Sunday, March 07, 2010

Ninety-five and Humid: The odds against good deeds, or "What really happened"

In my real life, I’m an Alaskan bush pilot. I find lousy weather, the sudden appearance of mountains in front my plane, and temperatures that would break steel entertaining. When the request came for pilots to fly relief to Haiti after January 12th’s 7.0 earthquake, I headed southeast. Fly some new routes, do something for my fellow man, spend some time in warm weather: it sounded perfect. I arrived in Venice, FL ready to do whatever was asked. Agape Flights, based in Venice, flies a full time service to missionaries in the Caribbean. In response to the devastation in Haiti, they had received dozens of volunteer airplanes and pilots and tons of donated relief supplies. Agape’s permanent staff is made up of year-round saints; the rest of us were trying to combine a good deed or two with a short bout of adventure.

For weeks, Agape’s pilots flew into what could only be described as "airplane soup" over Port au Prince. Military, cargo and private flights arrived and departed constantly at an airport that, as designed, couldn’t handle two flights on a Tuesday-- and that was before the destruction of the earthquake. With the port only marginally opened, the airport was the lifeline for millions of Haitians: through it flowed the generosity of taxpayers worldwide and millions of individuals. Approach control was divided between the Navy in Pensacola, FL, the Air Force in Port au Prince, and Haitian controllers in a makeshift tower. In spite of this, we all managed to get our loads onto the tarmac without bending too much metal.

As the campaign went on, I served in a variety of rolls. An aviatrix in dispatch is essential, as payloads, cruise speeds, and fuel burn all need to be considered. With the volume of donations we took in, extra hands on the sorting line were never turned down. Eventually, I got myself resourced off of home soil to fly food, medical supplies, and aid workers into Haiti out of Santiago in the Dominican Republic, on routes not unlike those I fly in Alaska. Actually, it was a little more hospitable than home: if we ended up in the ocean, we would not die from the cold in two minutes; we would last long enough for the sharks to get us.

After a month of volunteering, it was time for me to head back to Alaska. I was to jump on a Florida-bound Agape flight on Friday, February 19th. Then, Agape called me in Santiago and asked if I would be willing to escort six orphans from Children of the Promise (COTP) orphanage in Cap Haitien, a city on the north coast of Haiti. These kids were all orphaned or abandoned before the catastrophe, and had all been in the adoption process for years. They each had adoptive parents waiting for them in the States. Jean-Max Bellerive, the Prime Minister of Haiti, had personally cleared the children to leave the country, and the USA had given them humanitarian visas.

We surveyed flooded Cap Haitien before landing to pick up the six boys (Albert, Reese, Malachi, Ben, Simon, and Jeff) from COTP. We flew on to Port au Prince, where the kids had to check in with the US Embassy. We met Maria O’Donovan, a COTP field director, and one of the adoptive parents, Sarah Thacker, at the airport. The three of us took the six babies to the US Embassy in a taxi. After a month divided between office and cockpit work, I was ill prepared for handling my third of six infants in close quarters. You can kill yourself in an airplane, but you are unlikely to get covered with projectile snot or crushed cheese crackers.

The Embassy checked all the documents for the children, confirmed that they were cleared all the way to the USA. Sarah, myself, and the six kids would all fly on a military transport that evening.

After five hours of waiting and crying (on the kids’ part, not mine), Maura, an Embassy official, finally appeared and abruptly cancelled the flight and said there was no real intention to reschedule. Years ago, I worked in Washington, DC and knew hundreds of Mauras: Ann Taylor suit, Nordstrom shoes, Blackberry constantly humming, little or no real responsibility. Maura had no idea how the 70 children waiting in the embassy were going to get to the States. She seemed immensely relieved when we offered to arrange our own transportation for our own six boys. We called Agape and, within hours, the dispatch team had a donated King Air slotted to pick up our merry little band the next morning.

Maura told us to meet her at the airport at 11:15am, where the embassy officials would hand over the children's paperwork. The Embassy maintains control of the sealed adoption papers until they see the kids board the plane. If the seal is broken, the paperwork is considered “tampered with” upon arrival in Miami.

We arrived with the children at the Port au Prince International Airport in a taxi at 11:15. Within minutes of stepping onto the sidewalk, we were surrounded by an angry mob. They tried to pull the boys away from us and yelled that we were child trafficking. Sarah was knocked to the sidewalk, trying to protect the two babies she was holding. The Haitian police intervened taking the mob ringleaders and all of us into custody. They marched us: kids, suitcases and all, down the airport driveway to the airport police station.

Our Embassy handlers had still not appeared and since they had the paperwork, the police became suspicious that the mob might be correct. One cop, with two bars of rank on his epaulettes, seemed particularly skeptical of our story.

I called Maura at the US Embassy. She was still in her office because “her car had not arrived.” I told her to take a taxi. I explained and stressed the severity of the situation. In response, she announced that she would wait for her driver.

I asked the police officers if I could walk out to the tarmac to talk to our pilots and alert them to our delay. I pulled my pilot shirt out of my pack, with four bars on the epaulettes. Two Bar scowled. I sat back down. Rebecca, a volunteer nurse from COTP, had arrived at the airport to say goodbye to the children with her friend Eric, a pediatrician. They came into the police station and fell victim to our captors as well.

An hour late, Maura and other Embassy officials arrived, US paperwork in hand. We thought we would be free to go. Despite years’ experience with the government, I maintain a remarkable amount of confidence in bureaucratic structure. I foolishly thought this situation was something like a visit to the DMV: unpleasant, time-consuming, and tiring for the feet, but we would get our documents and be on our way.

The Haitian police had a different protocol. Two Bar said the adoption paperwork was not enough. He wanted to see the Haitian Prime Minister's signature— probably just for the novelty of it. The Embassy insisted that they were under no obligation to share the Prime Minister’s signed list with the police.

The police moved us onto the street so that everyone had room to argue. By then everyone at the airport with a badge had gotten involved: not only the embassy staffers and the police on the sidewalk, but the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) officers, Haitian Immigration, our pilots, and a guy on the street selling gum. A man in a plaid shirt and jeans showed up, and turned out to be a police inspector, and the ranking cop on the scene. Maura looked at me and said: "I guarantee you'll be on that plane today."

As the testosterone match between agencies heightened, Two Bar threatened to arrest the men from US CBP. A yelling match ensued, between men wearing guns, about who had diplomatic immunity. When the situation had deteriorated beyond recognition, the Embassy staffers finally agreed to go get the Prime Minister’s list. Maura took me aside and said, "I guarantee you guys won't end up in Haitian custody." I think we already were.

Fax or email would not work. Inspector Plaid Shirt insisted that the police needed the Prime Minister’s original signature from locked embassy files. When Maura’s boss returned with the paperwork, the inspector took one quick look and said it was a fake. Apparently he and the PM write each other letters all the time.

Five hours later, the situation had completely stagnated. The pilots said they had to take off. The police insisted on moving us to another jail and continued arguing with our low-on-the-totem-pole Embassy team. They crammed all escorts, two Embassy people, and the six children into the back of two police cars and we bumped through traffic while the new Haiti-Relief remake of 'We are the World' blared on the cop's radio.

At the new police station, well clear of the airport, I realized I had severely underestimated the situation. The Embassy was not going to prevail. Inspector Plaid Shirt announced: the adults are free to go, but the kids are being detained.

Maura looked at me again and said, "I guarantee they won't separate you from the kids." Lady, I thought, you’re ‘nothing and two’ and, if Plaid Shirt throws the high hard one, you are not going to suddenly become Joe Mauer.

Four hours later, the police decided the children would go to a Haitian social services (IBESR)-approved orphanage for the night. We climbed back into the police trucks holding the boys tightly in our laps. No music this time. After an hour’s drive in the dark, we had no idea where we were. The police stopped at a few UNICEF tents set up in a compound and the police started pulling the kids out of the back of the truck into the dark.

Unfortunately, Inspector Plaid Shirt and the woman running the tent facility seemed to be on very close terms. Maria from COTP talked to the woman in charge. Could we stay with them? No. Could we sleep on the ground outside? No. Could we at least feed them and put them to sleep to avoid a dramatic scene? No. The police escorted us out of the compound to the tune of six screaming, terrified children. It was gut-wrenching for me, and I had only 24 hours of emotional investment in these kids. Eric used his GPS to mark the location of the tents. This would be the only way we would be able to find the children come morning.


Rebecca and Eric took us home to the apartment they shared with other volunteer medical workers. They fed us. They gave us their beds. They showed us the hospitality we were trying to show the world but had spent the day forgetting in favor of frustration, anger and fear.

The next day, after an hour and a half drive through the devastated streets of Port au Prince, we arrived to find the children still in the tent. Maria and I spent five hours playing with the kids in the dirt outside.

On the drive back to the apartment, my cell phone rang. It was a reporter from CNN, Gary Tuchman. Where did he get the story? The Haitian police. They were accusing us of forging the Prime Minister’s signature. That was a lot of credit for our clever lot: we didn’t even know the Prime Minister’s full name. The interview took place a few hours later. CNN bought us pizza and we discovered that in Haiti that means Cheez-Whiz on bread.

We asked for the Embassy to provide us with transport to see the kids. Maura said civilians can’t ride in Embassy vehicles. I doubted Maura knew what the word ‘civilian’ meant and likely thought her Blackberry came with some military rank.

As the days went by, the children were confined to the tent, where they became dehydrated and developed diarrhea. The tent compound had inadequate supplies and staff to look after the boys. Each day we called every government official we could think of and were repeatedly told that the US Embassy was “working on it.” Each day ended with the children screaming as we had to leave them in the tent. The Prime Minister was apparently on a beach in Mexico, unable to take calls or vouch for his own signature. All seventy of the orphans waiting at the embassy were prohibited from leaving the country until our situation was resolved. It’s hard to buy beer in an earthquake-ravaged city, but we really could have used one.

Back at the apartment, we watched ourselves on CNN, disappointed that they included the ubiquitous cable news commentator. A white-haired Barbara Streisand look-alike with bright blue spectacles opined that the children’s parents should be coming to pick them up. It was little concern to her that no commercial passenger flights had been coming to Haiti since the earthquake, and the US Embassy and the Prime Minister had been clearing children so haphazardly that it was impossible for parents to find timely transportation.

On Tuesday, Maria and I paid an exorbitant amount to get to the tent orphanage by taxi. I walked into the tent to see the boys. No one was there. I looked in the other tents: All older children, no little munchkins. I looked helplessly for the few adults. I couldn’t speak a word of Creole besides “Mesi” and I couldn’t ‘thank’ my way out of this. When the police took the six children from us on Saturday night, our worst fear was that we would come back and they would be gone, or that some of them would. That fear was rapidly being realized.

I looked at Maria panicked. The kids aren’t here. She ran up to one of the adults and asked about the children. I had to suffer the agonizing wait of not speaking the language when an emergency is at hand. The translation came slowly, as Maria tried to get as much information as possible. The kids were moved. Last night. Where? They don’t know.

Maria called our taxi and he had already picked up another fare. I called the US Embassy. Pius Bannis, Maura’s boss, answered on the second ring. This was the first he’d heard of the kids being moved. He said he’d call back.

Maria and I could not spend an hour staring at these infuriating people who would not tell us where they had taken the children. We walked out the gate and onto the street. We were not 100 yards down the dusty gravel when a “TapTap” came by. Maria flagged it down and we climbed into the back. A TapTap is a pick up truck that has two benches in the back. They drive in random routes through Port au Prince and you tap the side of the truck to let the driver know when you want to get out. These rickety trucks are possibly the most smoothly operating piece of infrastructure in all of Port au Prince. We rode to the nearest busy intersection, both on our phones trying to find where the kids had been moved. We called COTP, Agape, Senators, and Congressmen. I called the Embassy twice more. They replied that they were “working on it.” Work faster.

Just as we climbed out of the TapTap into the intersection, another TapTap came along, driving towards town. Maria flagged him down. He was empty. She asked how much to take us all the way to the US Embassy. It’s a one-hour drive. Way past his route. Would be very expensive. Fifty US Dollars did the trick and we were on our way. The driver, happy to have such an affluent load, showed off the amenities of his vehicle, which included tinted windows and cup holders. He cannot have realized that the two women to his right had absolutely no desire to make small talk. Drive faster.

En route to the Embassy, Maria received a call from the Consulate General. He said they had found the children and had been granted custody. The Embassy would go pick the children up in an Embassy vehicle (either no longer illegal for civilian transport, or the United States had granted our orphans much-deserved soldier status). We should meet them at the Embassy.

I immediately called Agape back in Florida and asked the dispatcher to find a plane to fly us out tomorrow, completely cognizant of my “wolf!”-crying status. Within a half hour, I got a call from the pilot, who said he needed a “$13,000 reason” to make the flight. That is about how much it would cost his company to make the donation. I told him our story. I hung up to the sound of children’s voices coming down the hall. When they saw Maria and myself, the ones that could run did. We couldn’t pick up all six of them at once, so there were kids in our arms and kids clinging to our legs. We were all laughing, even baby Albert. The pilot called Agape to confirm: he would be at PaP International Airport at 11:00am tomorrow.

The boys were all excited, but desperately needed their diapers changed. Maura gave us XL Adult Depends (size 64” waist) because the Embassy had no diapers. They came to the kids’ chins.

The Consulate General was suspicious of our private transport arrangements:

“This is a problem we have had in the past: that people arrange their own transport, and then the aircraft does not show up.”

My frustration overwhelmed my discretion. “One: that was not the problem on Saturday, sir. Your aircraft cancelled on Friday night. Our aircraft was waiting on the ground at the appointed time on Saturday. But, your staff told us to meet you at the airport rather than the Embassy, and then you didn’t show up on time.”

I was angry, and frustrated that we had apparently not all lived on the same universe for the last 5 days. I should have known better: Washington bureaucrats and Alaskan pilots never operate on the same cerebral plane. “Two: Do you have another suggestion as to how we should take these kids off your hands? The Embassy is not even prepared to provide us with transport to see them in their tent jail, let alone an aircraft to take them to the United States.”

Besides random inquisitions about transport, the Consulate General also controlled non-immigrant visas for the US Embassy. Maria was an Irish citizen. In a great quirk of immigration law, Irish are allowed to travel into the US without a visa if they are on a commercial flight. But, if they are on a private plane, they have to have a visa. I asked if the Embassy could grant Maria a visa so that she could see the children into their parents arms. The last five days of ambiguity and fear had taken more of a toll on Maria, who was the only family some of these kids had, than it had on the rest of us. She would return to Haiti the next day to resume her work at COTP.

“No.” said the Consulate General, “That reason is not compelling enough for me to grant a visa.” Apparently the US State Department required more than a $13,000 reason.

Just for fun, I asked if the Embassy would provide us with transport from where we were staying to the airport. Nope. We would have to meet them at the Embassy.

It took our taxi over an hour to get to the Embassy on Wednesday morning, a distance of less than 5 miles, not that surprising in a rubble-filled city. We stumbled up to the front gate, carrying kids and kicking bags. No. You cannot come in this way today. The guard pointed 200 yards down the street. We explained that we couldn’t walk with these kids on the street. There were child-attacking mobs on the street. The guard insisted and pointed again. We asked for someone to help carry our bags. No. Embassy employees are not authorized to carry luggage. Are Embassy employees authorized to do anything in this country besides ride in Embassy vehicles?

By employing a form of stubborn refusal often used by women and children against men, we got one Embassy guard to help carry one bag to the next gate. Juggling six children and stringing out down the sidewalk, we stumbled into a parking lot full of Embassy vehicles. Lots of shiny Suburbans: worldwide vehicle of the US government. Consulate General Moore was waiting for us.

The CG insisted that Maria, Sarah and myself all climb into the third seat of the Suburban, then the kids were piled in on top of us. In the seat two-thirds the size of the one in front of it, there were nine people. In the next row up sat Consulate General Moore and the US Consulate General for Hungary, who is in town and out for a sight-see. In the front were the driver and an empty seat. The kids were all screaming. They were piled three deep and very uncomfortable, stepping on, kicking, and hitting each other to find a space.

When we were half a mile down the road, Sarah asked from below three kids, “You do have the paperwork, don’t you?” the CG looks at Hungary, who looked to the front. “Where’s Pius?” asked the CG. “Pius was supposed to bring the paperwork. We’d better call him.” The driver asked if he should turn around. Larry, Mo and Curly are too busy looking for Pius’ phone number. No one had it. They decided to send him an email, using their government-issued Blackberries.

I shoved a kid off my arm toward Maria so that I could get to my bag. I pulled out my phone and scrolled through recent calls. I dialed Pius’ number and handed the phone over the kids and over the seatback to the CG. “It’s ringing.” I said over the crying, crowded children.

We backtracked to retrieve the paperwork that these 2-year-olds could probably have kept better tabs on themselves. We left the Embassy again, this time in a two-car convoy, Pius following with the paperwork, while three adults and six kids still remained crammed in the back of the first Suburban. Exhausted by the crying, the CG gave the kids juice and Pringle chips to shut them up. The immediately threw them all over themselves, us and the vehicle. We pulled onto the tarmac and the Embassy suits got out to wait in the shade and play on their Blackberries.

Right on schedule, the airplane sent by Agape pulled off the runway. CG Moore told us the kids had to walk in single file. We picked up kids and bags and left him to explain the concept of “single-file” to a two-year-old covered in Pringles. The Haitian government charged the pilot over $350 for the privilege of landing and taking off in their country, making his contribution to these children $13,350. We climbed aboard and Maria strapped in the kids. They started screaming when they realized Maria was getting off the plane. There was nothing to be done. Her visa wasn’t compelling enough to the adults on the tarmac.

US Customs and Border Patrol in Miami took two and a half hours to clear all six children. One of the officers that had been present at the fray in Port au Prince on Saturday had since been transferred back to Miami. I asked him, “What the heck happened?” He said an anti-American grudge of one cop started it, as far as he could tell. Two Bar. And when Inspector Plaid Shirt showed up, he basically wanted to make the boys “disappear” back into the system. Why? Because you guys were not supposed to enter the airport through the front door, you were supposed to go through the back, with the Embassy. He was going to show the US Officials who had the power. It seemed like an awful fierce punishment for going in the wrong door.

After all the kids were cleared and fingerprinted, we delivered them to five sets of parents who couldn’t contain their excitement. One mother took her baby and me in her arms at once. She was sobbing. “Thank you. Thank you so much. You’ll never know. Thank you.” For a hug like that, I’d fly through mountains, Alaskan weather, and Haitian police stations all over again.

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