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February 10, 2010

Haiti, an eye witness account

Scott Stockdale

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"Although I have provided relief supplies at other disaster locations such as Indonesia and Kashmir, I never seen anything like Haiti," said Farooq Khan, in an interview with the Canadian Charger.

Although not often reported in the mainstream media, Mr. Khan said he witnessed Muslim aid organizations from Turkey, U.A.E, Britain, South Africa, Canada, Qatar and Pakistan, providing assistance in Haiti.

Khan is the executive director of Toronto’s North American Muslim Foundation (NAMF). He was there January 19 – 26.

“I saw destruction. It was like Dresden after World War II. The main downtown core is destroyed. There's debris everywhere. The presidential palace, Ministry of Revenue and Ministry of the Interior buildings and most other government buildings have been either completely flattened or badly damaged.”

Ironically, Mr. Khan said that on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, he saw big buildings that had collapsed while houses remained standing next to them.

Port-au-Prince is the capital and largest city of Haiti, in the southwest part of the country, on an arm of the Caribbean Sea. Founded by French sugar planters in 1749, it became the colonial capital in 1770 and the capital of independent Haiti in 1804. The population is 1,150,000.

Meanwhile, this destruction has left Haiti a lawless land, with no police and no functioning government, Mr. Khan said you can go into Haiti from the Domincan Republic with no check.

He said Haiti is a failed state that is now even worse than before and the world has a moral responsibility to so something.

We see continuous media reports about the U.S. sending 10,000 troops, but not many reports about exactly what it is they're doing in Haiti. Mr. Khan said that other than the U.N. Compound, U.S. Troops are not easy to find in Haiti.

“At the UN compound, I saw organizations from all over the world. There were hundreds of U.N. Vehicles (in the compound) but very few outside. We hear reports of 10,000 U.S. troops. God knows where they are. I didn't see any (other than a few at the U.N. Compound). Maybe they're at the airport. I don't know; I wasn't there.”

After witnessing the squalid conditions people are living in, Mr. Khan concluded that while troops for security in a lawless land are a necessity, the U.S. should have done more.

“Americans have a much higher responsibility. Instead of sending 10,000 troops, they should have sent 10,000 doctors, nurses, relief workers, engineers and construction personnel. These people have not come in as huge numbers as they should have.”

Upon arriving at refugee camps in the Port-au-Prince area with supplies of rice, beans, sardines, dry milk, biscuits, toothpaste, toilet paper,  women's hygiene products, and bottle water, Mr. Khan witnessed mayhem like he'd not seen in Kashmir after the 2005 earthquake and Indonesian after the 2004 tsunami.

“When the truck stopped people rushed it. We experienced this at every refugee camp we went to. We had to go to a mosque to off-load the supplies. Maybe the destruction was so far and wide that the aid is not sufficient.”

He said the refugees in the camps are living in deplorable conditions with no running water, no toilets, no medical facilities and no proper tents. They're living in structures made of bamboo sticks with plastic on the tops.

After talking with a Haitian man who lost his whole family, except for his eight-year-old daughter, Mr. Khan made a pledge he hopes will be kept.

“He said: 'You have no idea what it's like sleeping with your daughter on a mountain for a week. You people have forgotten us and now you come.' I put my hand on his shoulder and said: 'I can't bring your family back, but let me assure you we are not going to forget you,' and I certainly hope we don't forget them.”

He said when we look at the Haitian people in catastrophic situations, we should keep in mind that tomorrow it may be us; and he implored the Muslim community to come out and help.

“Canada’s Muslim community must come out in full and offer more help. Don't say that because these people are not Muslim, they don't deserve our help. We have a moral, ethical and Islamic responsibility to help. This is not a Christian or a Haitian tragedy. It's a human tragedy.”

While the media is focused on the millions of dollars in donations Haiti has been pledged to receive from governments and aid organizations all over the world, Mr. Khan intimated that there may be a darker side to these donations.

“At the moment of disaster people's hearts are filled with sorrow, so they donate. I don't know how much of the money is going to the people and how much is going to the perks and privileges of the big bosses. People should question where their money goes. We need an independent audit to verify that people are getting help.”

While rumors of misspent money abound, one wonders what the average person can do about the situation.

“Write to the U.N.,” Mr. Khan said.

Scott Stockdale is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

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