01/18/2010 12:43 PM

Haiti's Heroes

'Die Quietly, We Want to Live'

By in Port-au-Prince, Haiti

Haiti has tens of thousands of tales of life and death. One of them tells the story of Magalie Rigaud, who was buried in the rubble of a Port-au-Prince supermarket for eight hours before she and her two sons were saved. The charity worker is badly hurt but got to work immediately to help other victims.

She was a victim who refused to remain a victim, and she became a Haitian hero by rescuing herself, her two sons and two others from the rubble of a supermarket in Port-au-Prince after eight hours of being trapped under tons of concrete.

Magalie Rigaud, an employee of German charity Caritas, had been looking for cat food in the Caribbean Market with her 12-year-old twin sons, Marc-Edwin and Carl-Edwin, at 4:40 p.m. last Tuesday when the shelves began to shake. Then she heard a loud noise, grabbed hold of her sons and pushed them towards the frame of a door.

Then the first, second and third floors and the roof of the Caribbean Market collapsed on top of them.

"What saved us was the animal food," Magalie told SPIEGEL. "These big sacks of dog food. They stopped everything that came down. We crouched on the floor. Then it was dark."

There were five of them in that small cavity, the three Rigauds and two others. One of them had a flashlight. One found a few cartons of apple juice. "We're going to die," one of the strangers said.

'We Will Survive'

"If you want to die, die quietly, but don't demoralize us," replied Magalie. "We want to live." She told her boys not to talk because of all the dust, and because they needed to conserve their energy. She told them: "We will survive." She asked the men to start knocking on the concrete. And to use the flashlight to shine out through the cracks.

At around midnight they heard sounds. They answered with knocks. At 2 a.m., they were freed. Three youths pulled all five out of them out of the cavity.

Magalie, now wearing a white polo shirt with the red logo of the Catholic humanitiarian relief agency Caritas, is sitting in the organization's office in Port-au-Prince as she tells her story. She says she has a broken skull bone and her legs, arms, back and neck are covered in bruises. She doesn't have much time, she says, because she has to help save Haiti.

Six days have passed since the earthquake devastated this Caribbean island nation and the world's media are full of stories about the slow progress of aid. About Belgian doctors who deserted a hospital, leaving only a CNN man to save lives. About signs of civil unrest, and hatred on the streets.

It's not the whole truth. Port-au-Prince looks like two cities. There are shops. And there is utter devastation. The helpers are starting to find their feet and many survivors are gingerly starting to clear aside the rubble. But corpses are still lying in the streets or next to hospitals.

'We Should Just Park the Truck and Run Away'

German aid workers weren't especially optimistic over the weekend. Alexander Bühler of Caritas was standing in the city center with his colleagues and wanted to coordinate things. But there wasn't much to coordinate. "There are far too few supplies arriving. There's going to be a riot her soon," he said. A list in the Caritas head office showed that 1,500 bottles of water had so far arrived in Port-au-Prince. It read like a bad joke.

A few kilometres out of the city center in a timber factory in the industrial area of Port-au-Prince, Norbert Hase of the German Red Cross was leaning against his jeep, unshaven and looking a little pale. He had just arrived from the Peruvian capital of Lima. "No, things aren't good. When we get a truck with food, what are we going to do with it? No one's going to say thanks. It's not safe to simply distribute the goods because of all the people who'll go empty-handed. That'll be really dangerous. Basically we should just quickly park it somewhere and run away."

'All The Victims With Open Fractures Will Die'

Ralf Siepe, a doctor for the German Catholic Maltese charity, said: "With the injured people the problem is that we will have to give up on many of them. All the ones who have open fractures will die and we can only make their death less painful." There are no hospitals where they can be operated on and there's a desperate shortage of drugs, hygiene and doctors. "The most important thing now is water. That is the first link in the chain to stem the outbreak of cholera and typhoid."

Ralf Siepe isn't a pessimist. It's just that he's worked in many disaster zones. "That's the way things are with such catastrophes," he explains.

The earthquake knocked out the airport tower and destroyed the port. In fact it had the same impact as a deliberate, targeted attack on the nation would have had. The epicenter was just a few miles from the capital with its 2.5 million inhabitants. There was a tragic cynicism in the destruction of the presidential palace, virtually all the ministries, the cathedral and most churches, not to mention the headquarters of the United Nations -- all the organizations needed to coordinate emergency help were wiped out at the start. Added to that, the streets were in poor condition to begin with, because Haiti has been a blighted country for decades.

Now half the world is trying to help. The US is making a serious effort and all the aid workers are risking a lot to save lives in Haiti. It will have an effect, because it always does, eventually.

Magalie Rigaud knows that no sounds have been heard from the rubble of the Caribbean Market since last Friday. But she says: "We will make sure there will much greater stories than mine in the end."


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