The 'Moses of Haiti': Bringing Aid to a Shattered Island

By in Port-au-Prince

Part 3: The North American Plan

Some became part of the disaster relief effort unexpectedly, like Eran Velija, a photographer from Prizren in Kosovo. An avid traveler who has spent time in Sofia and New York, her plane landed at 3 p.m. on the day of the quake. She had come to Haiti to visit a friend and perhaps to change the country, filled with dreams of opening a bar in old Haiti.

But 113 minutes later, old Haiti ceased to exist. Velija wondered whether she had brought the earthquake to the country. She too smokes to ward off the smell. She and her friend are now in the process of establishing a small aid organization. They have a house and are raising funds through Facebook so that they can provide shelter for the homeless.

Most of the relief workers are passionate people, as is often the case in disaster areas, people with past experience in other natural disasters. Organizations like the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have smart people working for them, people who give up their vacations and often their private lives for efforts like this.

Still, Moynihan doesn't like the relief workers. He prefers the military, because it comes, does its work, and leaves. "The aid workers will keep us dependent because they live from our dependency. Here," he says, "this the biggest mistake."

He drives past a large, open area that has been converted into a refugee camp. It is covered with garbage and makeshift housing made of plastic tarps. "These people won't be leaving this camp for years, and even our businesspeople will be dependent on the aid organizations, because they'll be their best customers."

What would be a better approach? $1,000 for each survivor, he says, -- and back to normal life. He laughs, but he's serious.

The stench of death has returned. "Wherever we go," says Moynihan, "the dead are there first."

A Hopeful Mother

He tells his driver to take us to the Montana, once the most upscale hotel in Port-au-Prince. The Moynihan family used to go swimming there. His four children, Robert, Mikhaila, Timothy and Marianna, loved the pool on a hill above the city, and they loved the gelato. Now Chilean UN peacekeepers are there to guard the premises. The "Gelato" sign is still up. The roofs have slid into the pool, where thick slabs of concrete are now jammed on top of each other. The earthquake happened six days ago, but Joëlle Benoît is still sitting there on a folding chair, keeping watch. She has been there for the last six days, without interruption.

Is she a mother mourning her child? A hopeful mother, she replies. "I know that my daughter is alive. I can sense it. The former elevator shaft moved yesterday. Back there, you see it? There's a gap there now, so the air can get in." Sarah, her daughter, worked at the hotel as a banquet manager. Suddenly Benoît asks suspiciously: "Are you a journalist?" Then she begins flailing at us with her bare hands, until the peacekeepers push her back into her folding chair.

Moynihan says: "This hotel was a symbol once, like my school. It was a symbol of the possibilities in this country. After all, we had an elected president, and the street gangs had disappeared. In the past, you could expect to see people throwing rocks at you when you drove to the airport, but that was over. The Montana was fully booked, Haiti was slowly attracting visitors, and I was on the verge of opening a second school. Was it hubris?" He walks around the pool, with sections of the hotel roof in it, holding his nose and breathing through his mouth.

Networks have always been the key to power in this country. It was once ruled by the Duvalier clan, first by Papa Doc and later by Baby Doc. Then came Aristide and his cronies, followed by René Préval. Then Aristide was back in power, only to be ousted by Préval again. Haiti was controlled by mafia-like organizations, nepotism and corruption were rampant, connections were everything and the power struggles were invariably bloody. The United States intervened, supporting one ruler and bringing down another, deployed troops and pulled them out again, approved funding and then withdrew it again. It was a foreign policy of the moment, and in retrospect it seems pointless and arbitrary.

Now the Americans are back, determined to help Haiti once again -- and to save lives. At the moment their efforts seem earnest and well thought-out. Whether it will last once the media are gone, and whether they will be able to take the Haitians seriously will soon become clear.

Moynihan, former capitalist and current missionary, spends his entire day helping people. He takes journalists to the airport, invites the stranded to his school, lends money and touches people. He embraces the survivors and strokes the orphans. He is constantly talking to his employees, talking about courage and strength and the joy of being alive. Sometimes he's impatient. For example, when he asks his student teachers about their experiences in the earthquake and during the hours afterwards, they remain silent for a few seconds and he starts talking again. Then he asks his student teachers what they need and runs off to get it.

Moynihan founded the Economic Growth Initiative for Haiti, which lends money to new companies, usually small businesses "that produce biofuel or spaghetti or chairs or solar panels, something of intrinsic value, real products," he says. He is sitting in the back of his small truck as it is being driven through this city, a city that would have blossomed in five or six years, he says, if his plan had come to fruition.

'This Could Become a Different Country'

The scene is completely different in the mountains of Belot, 13 kilometers (8 miles) from the epicenter of the quake, where there was little damage. In the vast and green mountainous region, even wooden huts are still standing.

It is already noon. Moynihan's driver takes us to a villa in the center of the town, where Brad Horwitz is staying. The CEO of Trilogy, the parent company of the Haitian firm Voilà, has made millions in the telephone business. He bears a slight resemblance to Richard Branson, the head of Virgin, with his long, gray hair and goatee. They sit together on the veranda, just as they used to do before the quake, chatting and giving each other compliments, and within 15 minutes Moynihan has convinced Horwitz to give him two tents for his students and 30 phones for his workers, and to send over an engineer to take a look at the school buildings.

"This catastrophe," says Horwitz, "presents Haiti with the biggest opportunity it has ever had. And if they don't just cover up the holes in the ground, if they install cables for a modern world instead, if someone has a plan, this could become a different country."

Is a North American plan what Haiti needs? "Of course," says Horwitz, who had 600 employees in Haiti, of which five are confirmed dead and 70 are missing. He has decided to spend $2 million on "Voilà Village," a new development that will consist of 30 houses for his workers.

We drive on to the next stop. Patrick Brun, Moynihan's friend, also a Catholic, who calls himself a social entrepreneur, sometimes doing business and sometimes simply helping out, has a warehouse and the pipes Moynihan needs -- something easy, for once.

Moynihan tells his driver to take us to supermarkets. All are closed, but voices can be heard coming from one of them. Moynihan knocks on the fence and talks his way into the building. The word "battlefield" can hardly describe the scene at the supermarket. The shelves have fallen down and the food products have turned into a stinking, sticky mush, while the injured are starving in the city's streets. Moynihan picks up baskets and gathers eggs and peanut butter, enough to last a few days.

It gets dark outside. He has achieved four of his five goals for the day, "four for five," as they say in American sports and business jargon. It would have taken him an hour to achieve his goals in the past, but that past now seems like a long time ago. It was a good day.

The one goal Moynihan hasn't achieved is to find the engineer. Horwitz's engineers were too busy, and the embassy wasn't able to send anyone, either. "Bodies are more important than buildings," the embassy official said on the telephone.

'Fear is Healthy'

It is Tuesday night in Haiti, and Moynihan is running through his house again. The mother of one of his student teachers received a call from the embassy to let her know that her daughter could be evacuated. "Can you guarantee my daughter's safety?" the mother asked. Moynihan replies: "These are adults. They're all 22 to 25 years old. And who can guarantee someone else's safety, anyway? Is that possible in New York? In Hamburg? Let's hope that this isn't the beginning of the end for us. We can't give up. Without us, none of this here will work."

It's 6:02 on a Wednesday morning, just after dawn. Haitians normally get up early and go to bed early, but no one is getting much sleep these days. Patrick Moynihan, the Moses of Haiti, is standing on a table on the edge of a basketball court, talking to his students.

He says: "Fear is a natural instinct. Fear is healthy. But after that intelligence has to take over. We have to use our heads and think about what to do next. The only thing we have to fear is fear itself. There's a reason why that's such a famous quote."

6:03 a.m. The earth shakes. "Shit," says Betsy, the teacher. "What's wrong?" Moynihan asks. "Can't you feel it? An aftershock."

Now the damaged walls of Port-au-Prince are coming down. Urgent reports quickly circle the globe, reaching the American embassy, the mothers of the student teachers, the school's financial backers.

The Haitian cooks and Haitian employees start running, not sure where to go, just away. The children squat in the sand and cry.

Moynihan remains standing on his table, unshaven, wearing a stained T-shirt. His lips are trembling, his eyes look enormous, and he stands on his table with his arms spread out. He doesn't fall, and he doesn't step down, either.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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1. Big Brother again
dermotgaffney 01/27/2010
With a name like Patrick Moynihan it is certain that he is descended from Irish emigrants to the U.S. Which makes it all the more regrettable the manner in which he criticises European involvement in the Haiti relief effort. Apparently, we should leave everything to the U.S. Military - Europeans are only getting in the way, getting stuck in traffic, forgetting to pay bills, mislaying addresses, and so on. This ignores the fact that agencies such as GOAL and Concern have been present in Haiti for many years, helping in areas such as education, health, nutrition and construction, to train local people to help themselves - not to encourage dependency as he claims. This is not to take from the great work currently being done by the U.S. in Port au Prince - only to say they are just part of a great international effort. I also find it amusing that he uses the word "cronies" in relation to supporters of President Aristide who was elected by the people after the fall of the Duvallier regime. His politics were not acceptable to the Americans who subsequently assisted in his removal. Big Brother again! Dermot Gaffney
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