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Saturday, March 19, 2011

Haiti, the Land of the Living

Haitian people are in my opinion the most resilient people on this earth. Despite their continued state of instability being idle is not an option for the typical Haitian. Most people think that the Haitians are just lying around in their tents doing nothing, however that is quite the contrary. Every morning the people will get up at the crack of dawn to set up shop, whether under the rubble or outside their tents. Every day you will find people selling whatever they can to survive and you will find children leaving the camps to go to school. Despite living amongst heaps of trash and rubble, they maintain a sense of normalcy. The Haitians have refused to let their country become the land of the dead.

They say whenever you visit your motherland; it always involves some sort of self-discovery. For me, I learned that my resilient nature is innate. There have been times where I wanted to give up because situations seemed hopeless, but something inside of me would never let me. I often refer to myself as a cockroach, because we all know that you can never exterminate a cockroach. In fact (well according to Wikipedia) even if there were to be a nuclear explosion, the cockroach would survive. (I know weird analogy). The point I am trying to make is that my resilience is a character trait that stems from my Haitian roots and that no matter what I can never give up.

One year later, the tent cities are still up. Many people are facing evictions from these camps and the government is doing nothing to stop it. There are not enough paying jobs. Cholera has become endemic, and the prison system is a mess to say the least. Yet even in the midst of their problems, the spirit of the Haitian people will not be broken. Cholera will not break them, being evicted will not discourage them, and their lack of access to water will not destroy them. Why? Because they are Haitian. The situation may seem hopeless, but Haiti is truly the land of the living.

I believe in Haiti’s future. There is still hope, and this year’s trip affirmed this. Aside from learning that HST (Haitian Standard Time) is strictly enforced throughout the country, I believe each group member learned a valuable lesson. I believe that all of them were able to walk away knowing that there is hope for Haiti. The team has done some amazing work and our findings have given our group new meaning. I feel more dedicated to our work than ever before. It is sad that this will be my last year on the project, but I am confident that the group will never forget what we did in Haiti, and that they will continue to work for a better Haiti.

Ayiti Pap Kraze! (Haiti will never be destroyed)

The Tet Kale T-Shirt mediation by Mediator “Nitz”

Tet Kale t-shirts. Tet Kale hats, wristbands, bandanas. High in demand and low in supply, the Fordham Law students argued like 5 year olds over who got to keep the 1 “Tet Kale” campaign t-shirt of Presidential candidate Mickey Martelly that we scored from his Dominican Republic supporters. Yes, it may seem ridiculous but we saw the Haitians sport these t-shirts since we arrived and we were told we could only get the “Bald Head” campaign slogan shirt if we knew a campaign insider.

So what was the only fair way to decide who got it? Domino’s of course. The Haitians are legendary “Do’s” players and it only seemed logical. As we waited during our layover at the Santo Domingo airport lounge each armed with a Presidente (Dominican beer), Nitz decided it was time for one of her wise and subtle lessons. She gathered information from the students about what this t-shirt personally represented to each of them and why they wanted to keep it. Dean Escalera ingeniously turned this childish dilemma into a practical and hands-on legal learning experience on mediation skills and techniques. Only half way through her intervention did we realize her intent and the steps she took to conduct an amicable mediation with help from a student who played co-mediator.

It turns out that the terms we agreed on were simple. One student who felt strongly about having the authentic and original t-shirt will make copies of the t-shirt in NY and distribute them to the others who don’t mind if the t-shirt is a copy since they instead want to use it for display and sentimental purposes focused on the meaning rather than authenticity. The agreement includes the condition that certain students research where and how much replicas can be produced (with a price ceiling agreed upon). Deadlines were set and if the conditions are not met on our own the mediator will get involved by a certain date.

Dean Escalera taught us that in mediations it is important to gather information from all sides and hear each side’s story before commencing the mediation. She taught us to identify the common interests that both sides share, the opposing interests of each side, and the non-opposing but non-mutual interests. With this knowledge, the mediator guides the parties to compromise on the directly opposing interests while identifying the interests that each party can retain without losing the ultimate individual goal. This mediation experience showed me that often times opposing parties have more interests in common or not in opposition than originally manifested and the parties are closer to reaching an agreement than it may appear.

Speaking for the Cholera team who worked with Dean Escalera on our project, I think we learned as much from her as we did from the Haitians this week. Not only was she able to provide us with wisdom, experience, and life lessons, but she was able to subtly and nonchalantly direct us in the right direction when we needed it during interviews or de-briefings. She provided the perfect balance as a supervisor; she allowed us to have complete independence and responsibility for our Cholera project but gave us positive and constructive advice to enhance this learning experience not only for our work in Haiti but for our future legal careers.

While we are all leaving this trip with a new and cultivated appreciation of an array of Haitian legal, political, and social issues, Dean Escalera intertwined legal lessons in mediating, interviewing, negotiating, presenting, writing, collaborating, and Haitian Constitutional law as she never failed to bring the Haitian Constitution with us to the interviews and group meetings.

Ironically, during our last meal together we spoke about first impressions. Although last year as a 1L I did not know Dean Escalera or other Fordham Deans well, I admit that I was skeptical about having one of them come with us to Haiti last year to sleep in a tent for a week without a reliable shower, toilet, or source of water.

But from her insistence on calling her “Nitz” instead of Dean Nitza Escalera or even Nitza to her week long experience in a tent in Haiti a month after the January 2010 Earthquake to her complete domination in “Do’s” to her relaxed attitude towards HST (Haitian Standard Time) and reckless Haitian driving and finally to her enthusiasm in always joining us for a necessary morning coffee or evening Presidente beer, I think I speak for all Fordham DRN members and DRN alumni when I say we couldn’t have done this without you Nitz and we are grateful for the integral and irreplaceable role that you play on our trips.

Incremental Change for Haiti

When I got home last night, someone asked me if Haiti was better now. It was a hard question to answer. There are always new problems popping up, even if some progress has been made in addressing older problems. In some ways it's better, in others it's worse, and some things are exactly the same--like the presidential palace caved and collapsed, just like it was when I saw it in in March 2010.

It is difficult to think as I sit at my kitchen table in my apartment back in New York that just yesterday I was in Port au Prince. The only thing that really remains the same between my week there and my life back here is that I still took my malaria pill this morning. As I sip my coffee, I reflect on what a productive experience the entire trip was. This is not because we solved Haiti's problems in six days. That wasn't the point. What we did do was move closer to an understanding of what steps need to be taken from the perspective of different ministries of government, UN orgs, grassroots NGOs, and most importantly from the perspective of the people surviving in the IDP (internally displaced person) tent cities. These institutional players must coordinate their efforts instead of working against each other--wasting limited money, time, energy for these institutional actors and costing lives in the camps.

We engaged representatives of these institutions in our interviews, pressing them in the questions to find out: what they outlined their role in the camps to be, why they were not acting to stop the forced evictions, whether they were implicitly facilitating the forced evictions, and what they felt would be the right solution to the problem. Sometimes mayors were forcing IDPs out of camps on public land and other times the same threatening of and actually enforcing a forcible removal concerned private land, in many cases involving the Catholic church as the private landowner.

We left Haiti, and forced evictions are of course still happening. They continue to happen, despite the Inter American Commission on Human Rights granting a petition for precautionary measures declaring a moratorium on forced evictions. Individuals are forced to live fear of the day when the incessant verbal threats of violent and forcible removal will be realized. We were however encouraged by the story told by one of the ministries that the individual leaders from an IDP camp brought forward a copy of this petition when the landowner tried to evict them. The presentation of the petition lead to opening a negotiation between the landowner facilitated by the ministry and other international actors. IDP camp leadership asserted their rights and somebody listened. Small scale encouragement shows that the work can make a change. It is just that this change needs to happen in not just one case, but every case.

What we can do, is collect our documented findings and move closer toward working to develop solutions and submit recommendations to suggest more coordination and institutional changes based on what each actor's mandate actually is. We can work to find a better solution to minimize the problems and decrease the number of cases of forcible eviction. We can make progress in addressing this old problem, while acknowledging that new problems will surface in the future.

Haiti's problems will not be solved over night, but they will be bit by bit.

The Making of a Beautiful Time in Haiti with Forced Evictions Team

When we were still stateside before we left, we began to develop a spreadsheet of different organizations which began with not one phone number or e-mail address. How were we going to arrange the meetings? Who would take us seriously enough to sit down with a group of "blans" (as Haitians refer to non Haitians) to speak about intensely controversial issues facing their country? I was uncertain and unsure, and contemplated my worst nightmare that after all of our work of planning and reading materials and learning that we wouldn't be able to arrange to meet with anyone. Bit by bit we began to add in contact information from speaking with people that we knew working on the ground, other student groups that had done similar work in Port au Prince, and a good amount of googling. After reaching out to all of our contacts, when we departed JFK on Sunday, we still had just two standing interviews scheduled.

(Kelly Starcevich, David Ragonetti, Diana Schaffner, at Le Plaza hotel recapping notes from the day)

A man rolled open the sliding iron gate spray painted with a #3 for the address on it. With my level of kreyol meager at best at this point of the trip, I blurted out the name of our Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) contact hoping the man opening the gate had any idea who she was. He did. The eight of us wound around the side of the house that was the headquarters, passing by a gathering of men on the front porch spouting off to each other in heated conversation-- I knew it had to be about Haitian politics. Elections are Sunday. We gathered in a circle to chat about the project with IJDH and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR). We were there to help, but our contacts in Haiti lived and breathed the issues every day. I was humbled by our inexperience and wondered what the value of my speculation on issues I was only beginning to understand really were. But then, the conversation took off.

(David Ragonetti, Kelly Starcevich, Diana Schaffner, strategizing over lunch at C-Jean hotel)

The top Haitian lawyer running the grassroots org we were working with sat down and joined our conversation, running back and forth between the front porch's heated political chanting and our discussion. Maybe people were really interested in hearing what we had to say. The next thing I knew, we were were throwing questions at him and pressing him with follow-up questions to really get him to explain his analysis. Our understandings began to deepen with every word that came out of his mouth explaining the complexities of the issues and the problems of the institutional players from NGOs to UN orgs to government actors.

(Kelly Starcevich, Diana Schaffner, David Ragonetti, after morning meeting to plan for the day's interviews)

I gained more in this one hour of conversation with him than I had in the eight months of planning for the trip. Our work took on new meaning to me. I truly felt his energy for the rights of the IDPs in a way I had not been able to before. I had read article after blog after tweet after story of people being evicted from the tent cities, but those descriptions paled in comparison to hearing the way that this man described the problems. As I struggle to articulate in writing here the impact it really made, all I can say is that it shifted something in my perspective that made the suffering and the struggle come alive for me. This conversation laid the groundwork for the next days’ interviewing with a revived confidence and energy for our work the carried over each day.

(Kelly Starcevich, David Ragonetti, Laura Raymond, Diana Schaffner, outside of UN log base)

Each morning I squeezed into a car with Diana Schaffner & David Ragonetti of Fordham DRN and Laura Raymond & Vince Warren of the Center for Constitutional Rights, guided by the finest driver, impromptu kreyol teacher, political commentator, and translator I could have ever asked for, Junior. I came to know and love the my group and develop a closeness in part by the endless hours spent in the car sweating and practicing kreyol as we went from interview to interview, in part by our common passion for the work that we did, and in part by the interplay of personalities of the group that added to the bonding experience overall. I could not have picked a better group of four to travel around with day by day. Our work blossomed from our humble planning in New York to a feeling by the end of the week that what we had started was only begun and that we only needed more time to set up the next set of interviews that we wanted to have. I'm encouraged that our work will continue here and the connections that we made among each other will continue long after the trip's end.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Examples of Port-au-Prince Political Graffiti

  • "ONG + MINUSTAH = KOLERA” NGO + MINUSTAH brought kolera
  • "Aba Preval” Down with (President) Preval
  • "Nou Bouke”We’re tired
  • "Ban’m Mannam”Bring mom (Maginat)
  • "Solidarite”Solidarity
  • "Bon Retour Duvalier”Welcome back Duvalier
  • "Aristid viv”Aristide forever
  •  “Mulet = KOLERA” Mulet is the head of MINUSTAH
  • Preval + Jude = KOLERA”Preval is the current president and Jude is his son-in-law and was a candidate for president in the November election
  • “ONG = VOLE” NGOs are thieves
  • “Preval avi”/ “Preval viv”Preval forever

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Tet Kalé or Maman Manigat? I Didn't Know I Had A Choice

On Sunday March 20, 2011, the Haitian people will elect their new president. Who are the candidates? Apparently Sweet Micky A.K.A. President Tet Kalé (the bald headed president) and Madame Manigat A.K.A. Maman Manigat. Although I characterize myself as Haitian, when I am in Haiti, I am considered an American and therefore I do not have voting rights. However, I have come to find out that this is not true.

The group stayed one of Haiti's most popular hotels. The presidential candidates held their press conferences there, so it quickly became the hot spot for journalists and election watchers from around the world. On a particular night, I was approached by a man who I have dubbed “El Creepo”. After hours of staking out our table, he came over and asked me in creole, who are you going to vote for? Tet Kalé? I told the man that I am an American and that I could not vote in Haiti’s election. That is when he offered me voting rights. El Creepo told me that he could make a way for me to vote. I started to think that this was a joke, but then I remembered that I was in Haiti and that anything was possible. I told El Creepo that even if I could, I would not vote in this election. This was a big mistake. (Rule number one; never get a Haitian started on politics). El Creepo went on this political/ philosophical/ social/ legal/ historical / whatever else he could throw in, in hopes of convincing me to not only vote, but to vote for Maman Manigat. He told me “to abstain from voting was like making a choice, and that it was about making the better choice”. Although that may be somewhat true, is it really a choice when both of the candidates are (for a lack of a better word) not up to par? I definitely understand that Tet Kalé is a vulgar man whose lyrics are very degrading to women. But what about the socialist/ elitist? That doesn’t even make sense. El Creepo summarized his speech with this last thought. I should vote because she is a woman and I am a woman. Then he asked me if we could hang out sometime and “reprimanded” me for not asking him for his name.

I found it very interesting that whenever we asked someone the question "who would you vote for?" The answer was nine times out of ten, “I have no idea if I will even vote”. The Presidential candidates are on opposites ends of the spectrum. I had an interesting conversation with an important individual who shall remain nameless. He told me that according to the polls, “Micky has already won. The young of this country have rallied behind him and they believe that he will bring change.” As a candidate who has no training in law or politics, I am not sure how he will do as the President of Haiti. Micky is what you would call a popular candidate. He makes promises that are so far fetched; it is hard to believe that people actually believe him. Some of his promises include: providing food to everyone at noon each day, providing every child with a laptop, and the best one of all, providing every child with the opportunity to participate in e-learning with teachers in Miami. I personally think that we should work on getting stable electricity first and maybe work on, I don’t know, providing access to clean water to the 70% of the population who currently is without access.

Then there is Maman Manigat “Grandma” who is a socialist but not a socialist, who is part of the elite but has ideas that can be perceived as socialist. If your not confused, then God bless you. There is a reservation towards voting for her because people are afraid that she will be the same as all the past presidents and that she will not bring forth any real change. She is 70 years old and although that may not be an issue for some, her ideas are just as old as she is.

All we can do now is pray for Haiti. El Creepo was right about one thing, this is a very important election, and only God knows what will happen to this country.

Being in Haiti during the election season was definitely a learning experience. I learned that if you’re not a citizen of the country you can still vote. You can always be sure that someone will give you voting rights.

Visting Barbancourt II

View of truck from the Spanish Red Cross bringing water

On Wednesday, the Housing Rights Team accompanied an IJDH representative to an IDP camp located on private land.  It was our first visit to such a camp and an incredible opportunity to speak directly with those most affected by the threat of forced eviction.  We spent time talking to the camp committee about conditions in Barbancourt II and the residents’ interactions with the landlord.  It was an eye-opening experience.

The camp is home to 310 families who have lived in Barbancourt II since last year’s 12 January earthquake.  The site is an industrial park that houses a warehouse.  Camp residents have been pushed to a small corner of the property so that the landlord may continue to operate his business.  Shelters made of tarps (many with the USAID logo), salvaged wood, and corrugated metal stand so close they’re nearly touching, but camp residents have stayed because they have nowhere else to go.

Speaking with camp committee members and camp residents, we heard of a series of increasingly violent interactions with the property owner.  The most violent occurred in November 2010, when the landlord came to the property with a group of armed men.  Recently, the landlord told residents that they have until three days after the elections (on Sunday, March 20, 2011) to leave the camp.

The stagnant pool contains human and other waste
A stagnant, fetid pool of wastewater several feet deep lies at the back of the property and exacerbates the already poor conditions.  Tents abut the edges of this pool and during the rainy season the water raises to touch the edges of tents.  Those living closest to the pool have developed skin rashes and complain of the multitude of mosquitoes bred in the water. 

Residents have repeatedly asked the landlord to drain the pool, but to no avail.  Taking matters into their own hands, residents tried to drill a small hole in one of the property walls to drain the water.  However, the owner of the adjacent land is a friend of the landlord and threatened to shoot camp residents if they continued their efforts.  Camp committee members believe that the landlord has allowed the pool to form as another means of forcing residents off his property. 

For now, water is brought into Barbancourt II by the Spanish Red Cross, which also provided the camp’s latrines.  However, the Red Cross has told the camp committee members that the contract to purchase water for the camp has run out and that they will soon have to organize a way to purchase water.  With the rainy season looming on the horizon, camp residents face an imminent end to their water supply and increased threats of eviction. 

The camp committee meeting tent
Yet, even in the face of these problems camp residents are anything but passive ‘victims of circumstance.’  They have organized themselves and selected a camp committee to represent their needs and views to humanitarian organizations and the Haitian government.  At their own initiative, the camp committee contacted both the Ministry of the Interior and IJDH to seek assistance in negotiations with the landlord to delay eviction.  The unity and resilience of camp residents was inspiring.  Hopefully, the information we collected during our time in Haiti can help CCR and IJDH to better equip residents in their fight against eviction.

"Negotiating" an Eviction

Yesterday we had a long meeting about how to realistically protect IDPs in the face of imminent eviction. The Housing Rights Team was lucky enough to get some concrete numbers and a much better sense of the scale of the problem. We heard about two communes with a total of 327 camps, of which 85 are directly at risk of eviction. The at-risk camps have a population of up to 20,000 inhabitants. This only covers two communes in Port-au-Prince (PAP), but begins to give a sense of the scale of the problem. 

Affected communities can have anywhere from a single day to three months notice of a pending eviction. The methods of 'eviction' range from monetary coercion for leaving the land to the violent ejection of families and the burning of their shelters. Currently, up to a third of the IDP population is living in large camps. As smaller camps are closed more and more IDPs move to these larger camps. Without a comprehensive relocation strategy these large camps have the potential to become permanent unofficial settlements. 

Some international organizations (IO) are trying to mediate negotiations between landlords and IDPs, but negotiations don't always occur. When they do, the goal of these 'negotiations' is really to delay the eviction to give IDPs and IOs/NGOs time to find other housing solutions. The problem is, there are few, if any, other solutions. 

While there's a need to balance the rights of landlords to their private property, there's also a need to recognize and protect the rights of IDPs to adequate housing. Humanitarian organizations are gradually phasing out of the camps and services like water and sanitation provision will not last forever. The question is, what is going to happen to the IDPs when the IOs and NGOs leave

Tet Kale

Yesterday morning the hotel was a hub of activity. The housing rights team was waiting for our car, when a group of journalists came rushing out of the hotel. Presidential candidate Mickey Martelly got into a big SUV as supporters shouted "Tet Kale, Tet Kale," ("bald head, bald head") Martelly's campaign slogan. Traffic was delayed and we were late for our first meeting. On the up side, we did get free bracelets and mini-Martelly calendars.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The "quarantine" tent for those prisoners suspected or diagnosed with Cholera

Washing our hands and feet in the chlorine basin on our way out of the prison...

Lake Glo Gayes

With the expected return of Aristide this week, the only thing Haiti is expecting is the unexpected

Our visit to the Prison in Hinche yesterday was unlike anything I have ever experienced. In fact, the 3-4 hour drive each way was an experience in itself. Hinche was supposedly “2.5” hours from Port-au-Prince and we planned to leave at 9 a.m. Of course, 9am means 10am in HST (Haitian Standard Time). And invariably there would be at least three –four stops: to fill up the air in the tires, to pick up an unexpected guide, and to stop at Digicel to buy a new cell phone since the first one we bought did not work. Expect the unexpected. Although we got lost several times, I am happy our drivers were Haitian men who were not embarrassed to stop and ask for directions to the prison at least 10 times. If we had been with stubborn American men who refuse to ask for directions we could have been in the Dominican Republic now instead of back in Port-au-Prince.

The scenery throughout the ride was stunning. The panoramic view scanned rolling hills and palm trees against a sapphire lake called “Glo Gayes” that was dotted with uninhabited islands. The actual ride reminded me of the many hours I spent in a tro-tro this summer in Ghana. Most of the roads were unpaved with rubble and piles of garbage lining the edges. Probably unaware of the negative environmental impact, trash piles were being burned by villages to remove the garbage. This is something that I sadly have found common among Third World countries. Women carried bowls of water or items to sell on their heads with an impressive ease that I could never imitate. Our driver used the horn even more than Ghanian taxi drives, simply to warn people that we were coming around the bend or just to be friendly. Traffic in the Port-au-Prince suburbs was also reminiscent of the hours I spent in the tro-tro in Ghana. Cars, trucks, vans, tap-tap’s (the Haitian bus service), scooters, bikes and individuals were moving in every direction on every street causing intense gridlock. One truck even attempted to cross the narrow road we were driving on in a diagonal fashion, creating a throng of Haitians that needed to direct the truck in the dark through the surrounding cars to unlock the mess. Expect the unexpected. Oddly enough, this scene gave me a sense of community and willingness to help each other that I don’t often see in New York. This ride really made me realize that I can never predict what will happen next in Haiti.

When we finally arrived at the Hinche Prison we were welcomed by the Prison officials. Our interview focused on preventative measures taken by the prison to prevent or contain the outbreak of cholera. After the interview the official took us for a tour of the prison. The entire prison compound was approximately 30 meters by 20 meters. The prison had just three cells for 163 people, with the largest cell holding almost 90 prisoners. Each cell was meant to hold 20 people. We also got to see the white tent in the middle of the prison compound where the Cholera symptomatic prisoners are quarantined. Interestingly enough, we learned in later interviews today that prisoners actually started to pretend that they had cholera or that they were still sick when they in fact had been cured. We certainly were not expecting to hear this. This was because the quarantine tent is separated from the prison cells. It is more spacious and the sick prisoners are fed well to help regain their health. We now understand --why wouldn’t the prisoners want to be there instead of in the overcrowded cells? Moreover, some of the prisons were giving the quarantined prisoners nutritional biscuits that were of value to the prisoners; not only were they better than any of the food the prisoners received in the cells, but they could be sold for a better space in the cell or for another advantage in the underground prison hierarchy.

Talk about expecting the unexpected, the interaction between the prison official and the prisoners appeared friendly to say the least. When he led us to the cells, he gave the prisoners a “pound” through the gate and they immediately were silenced. The prisoners called him “Papa,” and they told us he was very good to them. Unfortunately though, the minors were in the same cell with the adults, a violation of human rights law that raises a concern of vulnerability. The minors are susceptible to being taken advantage of by the elders, either mentally, physically or sexually. Furthermore, when we asked the prison official about HIV/AIDS education to the prisoners he became uncomfortable. Ritha told us that men having sex with men is very “taboo” in Haiti. Thus, the prisoners are not educated about using condoms or even about sharing needles, something very concerning given the extremely close proximity of the inmates.

When we left the prison, we were asked to clean our hands and the bottom of our shoes with water treated with Chlorine. This was a procedure that international aid organizations had educated the prison officials in Hinche about to prevent the spread of Cholera in the prison. It was nice to see that at least the Hinche prison was carrying out and following these procedures dutifully.

The official then brought us to the new prison being built next door which would likely not be done until phase two is completed in 5 months. This prison will be a significant advancement from the current one. The new prison has 190 cells for men, each cell holding up to only 8 prisoners. Across the courtyard, there will be enough cells for up to 300 additional women and minors. The new prison also will have flushing toilets in each cell, a vocational center for rehabilitation and to teach the prisoners trades and skills, and a medical center. Although phase two is supposed to be finished in 5 months, it will be dependent on the upcoming elections. I have finally learned to expect the unexpected. I do hope the new prison will be completed within the year though.

Today our meeting with the Red Cross was extremely informative and eye-opening. We spoke with a doctor and other relief workers that are focused on the Cholera outbreak in the 18 prisons throughout Haiti. They were an exceptional part of the relief effort in containing, curing, and preventing the further spread of Cholera in Haiti. Of the 6,000 people in Haitian prisons, 665 people were diagnosed with Cholera and 64 died. This means the case-fatality rate was 9.4%, a relatively low number given the unsanitary conditions of the prisons and the lack of prison resources, oversight, and knowledge about Cholera here in Haiti.

One thing in our meeting today stands out in my mind in particular – I certainly did not expect to learn this. When we questioned the prison official yesterday at Hinche about the measures implemented to clean and disinfect the cells, we were told that the prisoners brought their mattresses out into the courtyard to bake in the sun which would kill the bacteria. We must have all looked at the official incredulously because he repeated his answer again. We still hadn’t learned to expect the unexpected and after the interview, we all discussed how shocked we were at this “ridiculous” old wives tale. Did the prison officials really believe the sun could kill bacteria? During our interview with the Red Cross today, they told us it was at times difficult to educate Haitian people about how Cholera was spread and how to prevent it because some people believe that it is spread by God. Others believe that the voodoo priests here in Haiti cursed them with Cholera. I decided this was a perfect time to also mention the sun-bathing mattress cure-all and ask the Red Cross how they respond to these beliefs without being insensitive. The Red Cross leaders looked at me and smiled. I thought I must have asked an important question until they told me that it actually was a very effective preventative measure to put the mattresses in the sun because the UV rays have the ability to kill certain bacteria if they are first washed off properly. I think our entire Cholera Team felt pretty embarrassed that we were so sure this technique was ridiculous and that we questioned the prison official’s response. Ritha then learned that her Haitian grandmother’s remedy to add lemon to water to as a purification technique, something that she had dismissed as a myth for her entire life, was also useful because the lemon acid kills certain bacteria in the water. Western medicine has made me forget that sometimes the best remedies are those seemingly silly things my grandmothers taught me as kids. How many times do I have to be reminded that I should not expect or judge things here in Haiti?

We have so much more in store for us this week – visits to other prisons, meetings with other government officials, and of course the possible return of Aristide on Thursday that could affect the Presidential elections scheduled for this Sunday. Last year one of the Haitian Pastor’s we worked with said that as we grow and succeed in our legal and political careers he hoped Haiti will forever hold a special place in our hearts. I knew this would be true from the moment he said it, but the work and experiences I have had thus far on this trip have certainly solidified those feelings. I also will always remember to come to Haiti with an open mind and expect the unexpected