It was seven o’clock when I hung up with Jim the morning of January 20, the first day of a mission that had come to Dial, Jim and me unawares—the beginning of an ordeal that would command all our resources over the next three weeks. Only such a cataclysm as the earthquake that rocked Haiti could throw together the disparate group of people with whom we would unite for a single, all-too-worthy cause. Our operation would include a missionary, a French restaurateur, diplomats in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, common laborers, a private international rescue firm, two state senators, charity workers and a dentist. I would come to understand it all in due course, but not on that dreary winter’s morning as a bitter-cold grey dawn broke over the rolling, snow-covered foothills surrounding my hometown in rural northern New England.
Some two thousand miles away in far warmer climes, the lives of 40 children and adults were at stake: only 40 among 370,000 homeless in Haiti with no shelter, no food and no fresh water—but 40 souls nonetheless. And we—Dial, Jim and I—were determined to get them out of the hell that was earthquake-flattened Port-au-Prince.
I brewed a pot of thick coffee while mustering all the facts I could pull off the Internet to give me a current sense of the situation. A call to Donna got me peripheral information garnered from the American group she participates in that partly funds the priest and his orphanage.
“All I know is the priest moved the children to a cousin’s backyard and they’re living in a makeshift tent from bedspreads. There’s a woman named Claudine who’s our only link to Father. And there’s another thing,” Donna said. “Father has a second congregation in Tapio, which is outside of Port-au-Prince. Claudine said Father wants to bring the children there.”
Where, how, when, that elementary school precept, was the foundation of my plan. WHERE was the first problem. Donna said the orphanage was in a northwest sector of the city. Where did the priest move them? I had sent an Email to Claudine knowing her access would be intermitent and though Donna had also given me her cellphone number, it was impossible to get a line through. Surely the priest had not moved closer to the city—he would have moved further away. I got a map of Haiti and drew a circle around the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, segmented the northwestern quarter, then bisected the outside half of the wedge. They’d be somewhere in that range, I guessed…
Now, WHERE was Tapio? I took out my map and found it on the peninsula west of Port-au-Prince but according to the topographical markings, it was over a steep mountain range. Had Tapio been hit by the earthquake? Even if it was not, the ball-buster was, supplies would have to come from Port-au-Prince, and there would be no food, water or medical supplies from the ravaged city—not for a long time to come--too long, as far as the children and priest were concerned. It became immediately clear to me that Tapio, even if viable, was out of the question. We could never keep it supplied. The most critical question was WHEN could we get to the group and the urgent answer was we were already running low on time. The group said Claudine was getting what she could to them, but it was nowhere near enough. I kept checking my Email, hoping Claudine had received mine.
The next two hours on the phone back-and-forth with Jim went like lightning and through his people in the Dominican Republic, we (1.) confirmed the border was open at Dajabón, on the Dominican side, to Ouanaminthe, across to Haiti—the major northern trade port. (2.) Two buildings that would accommodate the priest and children—an abandoned orphanage and a vacant resort—could accommodate the priest and children happily! The problem was, the buildings were on the Dominican side. Jim’s friend Herve, who lived in the same village on the Dominican side as Jim, had already foreseen the legalities and set up a meeting with the officials on both sides of the border to see whether it would even be possible to bring Haitian children across the border. This was before the debacle hit the news about the church group that had illegally transported kids across the border. By the time that incident had happened, we had already ascertained that the culture gap in language, customs—and most importantly, the societal clash between the people of Haiti and the people of the Dominican Republic would make any thought of the D.R. impracticable—indeed, utterly inadvisable. We proceeded immediately with the assumption that the most viable plan therefore would be to move the children 300 miles to Ouanaminthe in northern Haiti. As soon as Jim got there, he would set out to look for a rental house in Ouanaminthe that could accommodate the group.
“Ouanaminthe,” Jim said. “That’s where we’ve got to bring the children. It’s got everything they'd need. We can rent a house for the priest and the kids and set it up like a home. Everything is chaos around Port-au-Prince. The border is shut down, the airport's closed—we’d never get supplies to them. In Ouanaminthe we’ve got everything and besides, it’s just a couple of miles from my house in Montecristi. I can go back and forth all the time to take care of the kids and everything.”
“Problem is, Jim, it seems the priest has a parish west of the city, in Tapio, and I guess he wants to bring the children there--not 3oo miles north to a place he's unfamiliar with. Look, Ouanaminthe’s our back-up plan…let me keep chipping away at this…” But by the time I hung up the phone, I already knew it was Ouanaminthe or nothing. The trick would be to convince the priest--if I could ever reach him.
The phone rang, jolting me out of my thoughts. It was Dial.
“What ya got?” his strident voice hollered from the receiver. I filled him in. “Listen,” he said. “I’ve got a membership with a private international medical evacuation firm called Global Rescue. I’m in Reno tonight and happens the head of the deal will be there. I'll speak with him, meanwhile I want you to get in touch with their headquarters in Boston and tell them to start thinking about getting us some guys with guns to come in and get those kids the hell out of there.” The phone went dead. Dial had hung up.
We didn't need guns--not yet, at least. We needed food, water and a medic to evaluate the children. I did what Dial said.
"Hello," I said into the phone. "Global rescue? I need you to get food, water and medical care to 40 orphans in Haiti..NOW."
To be continued...