The grim stories from Haiti over the past couple of weeks are even more depressing than the steady drumbeat of bad news we've heard from there all year. Perhaps only genocidal Darfur, perennially shell-shocked Gaza and the West Bank, the complete disaster that is Iraq, or the parts of Sahelian Africa that are dealing with a biblical plague of locusts are comparable in the extent of desperation inflicted on the poor country. See Death Toll in Haiti Floods Rises to 1,650 or many other news stories about Hurricane Jeanne and photos to get a flavour.
True, some of the scenes from Gonaives that have emerged have even managed to make slight inroads into the solipsism of America's media; the dramatic images, of say people fighting for food or UN troops having to fire in the air to prevent looting, provide a more arresting diversion from the more orderly Florida evacuations or political navel-gazing of election season. But only for a few minutes. The media script that prevails is one that doesn't allow us to stare frontally at the abyss that is today's world. If we won't even dig into Abu Ghraib, what appeal can little Haiti have? Like the graffiti on the subway I noted proclaimed: "Buy Something, You Stupid Consumer!" That's really what it's all about in this society.
The Haitian Landscape
Still, Haiti has been a non-stop disaster all year
Floods are particularly devastating in Haiti, the poorest country in the Americas, because it is almost completely deforested, leaving few roots to hold back rushing waters or mudslides. Most of the trees have been chopped down to make charcoal for cooking.
The storm came four months after devastating floods along the southern border of Haiti and neighbouring Dominican Republic. Some 1,700 bodies were recovered and 1,600 more were presumed dead.
Gonaives, the city where Haiti's declaration of independence was signed, also suffered fighting during the rebellion that led to Aristide's ouster and left an estimated 300 dead.
All this in a year supposed to be dedicated to celebrating the 200th anniversary of the country's independence from France. Haiti, the only country to launch a successful rebellion against slavery, was the world's first black republic.
In a sense this week's scenes are much like those of the Mozambiquan floods of 2000 (similarly epochal) and the woman giving birth on treetops and being rescued by helicopter. You can't ignore the human drama of the natural disaster.
Of course, the irony is that the foundation for the disaster has been man-made (albeit taking place slowly over the past century). Over the past few years, geographer, physiologist and MacArthur Foundation 'Genius', Jared Diamond, has been emphasizing the point he first made in Guns, Germs and Steel