People walk past destroyed buildings in the town of Beaumont. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
BEAUMONT, Haiti — The boy was probably 5 or 6 years old, walking along the road through the mountains by himself. It was unpaved and rocky, so we had to slow down, and the boy began running alongside our truck.
“S’il vous plait. S’il vous plait. S’il vous plait!” he called, receding in the rear view mirror in a cloud of dust. Please. Please. Please!
He was hungry.
So was everyone else in southern Haiti. By that point, after a few days driving through destitute fishing villages and mountain towns, reporting on the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew with my colleague Sarah Voisin, I had already said “no” hundreds of times. At least it felt that way.
There are 800,000 people in the area who urgently need food a month after the Category 4 hurricane, according to the United Nations, and everywhere we went we found men, women and many, many children asking for something to eat. There was no way to help them all.
Southern Haiti right now is a place living on scraps. The scraps of the storm wreckage. The scraps of international aid.
A young, hungry boy learns that the only donated food for the day has run out at the Lycee Nord Alexis, a school in Jeremie, where food comes infrequently. Several hundred people sleep on the concrete floors and do not have running water or bathroom facilities. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
We weren’t there to give out food, nor qualified to do it. But there was something about this boy, running alongside the truck, that I couldn’t bear. He looked a little bit older than my son.
Stop, I said to our driver.
[800,000 Haitians urgently need food]
I have worked as a reporter in Haiti before. I knew it would be like this. Before heading out of the capital, Port-au-Prince, where storm damage was minimal, we bought a box of food at the supermarket. It wasn’t much: sacks of rice and beans, a few bottles of cooking oil, canned tuna and cheap spaghetti.
A pathetic donation, really. It wouldn’t make much of a difference, but at least it would spare us the awful sensation of showing up empty-handed and telling people: Sorry, we’re here to observe your suffering, not to alleviate it.
There are obvious reasons journalists aren’t supposed to give things to the people they interview — particularly as a quid pro quo, for an interview.
I’ve never done that, never will.
But there are purists in our profession who go further, arguing that it’s our job to document history without interfering in it. They argue that reporters in conflict zones or disaster areas should comport themselves with the detachment of a recording device, because our most important job — and the only one we’re qualified for — is gathering and disseminating information, not providing aid. In the best-case scenario, that information would alert the world to the crisis, and it would respond.
Those arguments have never felt more hollow than when I’m in Haiti and someone is telling me they haven’t eaten in two days.
Jean Robert Smith, 47, and his mother, Solita Saintil, 78, peek from their home. They live in a makeshift community where 230 families have settled in crude lean-tos made of sticks, plastic and tattered bedsheets after losing their homes in the hurricane. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Last week in the battered coastal village of Port Salut, we met a 60-year-old fisherman, Gesner Destine, who lost his home in the storm. His skiff and his nets were shredded. He was living in a raggedy tent with his three daughters and four grandchildren. And Destine was lucky: A missionary group had arrived that day to build him a one-room plywood shack where their house once stood.
But when an aid group had handed out bags of food in town a few days earlier, Destine got nothing. “I’m too weak,” he said. “There were too many stronger, younger guys there. They pushed me aside.”
Before leaving we gave him a sack of rice and a bottle of oil. It would last his family three days, tops.
Sometimes food wasn’t what people needed. At a school being used as a homeless shelter for hurricane victims in the blasted city of Jeremie, we found a half-naked woman lying in a corner with a large infected wound on her foot, swarmed by flies.
After speaking with her, Andre, our translator and driver, gave her money to go to the hospital. We worried someone might take it from her, or that she would use the money for something else. But when we returned the next day, she was sitting up, looking better, with a clean bandage on her foot.
That doesn’t make us saints. It was, quite literally, the least we could do. The people who deserve praise and support are the aid workers who remain in such places, and the Haitians truly committed to helping their countrymen. Reporters are usually just passing through.
Jeremie, the capital city of the Grand’Anse department, was badly hit during the hurricane. Early on the morning of Oct. 28, a family congregates on a concrete platform that was a seaside home before the storm. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)
Often you could see the disappointment when we would arrive at a family’s home, or stand amid a hungry, anxious crowd, and Andre would explain that we were reporters, not relief workers. In many other instances, it was simply not possible to give food away without starting a riot, especially when you have one bag of rice and 50 people who need it. The United Nations transports and distributes food with armed guards.
Our meager box of donations was practically empty by the time we stopped for the boy along the road in the mountains. I reached into the back of the truck and handed him a packet of spaghetti.
Immediately another hand was there, this time a young girl’s. She also got some pasta. Then another little boy, then another.
Children were appearing out of nowhere and running at us. A woman, perhaps one of their mothers, began shouting. An older boy grabbed the girl’s spaghetti and tried to wrestle it away. Andre shouted at him until he let go. There were other adults coming up the road. It was time to go.
The first boy looked happy and was jumping up and down in the road, but there was no satisfaction in handing out noodles. It had produced another chaotic, unseemly spectacle of hungry children fighting over scraps. But after a while, you get sick of saying no. You can’t always say no.
Makenson Louis, 5, flies a homemade kite in a makeshift community where 230 families have settled. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)