major problem in Haiti, in part because of widespread concern over security issues. There are not enough armed guards to protect food shipments on the street, so they do not go out.

The international community has to include the Haitian community in the food distribution system. That is the best way to maintain security. Part of the reason Haitians have not been organized in distribution efforts is a lack of confidence in Haitian people to organize themselves effectively and to share resources. Despite this perception, which is fueled by mass media portrayals of Haitians as looters and desperate, I have seen plenty of evidence that Haitians are capable of organizing themselves and distributing resources. Unfortunately, the calm streets and civic organization of Haitians does not seem to be newsworthy for mainstream media.

These efforts should be newsworthy, as it takes a tremendous amount of fortitude to maintain dignity in unimaginably difficult circumstances. The perseverance of Haitians should serve as an inspiration to rebuild the country as well as a beacon of hope.

Tanya Golash-Boza on the faculty at the University of Kansas and blogs at: http://tanyagolashboza.blogspot.com/