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WEB EXCLUSIVE
Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006
Paul Knox

By PAUL KNOX
Globe and Mail Update
Thursday, Mar. 18, 2004

Port-au-Prince — Jean-Bertrand Aristide's foreign press liaison officer, Michelle Karshan, was cheerful and apologetic.

She had invited me for a take-out lunch at the National Palace while we waited for my interview with Haiti's president. But the presence of a dead rat was complicating matters.

"There was this awful smell," said Ms. Karshan, an American from Brooklyn who first came to Haiti in 1986, as she greeted me at the rear entrance to the palace.

She had asked for the offending carcass to be removed, but wasn't sure whether the job had been done. I never got it clear exactly where the problem location was, but in the end we went to Ms. Karshan's office, where we ate chicken, rice, beans and plantains out of Styrofoam containers.

She gave me some tourist brochures (yes, there are neat things to see and do in Haiti) and a map. This was on Feb. 18, 11 days before Mr. Aristide was driven from power by, among other things, an armed insurrection.

The map proved useful for plotting the rebels' steady march across northern Haiti, through towns such as Ouanaminthe, Hinche, Belladère and Mirebalais.

A few days later, Ms. Karshan suddenly became unreachable by telephone, and I was told she had returned to the United States. At first glance, the National Palace doesn't look like a place you'd expect to have a rat problem.

Sometimes you see it described in news stories as "the gleaming white palace," and indeed it contrasts sharply with the rest of dilapidated Port-au-Prince.

But facades crumble easily in Haiti.

I tell the dead-rat story not to be mean or nasty, I hope, but as an introduction to the sadness and absurdity of a country like no other on earth.

It's hard to describe Haiti's physical bankruptcy adequately. The obliteration of the country's forests for fuel wood, and the resulting erosion of fertile topsoil, is well documented and extensively commented upon.

But what never fails to amaze me is the haphazardness, and the relentless deterioration, of what architects call the "built environment." In Port-au-Prince, a city of more than two million people, it can be necessary to shift into four-wheel drive in the middle of town.

You do this — or, if you're of sound mind and can afford it, your driver does — when facing a steep climb up a gravelly slope full of pits and boulders, dodging goats and children, squeezing past oncoming vehicles and rusted-out hulks that gave up the ghost in some indeterminate past.

Poured-concrete houses at varying stages of completion perch precariously on crests; wooden shanties lie tucked away in gullies. It's like driving along a mountain logging road in the middle of Toronto or Montreal.

It can be bad out on the highway, too — even Route N1, Haiti's equivalent of the Trans-Canada, which runs north from Port-au-Prince to Cap-Haïtien. In his book The Immaculate Invasion, writer Bob Shacochis describes a 1994 trip along this route as "not unlike six hours on a mechanical bull."

This year I went as far as Gonaïves, which is about three hours or so, and I know what he means. The ruts and craters would surely tear the guts out of your Chevy Cavalier.

It's not as if the ride is really worth it, either, since what awaits you when you actually get to Gonaïves is a collection of falling-down buildings, wooden shacks and debris-strewn streets — about the worst advertisement you could possibly devise for government by gang warfare.

So depleted is Haiti's environment that its essence exists primarily in its people — more so, I would argue, than with most nations of the world. There is tremendous cultural and linguistic richness among the physical poverty. Everywhere there is dogged courage in the face of adversity. Despite repeated betrayals, there are bright young people determined to make the best of the latest upheaval.

I spoke with one such Haitian, an employee of an international organization, who was philosophical about Mr. Aristide's departure. The ex-president remains Haiti's most popular leader, this fellow said, but he seemed to accept that he was no longer an effective ruler.

He said he wasn't sure he expected much of the anti-Aristide leaders who are now effectively in power, since "they have no plan for the country." The real problem in promoting economic and social development, my acquaintance continued, is that the administration of Haiti continues to be linked to powerful individuals.

"We cannot sit down together as Haitians and decide what's right," he said. "There's no continuity to what we've been doing."

The oddest thing happened on that Gonaïves trip. We drove north from the capital, skirting the bright waters of the Gulf of La Gonâve, then through the rice paddies of the Artibonite valley.

After a town called L'Estère, just before the vegetation turned to tall, forked cactus and scrub, a man at the side of the road motioned for us to stop. Without a word he handed us a little bundle, then turned and walked away. It was addressed to national and foreign media (we'd taped a sheet bearing the words Presse Internationale to the windshield).

It turned out to be a kind of Haitian samizdat — an audio cassette recorded by a pastor working in the zone, containing a brief message calling for peace and reconciliation between Mr. Aristide and his opponents.

I don't know whether it was the only tape he produced, or whether copies went elsewhere. I confess I didn't listen to it until a few days later and then, with much else on my mind, made no attempt to give it wider distribution.

In retrospect, that was probably wrong. I didn't think the cassette was of much interest to Globe and Mail readers, but I should at least have passed it on to some local reporters and let them make their own call.

The pastor's gesture was genuine, perhaps even desperate. I might have helped compensate for something from which the vast majority of Haitians suffer: lack of access to the means of mass communication. To cover events like the recent ones in Haiti for a daily news organization is to live a single-minded obsession.

You spend 95 per cent of your waking hours thinking about either the story or the logistics involved in covering it. It's an honourable thing to do, yet it's about as artificial an existence as you could possibly construct. Then along comes a dead palace rat or a cassette from nowhere to remind you of the parameters of real life, which in a place like Haiti, on so many levels, don't even begin to resemble your own.

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