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Mission Trip to Haiti: A trip of firsts

January 24, 2010 No Comment

(Editor’s note: In the following letter, Howard Bogusat, a member of the Haiti Lutheran Mission Society (HLMS) and a resident of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., writes about his recent experiences in the earthquake-ravaged nation of Haiti. Howard and his brother Wally travelled to Haiti for the dedication of a church in Poto, financed by the HLMS and located outside Gonaives, north of Port-au-Prince. Lynnette Tobin, a member of AIDS Niagara, joined the Bogusats and gave several presentations on AIDS. All three are safe and back home in southern Ontario.)

Hello to all those who were thinking of us and praying for our safe return. As much as I hate winter, the recent earthquake was not exactly what I had in mind. Our trip to Haiti was a trip of firsts: our first earthquake experience and our first ride aboard a C-17 U.S. air force transport.

First earthquake experience

We were in an SUV near Pastor Thomas Bernard’s church in Pettionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, when the earthquake hit January 12. (Bernard was one of the first pastors of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Haiti (ELCH) and studied at Fort Wayne, Ind.) The ground shook, winds blew dust all around, and trees shook like dogs shaking off water. We were on a grade right beside a strong wall, which did not come down. A guy in the back of the SUV shouted at the driver, “allez, allez,” which means “go, go,” and we travelled a few blocks to the church. At the time, we did not realize the gravity of the situation because we had not actually seen anything fall.

When we got to the church, we saw people in the streets, and they looked terrified. We saw a wall leaning at an angle. Then a fellow pointed out the retaining wall of Pastor Bernard’s church. It is probably 45 metres, and it had fallen into the yard. Then Bernard came by with a terrified look on his face, and my demeanor changed. He muttered something about having to go check on his family and took off. Someone in the neighbourhood said that a hotel had been flattened. I surmised it was most likely the Flamboyant Hotel because we had just seen a hotel sign with an arrow a few blocks back. A radio report proved my suspicions right.

We set off for the Kinam Hotel, where we were booked for the night. Immediately, we started seeing the devastation. One could really see the results of faulty workmanship. One would see four, five, six, or eight buildings in a row standing erect, and then we would see one flattened, then perhaps a space, and then another. This was all along the Rue Delmas. The traffic was at a snail’s pace, and people were running all over. Most were fleeing downhill, but then all of a sudden —as if someone had thrown a switch— they reversed uphill, and after a few minutes, again downhill en mass. They did this twice. A building had collapsed and tumbled onto a vehicle, blocking two downhill lanes of the Rue Delmas.

Eventually, we made our way up to the Kinam Hotel. Driving became easy for the last four to five blocks downhill from the Kinam. Damage was minimal, and we saw fewer people. We got to the hotel. Fortunately someone had a cellphone, which continued to operate for about two hours after the shock. We gave them a phone number and they got out a message that we were “OK.” There was a man sitting on the sidewalk outside the Kinam, holding up the leg of a friend who was lying on the ground. They uncovered the towel, and his big toe was severed and hanging by the skin. I had packed some hydrogen peroxide just before leaving and went to get it to counter any infection. We had bit of supper and around midnight retired. Anyone we asked had no idea if the airport was open or not, so we decided to give it a try in the  morning.

Around midnight there was an aftershock, which swayed the bed, and then another aftershock a little later. I prayed to the Lord and just got a distinct feeling, almost like a message back, that “this is not where it ends,” and “I have a lot of work for you to do yet.” I relaxed quite a bit, and the aftershocks were barely perceptible till around 2 a.m.

In the morning, January 13, we set out for the airport. We took a ring road and from a distance saw whole hillsides flattened. We got near the airport where there was one gas station (the only one?) open. We lined up because we were terribly low on fuel. Two Haitians who were travelling with us went ahead and managed to procure two plastic jugs of diesel. We pushed ahead and got within two vehicles of the pumps, and a guy came up to us and pointed his gun at us and ordered us out of the line. They made way for some incoming police vehicles.

At the airport there was some visible damage, but nothing too glaring. An American official said they were screening for U.S. citizens only, and said someone would be back at 2 p.m. with some news. We waited until 2:30 p.m. and John, our translator, got the idea that we should head back to the safety of Gonaives, which we did despite dreading the bumpy 3.5-hour ride. One of the Haitians travelling with us left the airport to look up his brother who was a policeman. He came back with good news. We stopped off to pick up his nephew. Then there came one of those “God moments.”

One of the Haitians declared that he needed to check on one more person, so we left Highway 1 for a few blocks to do so. We got back on the highway and maybe went three kilometres and here came Pastor Revenel Benoit from Gonaives in his sister’s vehicle. Benoit is president of the Lutheran Church of Haiti (LCH). He saw us, and we embraced. He had heard that a hotel in Pettionville had collapsed, and he was coming to make sure we were alright. I thought “wow.” What if we had tarried just a few minutes more off the highway? He would have gone past and would never have found us. To boot, none of the phones were working.

We passed the week at a guest house, a former orphanage purchased by the HLMS, and on January 18 checked Delta Airlines for our re-booked flight. It was listed, so we assumed that the airport must be open. We got up at 4:10 a.m. January 19 and left Gonaives around 6 a.m. Because of the fuel shortage, the drivers removed 68 litres of diesel from one of their bulldozers, purchased by the HLMS in Brantford, Ont and shipped to Haiti. Due to fuel shortages, traffic was light, and we got there in just over two hours.

First ride aboard a C-17 U.S. air force transport

When we got to the airport, we got into a line which was heading into the airport. We were told it was for U.S. citizens only, but Lynette Tobin checked with a U.S “official” packing a rifle (nobody really knew what was going on), and he took us through a door into the airport. Inside, wires were hanging down, and in some areas water was all over the floor. We proceeded to a desk where we handed in our immigration card. Outside was a lineup to the right. Wally asked an “official” if they were accepting Canadians, as well? He said he would check with “the boss.” He came back and said “sorry, no go.” We winced and asked what we were going to do. We were in no man’s land after handing in our immigration card. He just shrugged. Tobin said she would go inside and check with someone. She came out after about five minutes and said that we were to go down to the far left, and that there was a plane leaving at 10 a.m. The fellow who shrugged gave us good counsel it seems. He said “if you go down there don’t hesitate. Look like you really know what you are doing.” We did just that, dodging all manner of stacks, people, and vehicles. Air force transports were lined up one after another.

We went to the far left until we saw a lineup at the second last plane. We lined up, but got worried when absolutely no one else followed. Air force personnel unloaded an army vehicle and then started loading people, and we just walked up the ramp with our luggage. They had seats on the two inside walls of the plane, but there were a dozen extras, including us. We still didn’t know if we would get shunted or not. Then they started setting up some stowed seating and it was finally apparent that we had made it. It has been a long time since I have boarded an airplane without having my luggage scanned and carrying a water bottle.

About an hour into the flight, they started checking for passports. The guy did not flinch when he saw our Canadian seals. Many on the flight had none at all. The young fellow on Wally’s left had no ID whatsoever. He was about 13 years old and had lost his father. I don’t know how he got past the door screening. The noise inside one of those birds is almost deafening. It is like sticking your ear out the car window at about 80 kilometres per hour.

The reception at Orlando Sanford International Airport was amazing, as if they were welcoming heroes. They guided us through all the hoops and boarded us on a bus for Orlando International Airport. We parted with Wally who made his way to his daughter’s house in New Jersey. Lynette and I got to my place at Niagara-on-the-Lake at 1:25 a.m., after 21 hours with no sleep. Surprisingly, I was awake at just after 7 a.m., so rather than having my brain “in gear,” I figured to put my fingers “in gear.”

As the Haitians would say, “Beni sois l’eternal.” Praise be to God,” and thank you, thank you for the prayers.

Howard Bogusat,

Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.

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