Traveling into Haiti, as Haitians look for ways out

Reporter's Notebook: Early in my travels, I met a young man plotting his course into the country with the sole purpose of getting his Haitian father out

haitians reach for aid AP 311 (photo credit: AP)
haitians reach for aid AP 311
(photo credit: AP)
I left New York not knowing exactly how I would get to Haiti to cover the major earthquake that rocked the Caribbean nation on January 12, leaving thousands dead and the infrastructure in tatters.
With the airport closed to non-military flights, relief groups were in the same predicament, so an alternative for anyone looking to get in quickly emerged: Fly to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, drive over the border into Haiti, and continue on to Port-au-Prince. Rumors flew about how long it would take. At least eight hours, often more.
Even as journalists and NGO staffers fought to get in, Haitians were trying to get out. Early in my travels, I met a young man plotting his course into the country with the sole purpose of getting his Haitian father out.
My own trip started with an overnight flight to the Dominican Republic and then an early-morning departure by car - with some local journalists - for the Haitian capital. At 5 a.m., we left Santo Domingo, traveling on a narrow road through the country. Twisting and turning, it
cut through impoverished towns, with low-slung buildings, shacks, huts. Stray dogs. Children with bare feet.
We stopped in Jimani, a town just before the border with Haiti. A stream of cold mountain water runs through this town, which is also home to a hospital that received wounded refugees from Port-au-Prince.
Wailing patients sat on dirty mattresses inside, and I fought the urge to gag at a sickening stench of infection, sweat and blood. Garbage cans overflowed with medical waste. A stack of dirty scrubs lay crumpled in a corner. People held their own IV fluid bags. Grown men screamed as nurses poured medicine on bloody knees and babies wailed.
Later in the day, I learned that a Haitian woman gave birth at the hospital in the morning.
Leaving Jimani in mid-morning, we drove through what's known as the "fronterra" - a territory between the Dominican Republic and Haiti that both sounds and looks like no-man's land. Cars jammed a dusty dirt road from both directions, as the military controlled the checkpoint.
In the fronterra, poor men and women sat amid their wares - bulbs of garlic, drinks, fruit. The heat was oppressive, even as water from Lake Azuei - Haiti's largest - made huge puddles in the road.
As we crossed, I saw a foursome rowing furiously toward the Dominican Republic.
Among Haitians, everyone was looking for a ride to the border. Some climbed aboard flatbed trucks and others pressed their bodies into local buses. But by far, most people were
walking. Carrying parcels on their heads, children in their arms, and dragging suitcases behind them, Haitians crept toward the border, as groups waited to be let through to the other side. Driving into Port-au-Prince, I saw throngs of people filling the sidewalks.
Around midday, I noticed that even those who are not fleeing were headed somewhere. Many covered their faces with cloth or masks to protect against an acrid smell of burning that still lingered. Left homeless, some congregated in parks under makeshift tents in search of relief from the sun.
Near the Palace Nationale, a truck drove by and tossed packets with clean water into the street. A bunch of teenagers dove toward the ground, with one lucky kid emerging with several in hand. In 30 seconds the scene was over.
Two women loaded their injured father into a wheelbarrow padded with blankets. He was comfortable, and of course, now they could keep moving.