Haiti's "Beautiful Catastrophe"
January 2009

by Klavs Bo Christensen

When I went to Haiti I had no idea what it would be like. I checked out the homepage of the British Ministry of Foreign Affairs and found that the warnings about going to Haiti sounded the same as those for going to Iraq or Afghanistan. But I wasn't going to a war zone, I was going to Port au Prince (PAP). I decided to give it a try but only if I could get in touch with Medicins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) in Gonaives, Haiti.

© Klavs Bo Christensen
A young woman praying at Mont Sinai in Gonaives, Haiti, on Oct. 20, 2008. After Hurricanes Hanna and Ike hit Haiti more than one million people are still homeless and in need of everything. Each morning many people walk up Mont Sinai to pray and sing.
I got the contact and booked my trip when I was in Mexico doing an assignment for a Danish magazine. The trip took me one and a half days to go from Mexico to Haiti and I slept in the airport church at Chicago's airport.

I arrived in PAP without luggage and missed the U.N. (WFP) helicopter going north to Gonaives that day and had to wait until the next day, which turned out to be lucky for me. Because we were only four persons flying north that day there was plenty of space in the helicopter to photograph; the weather was perfect. Suddenly we flew over fields that were still flooded with seawater six weeks after Hurricane Ike hit the northern part of Haiti.

The light was perfect so you could see very clearly the fields under the water: the beauty of a catastrophe. The view was amazing and at the same time it really showed the extent of the disaster that hit this part of Haiti. Two tropical storms and two hurricanes hit the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere in the first eight months of 2008. Thousands of houses were destroyed: they were filled with mud or simply completely washed away, leaving at least one million people homeless. I began to understand the extent of this catastrophe.

© Klavs Bo Christensen
Women waiting outside a mobile clinic set up by Doctors Without Borders in Gonaives, Haiti, on Oct. 21, 2008.
In Gonaives I met up with Gregory from Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF). He took me around the city filled with mud and 300,000 inhabitants. Here, six weeks after the hurricane hit, the mud was everywhere. A family living in a school told us that the first day the mud came and completely filled the ground floor of their house; they escaped to the second floor. The next day the water came and the family had to escape through a window on the second floor. I couldn't believe it. I had never seen anything like this before. Houses filled with mud. Streets filled with mud and water. Shipping containers were thrown around and smashed up. Cars had been thrown around in the streets and most of the electricity was still not working. And people were hungry. Very hungry. Around 75 percent of the population in Haiti lives on less than $2 U.S. a day; 55 percent lives on less than $1 U.S. Now, after the hurricanes, prices keep rising since there is a lack of food developed due to the flooded fields.

I checked into a hotel recommended by Gregory from MSF. I think it was the only hotel I saw in the city. In the reception I met Jonathon, a young, very talented photographer from Canada. A very nice guy and he even spoke Creole. We hooked up.

© Klavs Bo Christensen
A man digging out mud from his family's house in Gonaives, Haiti, on Oct. 19, 2008. After Hurricanes Hanna and Ike hit Haiti mud and water swept into thousands of homes, destroying many.
The next five and a half days we got up around 4:30 every morning to catch the morning light. Basically we walked around town talking to people and letting them show us their houses and the areas they lived in. Some were sleeping on the roofs of their houses, some were living in schools and churches, some in camps set up on the outskirts of town. People were very friendly and even smiling but at the same time quite desperate. People whose houses were still standing were still shoveling mud out of them, onto the streets. During the evening and night big trucks and caterpillars worked on clearing the streets so people could fill them up again.

At around 9 – 9:30 a.m. some days the light was too flat to work outside and we took a rest or went to photograph inside the hospital in Gonaives set up and run by Medicins Sans Frontieres. The local hospital was destroyed by the hurricanes. I focused mainly on the section for malnourished children, since malnutrition in Haiti is a big problem and after the hurricanes it got even worse. After seeing these small kids I remember one little girl especially. She was 3 years old and her weight was only five kilos (11 pounds). One day two malnourished children died. It was hard: these little innocent kids dying from malnutrition. One of them was a young orphan around 6-7 years old. He and his brother were brought in 10 days earlier and I had photographed him several times in the days up to his death. He was smiling and looked as if he would survive. He didn't. After 10 days with intensive care at the hospital his little body gave up and he died an unnecessary death. I took a few shots of his feet while tears ran down my chin.

© Klavs Bo Christensen
A young man bathing in a ravaged part of the city in Gonaives, Haiti, on Oct. 22, 2008. The hurricanes left a poor people destitute with little affordable food, no electricity, homes destroyed and a corrupt government diverting food aid to wealthy Haitians.
In the afternoon we went out again around 3 p.m., when the light was getting better. One day we passed a big truck hanger. The day before there had been some trouble around it. Big trucks were driving out of it and down the road while people threw stones from the trucks onto people in the streets. There was a lot of shouting and people attacked the trucks. I didn't understand what this was about when it happened. Now we passed the hanger and we saw people running away with food. The door/port was open and we went in. In the hangar there were two trucks with food aid and people were looting them for oil, flour, spaghetti and other stuff. People were running fast knowing that the police would show up soon. In Haiti the police show up with their fingers on the triggers, so I knew we had to be careful. At the same time I knew it was a very important picture to describe the desperate situation and the need for food. The police came and we got away without any trouble. But around 30 Haitians were captured in the hanger when the police closed the port. I don't know what happened to them. The next day I got the explanation of what really happened. The hanger had been filled with trucks with food aid for people in need. But the mayor of Gonaives sold the food aid, truck by truck, to rich Haitians, leaving only two trucks. Then the lock was cut letting people loot the two remaining. The day after that it was reported in the news that ALL the food aid had been looted.

The government estimated that it would take at least one year to clean up the city. The same government that one year ago proudly announced they had planted 30,000 new trees, but then in the same year cut down 3 million trees. In 1923 over 60 percent of Haiti's land was forested; in 2006, less than 2 percent was. The deforestation of the island is one of the major reasons for these huge floods of mud that hit in and around Gonaives this year.

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© Klavs Bo Christensen

Danish photographer Klavs Bo Christensen picked up photography as a hobby after graduating from The Royal Academy of Music. Ten years ago he began to work freelance for various Danish magazines and organizations. His work is based on social and cultural issues in his local neighborhood of downtown Copenhagen and has been exhibited in various museums and galleries around Denmark. A few years ago he decided to do more work on stories of international interest but still with a focus on cultural, social and political issues. These have taken him to Iran, Egypt and Syria. He began working with WpN in January 2007.

To view more of Christensen's work, visit his Web site: http://www.klavs.dk or http://www.worldpicturenews.com.

The following are links to Christensen's previous Dispatches:


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