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The Haitian tragedy as observed from Prague

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On the morning of January 13, I was awakened by a phone call from my husband Radek alerting me of the earthquake that had struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti the night before. It was the first I’d heard of the horrific tragedy, a calamity that has only deepened as the days pass. The news was quite personal, as a close childhood friend is currently serving as a US Foreign Service officer on her first assignment in Port-au-Prince. Since it was hours before Brooke’s family in the US could be called, I scanned online accounts of the tragedy and kept checking the Haitian US Embassy page in hopes of an update.

When I got through to Virginia by phone and received confirmation that Brooke was safe, my personal relief was mixed with a profound sense of sorrow as I began to contemplate the magnitude of the tragedy and the enormity of the devastation. I worried for the victims, their families and for the impoverished nation with its own share of troubles prior to the quake.

The sheer destruction and staggering death toll in Haiti is incomparable to anything I’ve been close to experiencing. Still, the situation of being out of touch with loved ones during a natural disaster reminded me of the floods in August 2002 that hit Europe hard. The floods in the Czech Republic were the worst in 200 years. Prague suffered severe damage to historical buildings, the metro system and zoo.

On the morning of the floods, I was actually standing by the Vltava River when I heard police with foghorns shouting. I didn’t understand the message entirely, but enough to know we were supposed to evacuate the area. The evacuation patrol swept through my Nusle neighborhood as well, although Radek advised me just to stay inside my 3rd floor apartment. I remember watching the news, terrified for the immediate victims: the many zoo animals. In particular I was heartbroken to learn that the elephant had to be put down when there was no longer time enough to rescue him. I remembered writing emails to worried family and friends back home assuring them of my safety. Certainly for my parents though, my written assurances were no match to hearing my voice.

Learning of the Haitian tragedy, I felt helpless knowing that Brooke was living first-hand the horror that I was watching unfold in the news. Later that day, I checked Facebook and saw a brief update from Brooke saying she was all right. A few days passed and I received a more detailed email describing some of the damage she’d seen and the relief work she was currently doing through the embassy. In addition to describing the dreadfulness of the situation and the depth of the devastation, her email also lauded the efforts of the military, rescue, doctors and missionary teams, as well as the bravery of the numerous injured who had come to the embassy in good spirits, despite being in tremendous pain.

Although she had been sleeping on her office floor and eating only ready-to-eat meals, her email conveyed a sense of gratitude. I haven’t heard from her since that correspondence, but I hope that as the recovery work continues, she’ll have a chance to write more soon.

While living in the Czech Republic has helped improve my understanding of European geography and fostered an increased appreciation for cultural sensitivity, I am embarrassed to admit that my knowledge of current events and ground-breaking news has dropped significantly. In large part I think this lack of news is directly proportional to the expansion of our family and my full-time position as homemaker and caregiver. When I ask my mother what happened in the ’80s, when she was raising young children, she claims ignorance.

Certainly, living in a foreign country can add a layer of distance to the news I do receive. Despite living in an age where Internet technology has created a world that communicates across time, distance and language like never before, I still feel more removed from news events since living in the Czech Republic. While many of my friends manage to stay on top of the news, I know I’m not alone in feeling distanced either. In fact, this Monday, six days after the Haitian earthquake struck, I found myself talking to another mother who hadn’t yet heard a word of the disaster. We were watching a heavy clump of snow and ice fall with a thud from a nearby rooftop onto a parked car, when I made a reference to the earthquake. Another mother who’d experienced an earthquake in Los Angeles jumped into the conversation and my friend listened wide-eyed. She apologized, saying that her husband usually brings news stories home to her, and I nodded sympathetically, knowing that the person in the dark next time could just as likely be me.

After our conversation, I went home to check websites for updates on Haiti. I discovered that while Czech international aid agencies, including medical personnel and firefighters, have been prepared to set off for Haiti since the day after the earthquake, in lieu of sending people to the rescue mission, the Czech government has responded by encouraging help in the form of monetary donations. An outpouring of both government and private donations from Czechs has followed, including an evening benefit concert in Old Town Square led by A-list Czech celebrities.

Sadly, it took an earthquake of disastrous proportions to draw international attention to the desperately poor Haitian nation. It seems that Haiti may never fully recover unless the world powers that are providing emergency help are willing to support the Haitian community as it begins to sift through the rubble and rebuild the lives of its citizens. Dangers of death from disease and infection threaten thousands of earthquake survivors and the unenviable task of clearing the rubble and starting again is just beginning.

There is little I feel I can do, except send money and keep informed, both of which I am doing. I’m looking forward to talking to Brooke as soon as it is possible – to hear her voice and to thank her for her efforts in Haiti on behalf of those of us who wish we could do more.

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