Port-au-Prince, Haiti – Nothing can prepare you for Port-Au-Prince.
Not watching the devastation on CNN for a week. Not viewing a Time
magazine photo montage of blue-tinged bodies in rigor mortis. Nothing.
the only thing that prepared me were grainy black and white photographs
that I had seen of Berlin and Tokyo in the summer of 1945, cities
reduced to endless stretches of rubble. Port-Au-Prince looks like it
was bombed mercilessly from the air by a powerful foe.
It hits you slowly. As you make the long drive from Santa Domingo
and cross the border into Haiti, you first think to yourself, ‘Thank
goodness. The earthquake wasn’t nearly as bad as described.’ We saw a
few homes that had collapsed on the outskirts of the city and heard the
tragic story of a grandmother who had been crushed under a collapsed
roof. But 300,000 dead? The estimates had to be exaggerated.
Then you get nearer and the tent and squatter cities of the endless
number of homeless, sitting outside their makeshift abodes with little
to do and looking like ghosts, begins to hit you.
But only when you get into the very heart of the city, ground zero
of the quake’s devastation, does a world of pure destruction open
before you. One of out every two buildings collapsed like pancakes,
creating giant tombs in the city’s heart. The stench of death,
inescapable, is all around you. Noone will ever know how many are
buried inside these mountains of wreckage. It took ancient Rome empire
hundreds of years to collapse and become a city if ruins. But mother
nature accomplished the task in Haiti in a matter of seconds.
As you drive through the downtown what makes the scene even more
macabre are the hundreds of people who walk through the rubble and the
cars who traverse the devastation seemingly barely cognizant of the
apocalypse that is all around them. Barely a store is open. The
electricity is long gone. But they walk through, determined, as if the
heart of the city still beats.
The airport, if you can call it that, is a scene of vast quantities
of supplies strewn about, bubble-wrapped and waiting to be distributed.
The UN compound – a vast blizzard of white vehicles with the dark black
UN letters adorning them – sits immediately nearby. Every country on
earth seems to be represented and one can verily hear people speaking
tongues, that is, every known tongue. Never have I witnessed such an
extensive relief effort. I was greeted warmly by soldiers of every
nationality, from the Brazilians who bought groceries next to me, to
the Indians who smiled when I waved, to the Italians who fought to
maneuver their giant convoy through the traffic-clogged streets, to the
Peruvians who tried to clear a way for them to pass.
And everywhere – dominating air, sea, and land – are the Americans.
From the airport field hospital operated by the sleep-deprived heroes
of the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine, to the awesome
site of Air Force Ospreys rising vertically and then taking horizontal
flight, to the giant C-130 transports landing and making the earth
shake, to the American Homes passing through the streets, with smiling
soldiers atop, the American people are providing the lion’s share of
I came to Haiti with my friend Glen Megill of the Christian
humanitarian organization, Rock of Africa, and my eldest daughter
Mushki. Last thanksgiving we visited Zimbabwe to distribute corn seen
and mosquito nets and now we were in Haiti to visit an orphanage. I
came directly from broadcasting a radio show at the Super Bowl in Miami
and then watching the game with my family, following a nephew’s bar
mitzvah. A different side of America was on display this past weekend
in South Florida. Saints fans turned Ocean Drive into the French
Quarter’s Bourbon Street. All-party-all-the-time. A country whose
biggest cultural event of the year is a bunch of enormous guys hitting
each other as hard as their muscles would allow. I am a huge football
fan. But the way in which the Super Bowl dominates the American
television landscape instead of, say, the debate over health care, is a
little difficult to comprehend. But make no mistake about it. This is
nation that plays hard but knows when it’s time to get serious.
And as I watched the world coalesce around the tragedy of the
poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, the paradox of the world
achieving the ancient messianic vision of global unity only through
tragedy and sport began to gnaw at me. The only time I had ever seen so
many people of so many different nationalities coming together in such
harmony was at the Olympics I had witnessed in Barcelona, Lillehammer,
and Salt Lake City.
The UN, a body that has long disgraced itself by its hatred of
Israel and its defense of Arab dictators is doing an awe-inspiring job.
Haiti has also seen the near-universal praise of Israel as a country of
unparalleled humanitarian commitment with Wycliffe Jean, arguably
Haiti’s biggest celebrity and the global face of the Haitian
humanitarian effort, telling me on my radio show that the Israelis out
shown every other nationality in their expert professionalism and the
amount of lives they saved.
Is it only in moments of competitiveness and tragedy that the world
can rally together as one indivisible family? Is it only through
catastrophic death that the world can learn the value of life? Can we
rally together only in adversarial conditions, or when we are in
I guess that in a world so deeply fractured we should be grateful for whatever unity we can get.
I leave Haiti feeling overwhelming grief for the devastation
experienced by its inhabitants, a profound respect for their courage
and how little they complain, and in awe of the human capacity to draw
together to help those in need.
Rabbi Shmuley Boteach is the founder of This World: The Values
Network. His upcoming book, Renewal: A Guide to the Values-Lived Life
will be published in April by Basic Books. Follow his Haitian tweets
@RabbiShmuley and on his website Shmuley.com