I have covered my share of natural and human calamity -- Hurricane Katrina, war in Iraq and Afghanistan, mass shootings -- but I have never seen anything like the tableau that greeted me in Port-au-Prince after I arrived on an Air Force transport with troops from the 82d Airborne Division. I had been assigned by The Boston Globe to chronicle the aftermath of the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake that ravaged Haiti, the poorest country in the hemisphere, and I figured that my quarter-century of experience had prepared me for what I was about to witness.
But after spending the night in an Army tent off the airport tarmac, shielded from the capital's human and physical destruction by walls and gates and a thick cordon of heavy military security, I ventured outside the pale with a military escort. What I saw was a parallel universe of destruction unparalleled in my career. I saw teeming masses of homeless, hungry, and disoriented people, cut off from housing, food, water, medical supplies, and their now-dead relatives and neighbors. Nearly every building had collapsed or been heavily damaged. The cratered roads, poorly maintained in the best of times, now were next to impassable. And sanitation appeared nonexistent as human waste and rotting garbage grew swiftly on the roadsides into shocking, disease-infested heaps.
This is how the end of the world will look, I told myself.
I was lucky because I had found one of the few undamaged hotels in the city. The hotel, however, had become a fortified compound where danger lay only a stone's short throw away. Armed guards were posted outside our doors throughout the night, and an increasingly desperate population milled just beyond the grounds.
Despite the avalanche of food, medicine, doctors, troops, and water pouring into Haiti, it was obvious that all this assistance was but a drop in an ocean of need. This was survival, pure and simple, day by day, for a people whose history has been a long and tortured tale of tragedy. Where would the next meal come from? How long would it take for new housing? Months, years, decades? What about public safety, which seemed to be fraying by the hour? Where was the government? Where was the hope?
For all the evidence of courage, and resilience, and inspiring acts of compassion, the situation seemed overwhelmingly and depressingly daunting. Once the aid workers leave, and foreign governments become distracted, does this country have the ability or the willingness to repair and re-form itself? Time will tell, but the signs were not encouraging.
What was encouraging, however, was the human spirit's incredible reflex to survive. Despite the hellish environment, many Haitians clearly had begun to adapt. Some cleared rubble, some danced on the street, others found a reason to smile. The will to live, seen in countless faces every day, once again had trumped the temptation to surrender.
But for Haiti, this time, inspiring resilience might not be enough. The needs are that great. As I left Haiti, crossing into a Dominican Republic that seemed a lush paradise by comparison, I could not shake the feeling that the chaotic border station had actually been the gates of hell.
I hope not. I would like to return, and I hope that this depressing image will become nothing more than an unfiltered and premature impression.
For the last twenty-one years, Brian MacQuarrie has been a reporter and editor for the Boston Globe, where he has covered several national and international breaking stories, including the invasion of Iraq, the September 11, 2001 attacks, Hurricane Katrina, and most recently, the earthquake in Haiti.