21 June 2005

In a Haiti Hospital, 1993: No Rules

I was debating whether to post excerpts from Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures, but after viewing the CBC documentary Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire this weekend, I lost any qualms I might have had. (And it has only been six months since I saw Hotel Rwanda when it premiered in NYC.) The abject failure of the U.S. and UN interventions in Somalia and Haiti in 1993 practically guaranteed an even more pusillanimous effort to stop full-on genocide in Rwanda a few months later. So here, without pity, is the first of a short series of excerpts from the memoirs of UN workers in Haiti and Somalia in 1993.
After a short briefing, my new boss sends me straight to the [Port-au-Prince] city hospital. The UN's mission here is to gather enough evidence of brutality to convince the world to reverse the coup and force the military from power. All over Haiti, 250 unarmed observers are investigating and documenting atrocities against the civilian population. Most of the victims are too terrorized to talk to foreigners or provide any meaningful evidence, but I have an advantage and the boss is happy to exploit it: victims need doctors and doctors get access.

My task at the hospital is to interview a beating victim, see whether there's anything we can do to help him, and take a statement. The sleepy receptionist thumbs through a grubby admissions book. He's in the surgical ward, she says in French, throwing her arm in a wide, unspecific arc, in the general direction right. So I head off down a series of endless corridors and soon get lost. Clouds of flies lift off the chipped floor tiles, resettling behind me as I pass. When I finally find the surgical ward, I give the victim's name to a nurse.

He was here but now he's not, she says. I look at her, waiting for more, but she just stares off somewhere over my shoulder. She's uneasy. The ceiling fan turns slowly, cobwebs dangling from its blades. No air moves.

Well, where is he now? I need to talk to him. She shrugs.

I start to lose patience.

I tell her I'm a doctor with the UN and I need to talk to the treating doctor now. She goes away and doesn't return.

There's no one around except patients and orderlies. I linger for half an hour until finally a slight man in his fifties appears. It's the surgeon. He invites me into his office and closes the door behind him.

Look, he says, I know why you want to talk to him, but he's gone. He was brought in several days ago after they'd beaten him terribly, for hours. He was barely alive when I first saw him, skull fracture, both arms broken, multiple rib fractures, smashed kneecaps, urinating blood. We did what we could for him, he says sighing, set the fractures, dressed the wounds. He did well, but he was weak and couldn't afford to buy any blood for a transfusion.

So where is he now? I ask. When they heard he was still alive, they came in here last night and just dragged him away again, he tells me.

And no one did anything to stop them? I was in the operating theater when I heard the screams, he says, and I ran down here in my greens and gloves to plead with them. But one of them just stuck his gun in my face and told me he'd turn me into a patient if I didn't back off. There was nothing I could do, they have all the guns. I have to go, he says wearily, there are patients waiting. A bitter look crosses his face as he opens the door to leave. They should have just finished him off the first time, he adds, it would have been much more humane.

I sit staring through the cracked pane of the office door at the post-op patients in their beds. I should write up a report, but I can't think straight, so I drive back up to the villa and gaze out past the bougainvillea at the pool. I can't quite believe what I've just heard.

In Cambodia I treated children who stepped on landmines, villagers stabbed in their sleep, shoppers shelled in the marketplace, drivers shot up at roadside checkpoints. The victims all made a beeline for our hospital and I was usually able to help. We didn't care who they were or how they got there; everyone knew that the killing stopped at the red cross on the front gate. Once you made it past there, you were safe, a custom of war so accepted that I never even heard it discussed. Check your weapons in at reception, get a receipt. Do whatever you must to your enemies out in the killing fields, but do not ever bring that shit inside my hospital.

Maybe there are no rules here.
SOURCE: Emergency Sex and Other Desperate Measures: A True Story from Hell on Earth, by Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson (Miramax Books, 2004), pp. 112-113

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