Bearing Witness to Haiti
The following is an email sent by Timberland President and CEO Jeff Swartz to Timberland employees worldwide, chronicling his recent trip to Haiti. We’re sharing it here on Earthkeepers because we believe it stands up to its name — “bearing witness” — as a powerful account of destruction and survival in Haiti … and provides perspective for the important work that lies ahead as the nation rebuilds.
So, what’s so hard about this note, which I have intended to write for a week? Last week, I visited Haiti, in the company of Bill Shore , the founder and executive director of Share Our Strength, and a Timberland Board member, and chair of the Board’s Corporate Social Responsibility Committee, and in the company of Wyclef Jean , a 12 time Grammy award winner, a Haitian musician and activist, Timberland’s partner in an effort to plant trees and reforest Haiti, as part of our global Earthkeeper efforts. The visit was in response to the earthquake that struck Haiti 3 weeks ago; our visit was an attempt to focus Timberland’s Earthkeeper resources temporarily on disaster relief. The trip was emotional and powerful; I left Saturday night and was back in the office Tuesday.
So, what’s so hard about a brief note that describes the heroism of the many doctors we saw, the heartbreak of the destruction we saw, the inspiration I felt with Bill and Wyclef, and the indignation I felt at the world’s well intended but inept efforts to cope with this disaster?
Maybe it is the scale of the disaster, in the context of a country already ravaged by history. Maybe it is the raw, emotional experience of being amidst death and destruction, and in the presence of the dying. Maybe it is the feeling of futility, the ultimate experience of the City Year “Starfish” story , that waited for me at each stop we made in Haiti—yes, we made a difference here, but wow, we did not even scratch the surface of the pain and agony here…
For all these reasons and more, I have not done my job by you; I have not been able to bear witness to you from Haiti. So, below, I have tried to right that wrong. Call this note, “bearing witness”–but “bear with me” also works–it is a very long note. Long for the reasons I cite above, and long because it is hard even now for me to say simply why a bootmaker flew to Hell and how the experience of that Hell affirmed my belief in the mission of commerce and justice. So, here goes.
Heading to Haiti
1.30am Saturday night in Manchester. One backpack, with no change of clothes, just a camera, a notebook, malaria pills, and my Bible. Drove to Manchester with Billy Shore; not a lot of chit chat.
Met the head of the newly hired security team at the airport. Security, not because I believed the reports in the press about looting and violence; I don’t believe our “free press” does a good job of reporting in general, I believe they seek out the lurid and amplify it, in order to sell papers—but security because we were going into a country with no infrastructure before the disaster, and less afterwards. How to get around? How to cope with unexpected circumstances? OK—Pazzani said “no security detail, no trip,” and I gave in.
On the plane, Wyclef Jean was waiting, exhausted before the trip began. He was going back to Haiti for the 2nd time since the quake—many of you saw him on CNN two nights after the disaster, with his wife, telling stories about transporting 10s of dead bodies to temporary morgues. Wyclef is a man of many faces—we know him as a musician and a celebrity, for sure, but if I jump ahead and tell you about Wyclef by the end of this voyage, I would speak of an immensely gentle, noble, powerful man—one part dreamer, one part prophet, one part revolutionary. And one part real friend.
And on the plane, strangers–physicians from Partners in Health , an organization we met in Boston about 6 weeks ago. Founded by Dr. Paul Farmer , PIH is a lot like Share our Strength—an NGO founded by a visionary to solve a problem. SOS dares to insist that we can end childhood hunger in America. PIH dares to insist that in Haiti, and in Rwanda, we can create an integrated health care system to care for citizens of countries too easily ignored. How? By partnering with Haitian doctors and Haitian leaders, to create self sustaining health care in Haiti for Haiti by Haitians. But when the earth shakes and the flimsy medical infrastructure disappears—PIH calls on physicians and nurses and medical students—and they drop what they are doing, like the doc from San Francisco on our plane, like the med student from New York…they pack their backpacks, grab whatever medical supplies they can round up…and we meet them, 1.30am, bound for Hispaniola.
We flew to Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, to meet a helicopter loaned to us by the military that was to fly us to Port au Prince. And thanks to Jack Lauramore and Bruce Insley and the whole team in Manchester, we took off on time, and landed in Santo Domingo on time, ready to go. And, amidst the medical luggage stored away, we also found TBL backpacks that Bruce had packed, with bottles of water and ClifBars so we’d have something to eat. That kind of thoughtfulness—that scale of human kindness—was the rule, not the exception.
So we landed, on time and ready to go–but from the minute we landed, a new rhythm of living took over. Time to get on the Blackhawk—let’s go. Actually, says Wyclef, how about we head over to the presidential palace in Santo Domingo and visit the President of the Dominican Republic? We’ll find another helicopter later. I got us an appointment to talk with the President about the DR’s role in aid relief; I invited a friend of mine, and the meeting is in a couple of hours.
I am decked out in my disaster duds—TBL hiking boots, cargo pants, OP travel shirt, Yele Haiti baseball cap, and Smartwool base layer. Not exactly presidential visit duds. Clef whips out a suit he brought, just in case. Hmn.
We passed through security into the presidential palace, while Jack and Bruce were frantically trying to figure out where to get another helicopter to bring us into Haiti. Waiting in the antechamber to the president’s private office, Clef’s friend shows up—Vin Diesel . Makes perfect sense. Maybe you’ve seen the picture; Vin and the gun show flexing in one chair, DR President looking presidential, Clef suited up, and me in my “let’s go hiking” look. Hello, Mom, I am here to lobby a head of state to keep the land link open between the DR and Haiti, despite the decades long tension between the two countries.
Well, dressed right or not—I represent 1,800 Dominican employees of our company, and so, I had the president’s attention. Ever lobbied a head of state? Me, neither. What I said was, Senor Presidente, history is watching—how do you want to be judged? Haitians are dying because aid is not reaching the people, and we can help solve that problem—with your help. From our warehouses in the DR, we can consolidate and ship by our trucking network; Yele Haiti is prepared to receive and distribute the aid–Mr. Dominican President, are you prepared to let the trucks go through without the usual bureaucracy? The answer was yes, and I hope the true intent is the same. Time will tell.
Got Vin to autograph my Yele hat. No idea why. But now, gotta get to Haiti. So somebody named George shows up. In a yellow Ferrari. And he has a…yellow helicopter. Which we are welcome to take. Go ahead. Take it. Hmn. I was thinking military Blackhawk, and here is a canary yellow loaner from a friend I’ve never met. Jack says it is a safe machine. Here we go—me, Billy, Wyclef and one security guy. Oh, and a pilot who looks the part, prefers Spanish to English, and is ready to take off. We pass through the UN jump off point in Santo Domingo—awash with volunteers from every corner of the earth, organized … well, not at all. Not a ton of passport checking. That’s good, because I just met the rest of the security detail, and even to my untrained eye, there are certain pieces of baggage that look vaguely like automatic weapons. But, as long as it stays in carry on, seems not to be a problem…
From the air, in a little over an hour or so, you flit across beautiful inspiring mountains and along magnificent beaches, from the Dominican Republic to Haiti. There is a large lake that demarcates between the two countries, on the route we flew, but you don’t need a map to know where one world ends and another begins. The lush agriculture on one side of the lake leads to a more hard scrabble agriculture on the other; the big (ok, functional) highway on the DR side leads to one lane each way winding on the other. We can see the aid trucks crawling along on the Haiti side. And in minutes, Port au Prince looms ahead, dense, destroyed, honestly not to be believed, from the air. A densely packed city, an up and down city of folded hills, and everywhere you can see….cataclysm. You have a city that started with basically no functioning infrastructure – and then the whole darn thing falls down. There was an inept central government before the quake—and then the national palace collapsed, the judiciary fell over—ministers, judges, lawyers—all dead. And you had a big United Nations presence, well intended but ineffective on its best day—but that compound fell down and those guys are dead too. So what’s left? A world of pain, and human spirit.
Haitian time means that from when we landed, at the damaged Dominican Embassy helipad in the hills, until we “mounted up” in our convoy of SUVs with the security guys (5-6 total cars) was about an hour. Not sure why; folks just talking into walkie talkies, not sure about what or to whom. Haitian rhythm; relax. We’ll move when we move.
First stop, Cite Soleil – the City of the Sun – which is the worst slum in Port au Prince. Clef says, not a lot of blanche (white people) in Cite Soleil ever; should be interesting. Just what I’m looking for—interesting. Because as the convoy weaves through the city, I am reduced to holding the video camera in my lap and filming my knee. I can’t believe the physical destruction. Nor the swarm of humans walking. People walking in the streets—this is one of the overwhelming images of this voyage. Where are they going? What are they seeking? Walking, everywhere. Streets choked with dust and detritus and despair, and folks out walking. Whole blocks just leveled.
Feeding the Hungry
Cite Soleil is different—much less obvious destruction. Clef smiles. “There wasn’t much to fall down here before.” Not a lot of permanent housing existed in the Cite. Now, lean to’s, “built” of rags and an insistence of human dignity.
When our convoy pulls to the curb, it is 1000 degrees and 200% humidity under the bluest sky and with the blazing sun as witness. Within 30 seconds of Clef’s appearance on the sidewalk, there are ten thousand young people around us, no exaggeration. On a retaining wall in front of us, clogging the wide street, everywhere the eye can see. Beatles en route to Shea Stadium; I’ve never seen a crowd like this, form this fast, be this close.
We are in the Cite to feed the hungry. We’ve already seen a UN convoy heading from the airport to distribute food and water—white armored personnel carriers, soldiers in body armor and combat gear, turret gunners manning loaded weapons, sirens blaring, trucks roaring through the clogged streets—to hand out 50 lb bags of rice. Clef reminds me that good intentions don’t feed people. 50 lbs of rice not all that helpful, when there is no pot, no cooking fire, and no clean water anywhere with which to cook the rice. The Yele model is a little different—we brought food from the DR, food that Yele purchased, and somehow, in this destroyed city, Clef’s team cooked 8,000 hot meals of Haitian cuisines (goat stew). Someone “found” 8,000 styrofoam take out trays, from one of the destroyed restaurants somewhere in town. And found a truck. Here’s the truck, here’s the meals, here’s Clef with a bullhorn shouting in Creole, and here is a mighty river of the hungry, lining up to be fed. With sweat pouring off of everyone, we began to hand out the meals.
It started “ok,” meaning I’m handing meals to human beings, little kids in Creole or French saying “thanks,” I am trying to say something in French for encouragement, we are working hard in the sunny version of hell, but despite everyone’s best efforts, of a sudden, it starts to get tense. The Yele volunteers are shouting at the folks in line in Creole, don’t push, don’t push, but you could see in the eyes of the mothers and the fathers and the children, everyone watching the pile of cooked meals in the back of the truck get smaller and smaller and a sense of despair and maybe even panic begin—will I get a meal for my child before they run out? And so all of a sudden, the business of Sunday lunch heads in the wrong direction—the river of hungry humans becomes a raging river, pressing forward, starting to crush each other and us. And so the security guys – with good intentions – shoved themselves in front of us, and everyone started taking out their weapons and I heard safeties being taken off and I knew we were not far from a really bad situation.
At this point I was kinda crushed behind a wall of security people, up against the open back of the truck. In front of me, not 3 humans deep away, there was a little girl. And someone must have stepped on her or something – she started to cry. In the raging ocean of human suffering—her tears and her fear was too much for me. So I reached between 2 security guys and put my hand on her and shouted in French,”its ok, I’m gonna get you.” I couldn’t lift her up; I was wedged too tightly–but now I was back in CEO mode and so I said to the security guy in front of me, “get me that little girl.” And he did — lifted her up and passed her back to me and I held her tight, in my arms, and she was sobbing and so was I. I held onto her, maybe 8 years old, talking to her in French, and after about 30 seconds she stopped crying. Because the crushing that was hurting her—that’s gone now. I’m holding her and we’re behind a security guy and so she’s not going to get crushed. So she stopped crying.
Kills me. My view of the world says, she should have still been crying. But her view of the world is, no. I may not have a home, I may be hungry, I may be living in hell – but that’s normal. That isn’t worth crying over. If someone is hurting me on top of all that, then I’ll cry. I handed her a meal and off she went – as if to say, I’m going back to the normal despair of my day and I can handle that, don’t need your help, thanks a million and have a good day.
We went back to handing out the food. The crush didn’t go away, but the fear of a bad scene did. Everyone got their heads around the fact that we had 8,000 meals—not 8001. So if you get one, great, if you don’t… I don’t know what. Clef exhorting the crowd; people shouting, crying, waiting…I’m still kinda pinned against the truck; from under the truck, a little brown hand reaches out and grabs my cargo calf. Scared the hell out of me. I look down, and there is a little hand clutching my leg. Can’t see the child—he or she has crawled through the densest crush of people I’ve ever seen, wriggled under the truck, and grabbed me—signaling, I beat the line, now give me a meal. I slipped one down to the hand; the hand grabbed it and vanished. My heart still has not come back—a child, figuring out how to get a meal…
Security shoves us into the cars, because we are supposed to do other feedings in other parts of town. Clef is solemn but calm; Billy is strong and brave, and I am still crying as we wheel out of Cite Soleil.
Later, much later that night, we will debrief, and learn from our experience. In a country where there is no functioning infrastructure—where there is aid piled to the sky at the airport, but not reaching the people because there is no clear authority to say you do this, you do that—it is up to the entrepreneurial NGO, the risk it all in the crush on the street where no one wants to go NGO that has to try and figure it out. We delivered meals, and we didn’t have a riot. OK; good. But, if Yele is going to feed folks every Sunday (the plan) there are lots of things we can do better the next time. Clef says, there is no operations manual; we have to invent one. We went where the UN and the NGOs are rightfully afraid to go. We ran a play. And between good fortune and good grace and a little bit of patience from people who shouldn’t have any, we learned a ton. We did two more feedings that day, and they got better each time.
Bel Air needs a fresh prince
From Cite Soleil we drove through destruction towards Bel Air, our next destination. I was excited about that prospect; swimming pools, movie stars, Will Smith—good idea.
Turns out our Bel Air is the gang bastion of Port au Prince. We are headed to a clubhouse in the rubble, where Clef intends to meet quietly with a group of hard young men who escaped from prison when the quake knocked the walls down. Um; mind if I wait outside? Nah, probably a good idea.
Nothing belle about Bel Air; the sun is starting to wane in the sky, birds are chirping, and the streets are unbelievably thronged even before we get out—but this neighborhood is destroyed, concrete smashed like you cannot imagine.
When we get there, Wyclef disappeared underground – literally – to talk to some of Bel Air’s upstanding residents and I was left standing there in front of a 15 foot pile of rubble on three sides of the road—left, right, and the cul de sac–surrounded by a perimeter of security guards on all sides and feeling both very secure and completely insecure. Standing there with Billy, and feeling the smell. One of the security guys said to me, “you know what that smell is, right?” And I’m thinking no, but I bet you’re gonna tell me and he said, “That’s dead people.”
I see a Haitian man speaking to Billy; wonder how he got inside the perimeter? When they finish, he and I “chat;” he speaks only Creole, so I wonder what he and Billy discussed. I follow, kinda; this was a school, that was a business, he is quietly describing to me what went on on this street. Facing the biggest pile of rubble, looks like 4 stories pancaked down to 15 feet, he has nothing to say. So I asked him, in French, what was this building? He answers, quietly, in French—“my home.” He is keeping faith with his dead, on this now quiet street…
When Clef came back he said, “Smells bad,” and I am quick to agree, but he says, “No – it smells really bad. No rescue teams have come here. No rescue teams will ever come here.” If there was some way someone was still alive amidst the rubble in this corner of this sad city, they were left to die. Clef led us here because he had work to do to try and negotiate with angry young men, no more violence. And while he worked at that, I kept an unwilling vigil with the dead.
I have this image in my head from Bel Air – the sun was setting, and cast a rosy sunset on the destruction. If you looked up, there was a bright blue sky and you could actually hear birds. That’s the sound track and the visual track, but the smell track – I can’t describe it. For me, new definition of a dead end street. We left Bel Air, but in my heart, I can still see it and hear it and smell it. Leaving them there, men, women and children entombed in rubble – it’s just not right.
We did two more street scenes that day, now in the night. Where do you sleep when the earth is still shaking and the buildings are death traps? In ragtag “tent” cities, on any open scrap of space. Where do you get water to drink or food to eat when the best hearted NGOs in the world can’t figure out how to go the several miles from the airport to your despair? What do you do at night, no candles, no electricity? It felt like a Mardi Gras parade from hell, on the street; people everywhere, in the humidity, in the velvet hot darkness—no room to walk, hardly air to breathe. Everyone, living in the open, in the dark, on top of each other. Life somehow, but I felt a different fear in the dark, not of violence, not of risk, but a fear of hopelessness. This is insane…
But after these feedings, our convoy headed up into the hills. I was beyond asking, we just went. And in a neighborhood half damaged, we ended up…at an open air bar. A functioning, open air bar. The sign for the bar was hanging from a telephone pole at a crazy angle, but somehow the guy who owned the bar had a generator, and there was a limited supply of…cold beer.
Makes perfect sense after everything else I had seen. And made more than perfect sense, given that in the bedlam that was getting from DR to Haiti, no one could find the backpack that had the ClifBars in them, so I hadn’t eaten for 24 hours.
We stayed at the bar too late; we were joined there by a bunch of young Haitian revolutionaries, a judge, a few entrepreneurs, people who know Clef and Yele, young men with eyes burning for a new Haiti. It felt like a novel, in the dark, very little light at the bar, stars above, beer in hand. Beyond bizarre.
Billy asked me, where are we gonna sleep—should we lie down here? One of the guys who has been driving us around says, come to my house, you can sleep there. He has an undamaged house? He does, higher up in the hills. And so, Haitian rhythm—I got a little girl’s bed, with teenage movie stars taped to the wall, and Barney the purple dinosaur on little girl sheets, and Billy got the room that belonged to the older daughter. Security guys sleeping on the dining room table and living room chairs. Clef slept in the same house—but only after doing a 2am last feeding run, alone.
I sent my kids one last note, opened my Bible and studied for 15 minutes, and was asleep in my clothes with my boots on without even realizing it for 4 precious hours—no dreams, no thoughts, dark and silent and asleep.
18th century tools, 21st century skills
Dawn was signaled by the roosters and a rosy sunrise. After a cup of coffee (I have now had 1 water, 2 beers and 1 coffee since Saturday night—should’ve called Carden and gone over the LRP, because I was ready to roll!), we headed downtown—to University Hospital, the biggest hospital in Port au Prince.
A friend of Billy’s, Jim Ansara from Shawmut Construction, had been working over the last year or so with PIH, to help construct a next generation hospital in Port au Prince. Not much left of that effort—but Jim was at the hospital, and wanted us to see.
Friends, we rolled up, we found a mixture of desperation and dignity like I’ve never encountered. In the sweltering sun, big strong young men and women from the 82nd Airborne, taking care of business—securing the hospital, and helping the PIH doctors. We watched a big blond trooper from somewhere shoulder his M4, and bend down to pick up an old woman who was too sick to walk any further, and carry her with dignity and caring to the triage station in the bright heat—a grey file cabinet resting on its side. We watched the medics triage the sick, and then we walked into the hospital itself.
How shall I tell you what we saw? Civil War technology, 21st century doctors, pain and suffering, grace and dignity. Post operative “wards,” nothing more than cots stacked in the open air, every single patient having experienced at least one amputation from the crush injuries that could not be treated otherwise. David Walton, a young PIH physician told me as we walked through, we have saved their lives to this point by amputation—but 100% of the patients you see are real mortality risks. When they are “discharged,” which they have to be—we have man,y many more behind them waiting for these cots—where will they go? How will they be kept free of infection?
A surgeon from New York showed us the “operating theater,” a medium sized storage room that hadn’t fallen down in the quake. Four army cots, propped up on blocks, so the surgeons wouldn’t have to bend un-naturally. IV’s hanging from what looked like repurposed coat racks. Most of what they were still doing was amputations. Because after enough time has passed and wounds haven’t been treated, there’s just nothing else you can do.
They told us, when children came in hurt, they cast them as quickly as they can in order to immobilize the victim — because in some of the crush injuries, if you move it you could take out blood vessels and someone could bleed out. So they immobilize with casts, but then when it comes time to deal with the actual injury, the cast needs to come off again. Do you know what you can’t take a fiberglass cast off with? Scissors. Scissors don’t cut through fiberglass—and so the docs can’t get to the wounds. Because you need a cast saw, and guess what? They didn’t have one at University Hospital.
Dr Dave said, “We’ve really got to find a cast saw,” and I said, what do you mean, find? And he said, “Well, we know they have cast saws at the airport, we’ve been sending SOS messages for 4 days and we can’t get them here.” Not 5 miles away. So now I’m all ready to go storm the airport and thankfully Billy Shore said he had a better idea … whipped out his iphone – can you see the irony of standing in this place and Billy’s on his iphone? And he sent a note on Twitter that said, “Anybody got a surgical cast saw I could use?” and the network goes whacko and an hour later there are 3 of them being Fed Exed to Yele Haiti people because they’ll do whatever they have to to get aid to those who need it. I wonder if the saws ever got to University?
We left Port au Prince by the same bright yellow helicopter from the airfield controlled by the US Air Force. I saw the aid piled up, and I lifted my eyes up to the mountains that range around Port au Prince, and I left a few more tears on that soil.
We flew mostly in silence back to the jet. From Jack’s face, seems like I looked like I felt. We got on the plane, and we had one more Haitian chapter—we found on the plane, waiting patiently, a young orthopedic surgeon from Grand Rapids. Father of 4 young children. Heard the call, and got on a plane. Found himself at a mission clinic—clinic, not hospital—in Croix de Bouquets, near where Wyclef was born. Spent 2 weeks doing amputations, delivering babies (well, he said, they cover that in medical school, even if you are an orthopedic surgeon), saving lives. Greg was exhausted, but resolute—he needed to go home and see his family, but he was coming back. He told us, for the first week, he worked without medical supplies. A clinic is designed for sore throats—not amputations. He used…farm equipment from a nearby mission to do his work. Wyclef wrote lyrics for a new song as we flew; Billy worked on getting Dr. Greg a hotel room at Newark and a flight home to his family the next morning, and I…I just sat there…and felt all this.
Before I left for this hastily-planned trip, people – many of them rightfully disgruntled family members – demanded to know what I hoped to accomplish with my visit. I always replied, honestly, that I didn’t know and wouldn’t know until it happened … but that I had faith that we would find a way to share strength. A week later, and plenty of tears later, I am still not sure.
Yele would have served the meals without me. University Hospital would have gotten a cast saw, eventually. Somehow, nothing I did would have gone undone. So CEO as disaster volunteer, not a good model. But, CEO as witness—that is a different story.
What my eyes have seen, my heart has felt. And so this voyage is just beginning.
The good that comes from this journey lies rather in what happens next.
It lies in the limitless kindness of Bill Shore—who worked his cell phone to reach Senator Bob Kerrey , the Congressional Medal of Honor winner from Nebraska, who lost his leg in combat in Vietnam, and who spent more than the last decade building a prosthetic “industry” in Vietnam, so his former enemies could have prosthetic care for their wounds. Billy used to work for Kerrey, and moved by what he saw—70% of Haiti is young people, and so 70% of the amputees face a life long challenge of prosthesis—Billy persuaded Kerrey to begin to set up a prosthetic network in Haiti. Lives will be saved and destinies altered by this kindness.
We are working with Yele, to ensure that the pipeline from the DR to Haiti is open and working, so aid can go not to a UN depot, but to the people who need it so desperately.
And, Yele and Timberland are continuing to work together, more intimately than either imagined, to set up an operationally sound approach to helping our brothers and sisters in Haiti. I’ll be back in touch with more information as our partnership continues to evolve, and to share with you the ways in which we’re hoping to bring our vision of commerce and justice to bear for Haiti’s citizens and survivors.
Thank you for bearing witness to my experience by reading this far. I wish I could leave some of this out; I wish most of it hadn’t happened. Thank you for kind words you’ve shared; I needed your strength and I still do. Most of all, thank you for building a community at Timberland whose values give me license for such a journey – not in an indulge-the-crazy-CEO way, but in a “of course you should go, why are you still standing here?” way.
No clever conclusion to write—because this voyage is hardly begun. Home from hell, changed and different, but unrelenting in my view that the path to heaven lies true north by commerce and justice.
Yours in service