By Lt. Gen. Ken Keen
U.S. Army, Commander, Joint Task Force – Haiti
“Today will be better than yesterday, and tomorrow will be better than today. “ I regularly used these words when asked by the media, “General, how are things going in Haiti?” This was in the days and weeks after the catastrophic earthquake hit this island nation. At the time, it was all the optimism I could muster when faced with a cataclysmic level of destruction coupled with the enormous challenge of saving lives and mitigating suffering. But today, though the statement still applies, I find myself using it less…because I have seen and experienced so much progress since those early dark hours.
Three months have passed since the disaster. As I reflect back on my time here, I am amazed to see the progress that has occurred. But at the same time, I realize that the Government of Haiti and its people still face many challenges.
The light of the world must continue to shine on Haiti.
The international community must remain committed to helping Haiti rise up to build “a new Haiti”, as Haiti’s President Rene Preval has called for. What will the future hold for this Caribbean nation? It will take a collaborative effort. It will take extraordinary leadership from Haitians at every level. It will require the international community, public and private organizations and corporations willing to help Haiti rise up from the rubble.
Haiti’s recovery involves more than just the reconstruction of buildings and the repair of infrastructure; it’s about a commitment to invest in the people of Haiti. Over the past three months, I have travelled to places like Gonaives, Leogane, Jeremie, and Les Cayes. I have met with community leaders, mayors, educators, doctors and hundreds of Haitians from all walks of life who were affected by the earthquake. They all want one thing: a better Haiti. They are tired of the past, tired of struggling to get by. They want to build schools and hospitals. They want jobs so that they can provide for their families. They want to contribute to their nation and they want to make Haiti better.
I am reminded of Father Jean St. Cyr who I first met on January 15 on the slope of the 9-hole golf course at the Petionville Country Club that was transformed into a gathering place for those who lost their homes in the surrounding neighborhood. He had lost everything, but he continued to care for the people – getting medical assistance for the injured, coordinating for food, water and wondering how they would ever survive. Today, he is the acknowledged community leader for more than 50,000 Haitians living in the largest internally displaced person’s camp in Port-au-Prince.
Father Jean St. Cyr is the new generation of Haitian leaders who stepped forward, out of the aftermath of the earthquake, to lead a community left homeless. He represents the hope of Haiti. He has lifted me up by his example of personal courage, boundless energy and selflessness. In the face of adversity, he always had a smile and saw what was possible, not what was impossible.
Many Haitians realize that the catastrophe of January 12 holds opportunity, a glimpse of hope to rebuild Haiti better. When I look at the children’s faces, I see it. It’s in their eyes and smiles. It’s hope. They hope to one day go to school so they can become doctors, engineers and teachers. They have hope that their fathers will find work so that they can provide for their family. They have hope that one day they will live in a house instead of a camp. The children of Haiti have hope because they have not given up. And neither should we.
While the people of Haiti still have hope, we must not abandon them in their time of struggle. We must keep the light shining on them.
As I near the end of my time here in Haiti, I can’t help but look back to that January day when life seemed to stop. I saw death, suffering, pain, sadness and fear. I saw things that I will never forget. Today, I see courage, resiliency, and determination. I see it in the camps and in the markets. I see it in the faces of the vendors selling mangos. I see it in the artists who show off their paintings to passersby. And I see it in Haiti’s leaders, with whom I meet regularly. I see hope all around.
It’s true that recovery and reconstruction will take years; most likely even decades. Whatever the estimate, I leave Haiti with the sense that though the Haitian spirit may have been bruised, it is surely not dead. The Haitian spirit is alive and the world body must help to keep it moving forward. Haiti’s leaders must carry this hope forward and make it a reality. We must not give up the hope—and the determination—to make the Haiti of tomorrow better than the Haiti of yesterday or today.