The pilot of American Airlines Flight 1291 into Port au Prince made the craziest descent today. He remained high in the air until the city came into view, then made two complete arcs, 720 degrees of centrifugal pull, to reach the ground. Outside my window the view rotated from sky to water to coast to city to coast and then the sequence repeated over again. The pollution was worse than usual. As we spiraled down the sooty sky grew green, and by the time the pilot leveled over the runway, the sky and the water were the same shade of a lima bean.
On the ground this bizarre disequilibrium continued. This is how Lex Edme, the founder of Mission of Hope International, who picked me up at the airport, describes the situation as we drive through Port au Prince.
A Member of Haiti’s congress was stopped last week at a police checkpoint. The officer found a concealed weapon on the Congressman’s chauffer, arrested him and put him in jail. The Congressman, irate, went to the jail and demanded his chauffer’s freedom. Three hours later the arresting officer was shot and killed. Lex is a little unclear whether the policeman was shot by the Congressman, the chauffer or a hired gunman, but in any event the Congressman has immunity from prosecution. The police, in solidarity, called a strike for today. As a result, there are no police in the capital city.
The dominoes of lawlessness fall fast. Stores are closed, as shop owners feel unprotected from thieves. Schools are closed, as parents fear for their children. Gangs gather. They throw rocks and build barricades and set bonfires at busy intersections. The point of their protest and their allegiances are a murky as the thick smoke enveloping the city. The streets are barren with few pedestrians, no street vendors and scant traffic. The massive open air market is deserted. Huge white UN tanks with uniformed Brazilian soldiers barrel down the thoroughfares, more menacing peace keepers than the police sedans ever were. The city is a web of silent tension; the quiet is explosive.
The US State Department issued warnings advising Americans against traveling in Port au Prince. It is interesting that Ameircan Airlines felt no compunction to announce anything about this to the hundreds of American’s they deposited into the melee.
As we drive, Lex maintains regular cell phone contact with a striking police officer who updates him to trouble spots, a personalized, riot-centric traffic report. We take a circuitous route to avoid trouble spots. Evidence of agitation surround us, the black soot of spent fires, boulders from barricades. Yet we weasel through the gaps of Port au Prince’s terror. Nothing slows us down. With no traffic, we reach Grand Goave in less than two hours – a personal best.
Once outside the city Lex explains that he considered not risking the trip to Port au Prince today. He tried to contact me but I was already in flight. We have a contingency plan in case no one can meet me at the airport; I have met the head of airport security, Mr. Big (that’s right, Carrie Bradshaw, the man of your dreams wound up here), and I am comfortable putting my fate in his hands if need be. But Lex’s commitment to his volunteers is supreme. He monitored the situation, decided better to pick me up before things got worse, and took meticulous care to ferry me safely home. It is hard to imagine my love and respect for this man could grow, but he impresses me more with every visit. I am so fortunate to have Lex looking out for me.