Risk Management in Port-au-Prince: a note of clarification

My blogging buddy Lisa (again at “Notes from Africa”) raises an important point in a comment to yesterday’s post—one, in fact, that helps me realize just how lost I sometimes am inside my own perspective—looking at Haiti from the inside out—(not that I’m a real “insider” by any means).  It’s just that, as the name of this blog suggests (“reinventing the event horizon”) to come to Haiti is, in many ways, to cross a virtual “event horizon.”  Things get twisted here, turned inside out, spit out, inverted, and reinvented!  So I should try untangling a few details for the sake of clarity.

More specifically, Lisa notes how casually I mention someone from security, namely Samuel, not meeting my plane and how that makes me sound like some kind of celebrity. 

Now the fact of the matter is—when Samuel escorts you through the airport you do FEEL like a celebrity—by-passing the lines at immigration and security check points.  However, this perception has more to do with how well Samuel does his job, than anything about my status as a 5” 2’-artist-writer-nobody hoping, sometimes even praying, to get through the chaos, the outer edge of insanity, that IS the Port-au-Prince airport. 

And even more importantly to do with the insanity itself, the degree of danger, the security risks Sara’s NGO cannot afford to take, and the willingness of my partner herself to forgo as much risk as possible where MY safety is concerned.  In other words, the woman loves me.  What more can I say?

But about the risk itself—

Port-au-Prince is a dangerous place.  The risk-management folks at Sara’s NGO, for example, won’t allow her to travel through the traffic, streets still clogged with rubble from the January 12th earthquake, to the airport itself without an armed escort, in addition to a driver.  In fact, any expat working for the organization is NOT allowed to drive outside of Petion-ville—never supposed to drive alone—even in the relative safety of our upscale suburb where President Preval himself lives.  We drive with seatbelts on, windows up, doors locked.  It’s harder to be pulled from a car that way.

To violate these rules would be to face the wrath of Richard, head of security for the organization’s operation in Haiti, the one responsible for the safety of a few ex-pats too many, someone we affectionately refer to as “Papa Bear.”  Not to mention the wrath of Jack at headquarters in Atlanta!  (Jack sometimes reads my blog, so I need to give him the credit he’s due.)

On average—there’s a kidnapping a day in Port-au-Prince—usually of foreigners, often of expats working for NGOs on earthquake reconstruction.  And in fact, a number of these kidnappings actually happen in Petion-ville itself, since most NGOs have set up their operations from this location.  

Though most of Port-au-Prince proper was left in ruins following the earthquake, much of our small suburb was still left standing.  The actual earthquake only measured a magnitude 7.0, but because there’s no building code, to speak of, in Haiti, people take engineering shortcuts to save money and establish shelter without “excess” expense.  These kinds of structures pancake in the face of earthquakes. Remember the earthquake in Chile soon after the one here.  It was a magnitude 8.0, but because of rigidly enforced building codes, the country ultimately suffered far less damage than Haiti did.  

In Petion-ville, however, people have the funds to build safer structures.  These more stable buildings survived the earthquake with far less damage, so it’s in these that NGOs have set up offices to oversee the recovery process.

But about the danger itself—back to the risk of kidnapping—

I should specifically mention an “attempted” but soon failed abduction that took place outside the gym where I work-out most mornings.  In this instance, the Haitian driver was let go because he supposedly “had no money” to pay a ransom, while the “foreigner” (as they’re referred to here) was essentially car-jacked (but soon escaped)—physically unharmed, thank God—though I’m sure emotionally quite unsettled by the event.

Around the same time, the wife of the Petion-ville chief of police was assassinated just yards (meters) from her house and another NGO employee was shot and killed by gunmen while working “in the field”—essentially anywhere outside of Petion-ville where reconstruction is taking place.

The bottom line, actually, is this—

Sara oversees operations, on the ground here in Haiti, for a large NGO that works in almost 100 countries around the world—one that, for legal reasons, is forced to manage risk quite closely—so the security protocol is extensive.

It means that every day I live with two armed guards outside my door—in shifts that rotate every 12 hours.

It means sometimes a security escort at the airport.

Why the airport specifically, you might ask.  Ah—that “outer edge of insanity”—that’s tomorrow’s story to tell—

—“Adventuring at the Port-au-Prince Airport:  Another Event Horizon Redefined.”