PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti − “It’s unbelievable.” We say that all the time. These gas prices? They’re unbelievable. This inflation? It’s unbelievable. The divisiveness between political factions? It’s unbelievable.
The word itself suggests the situation has reached its furthest degree of insanity. It can’t get any worse.
But things can always get worse. Consider what’s going on here in Haiti, where they don’t use the word “unbelievable,” because every new day brings a previously unimagined degree of suffering.
The government has cratered. Some 200 gangs have seized control. The nation has come to a near standstill. There’s no fuel. Food and water are hard to come by. Schools are closed. Businesses shuttered. An estimated million people are starving in the middle of Haiti’s biggest city.
As an American who comes here every month to operate an orphanage, I find myself at a loss for the word that would truly describe the current situation. We have had to close our school because teachers can’t get there. We have to buy water in plastic bottles, if we can find them, just to let our kids drink. We are in the heat and dark much of the time, because we cannot operate generators without fuel. We have a child with tuberculosis who has been bounced from place to place, because the hospitals can’t function.
What adjective really suffices? “Unbelievable” just doesn’t cut it.
Lawlessness, despair reign supreme
If it was “unbelievable” that a nation just 700 miles off the Florida coast was already the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, then what do you say when its meager economy comes to a halt?
If it was “unbelievable” that fuel had to be subsidized by the government just for citizens to be able to afford it, then what do you say when gangs overtake the fuel terminals and nobody gets any fuel at all?
If it was unbelievable that, during shortages, you sometimes had to pay $10 a gallon for gas on the black market, what do you say when they now want $50 a gallon?
If it was unbelievable that the gangs in Haiti became more powerful than the government, what do you say when the government uses those gangs to rough up their dissenters, which happens all the time?
If it was “unbelievable” that you couldn’t go out at night for fear of violence or kidnapping, then what do you say when you can’t go out during the day?
If it was “unbelievable” that hospital care in Haiti was limited, remote and out of reach for most citizens, what do you say when the hospitals must close down because their staffs can’t get there — and now cholera is spreading?
If it was “unbelievable” that there is barely a paved road outside of the city of Port-au-Prince, then what do you say when those paved roads are blockaded by downed telephone lines, chopped trees or old cars, choking off any traffic and subjecting the rare brave driver to potential attacks?
If it was unbelievable that gang members randomly shot their enemies in the street, then what do you say when those same gang members rape young girls atop the corpses of their dead relatives, which is being reported now throughout Haiti?
If it was “unbelievable” that the Haitian president, Jovenel Moïse, was assassinated in the middle of the night at his own home, then what do you say when that murder has still not been solved, more than a year later, and a chief suspect is the current prime minister?
Can Haiti even be saved?
You see where this going. The combination of disfunction, violence, poverty, starvation, disease, corruption and finger-pointing have driven Haiti to the brink of absurdity. You keep thinking something has to change. How long can a nation go on this way?
The truth is: a long time, maybe forever, if nobody does anything about it. As Haiti has descended into hell, its closest big neighbors haven’t moved, perhaps because they’ve seen the futility of previous efforts. The Biden administration, until this month, has had a mostly hands-off approach to Haiti.
Finally, last week, several nations (including the U.S.) suggested a “multinational rapid action force” go into Haiti to at least free the fuel and essential supplies from the grip of the gangs. The U.N. took up the matter.
But the initiative stalled when some nations, including Russia and China, balked at interference in another country. The irony of that stance for Russia and China would be rich if it weren’t so tragic.
So meanwhile the U.N. suggested sanctions of certain influential Haitians (as if that’s going to solve anything quickly) while it searches to drum up support for a more severe intervention.
And while many Haitians cringe at the idea of yet another outside force coming in to oversee Haiti, others say what choice is there?
If there’s no food, no water, no fuel, no school, no business, no transportation, no safety — what do you do? If women and children are being killed and burned, decent men are being terrorized, charities and orphanages are being attacked, and fresh-faced teenagers are being recruited to carry big guns — what do you call that?
Back home, we shake our heads and say it’s “unbelievable.” But here in Haiti, there are no words.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.