Retired Canadian Forces officer shares views on Haiti

COFFEE WITH WARREN, with Warren Harbeck
Cochrane Eagle, January 27, 2010

Coffee companion Richard Maillet, a lieutenant-colonel in the Canadian Forces, retired in 2007 and moved to Cochrane after 32 years of service in places like Somalia, Zagreb, Kabul and Dubai.

He also served in Haiti.

Back in 1997 he was commanding the Canadian Forces Movement Unit in preparation for closing the Canadian mission there.

Richard responded to last week’s column on the earthquake in Haiti and my comments on the southern port city of Jacmel, logistical hub for Canadian aid efforts. In a long e-mail he shared his personal perspective on the current crisis in that Caribbean country in the light of his memories of a dozen years earlier.

I’ll share some of the highlights here. To read his entire letter, go to the Cochrane Eagle’s website,, where you’ll find it appended to this week’s column.

“I remember Jacmel, its streets that were no more than dirt roads,” he wrote. “I remember the short tropical rain showers that left all the roads with two inches of thick mud. I remember the children barefoot running and splashing, the smiles, the teeth whiter than white, the smiling eyes, but more vivid in my memory was the hope and the ‘joie de vivre.’ My heart cried when I saw the recent images from Jacmel.”

But the images in his memory are conflicted. On one occasion he was part of a convoy delivering donated school furniture to a remote part of the island. Along the way the desolate landscape left a particularly indelible impression.

“Neil Armstrong would have felt at home in this lunar environment,” Richard said. “Haiti is one of the most spectacular ecological disasters that one can think of. Over the years, the population has taken down all of its trees, allowing the topsoil to be blown away into the sea, thus contaminating the sea coast. You can’t develop agriculture nor can you draw sufficient resources from the sea. The most troubling fact of this sad story is that it was totally the result of human activity. It will take more than humanitarian aid to help Haiti get out of its downward spiral.”

As his convoy passed by buildings and social structures that sparkled from a distance but could not bear close inspection, one image gripped him: All the children were decked out in uniforms impeccably washed and ironed. “They go to school every day,” he said, “but because of the lack of qualified teachers, the majority of them will finish their schooling with little knowledge, and more than half will not reach Grade Five.”

Along the way, they stopped at a meagerly equipped dispensary bearing a Red Cross flag to deliver some much-needed medical supplies. “We were greeted by foreign aid workers who were trying to establish a permanent effective facility. Despite their good will and efforts, they could not cope with the flow of people needing assistance. One can only imagine the situation after the earthquake. Again my heart cries, because I know,” Richard said.

And when the convoy finally reached its remote destination to deliver the school furniture, they were welcomed by town officials with great fanfare. But when it came time to unload the trucks, Richard’s local helper disappeared after carrying just one load – he had decided to take a nap on the bench he’d just carted inside.

“Here I was on a hot Saturday afternoon moving furniture in a scorching and humid climate to contribute to the relief of another nation and the person that needed help was sound asleep. This is another face of Haiti.”

This mixed bag of images has given Richard pause, especially in the aftermath of the earthquake.

“Haiti will never be able to get out of its current situation without the assistance of the international community,” he said. But “the Haitians must take some responsibility for the state of their nation.

“Am I hopeful that it will happen? Being an optimist, I would like to think so. Haitians deserve better.

“One day as I was driving back from the port, my jeep broke down in front of one of the worst places on earth. A crowd quickly gathered around me and despite not knowing who I was, they were all trying to help – so much solicitude from all those strangers. My radiator had sprung a leak, and they brought fresh water out of nowhere.

“Instead of just refilling the radiator with the water and driving away, I spent the next few hours chatting with those strangers, trying to understand them better. Without knowing it, they taught me a valuable lesson: Despite the most hopeless poverty, there is always place for compassion.”

Clearly, Haiti and its people hold a special place in Richard’s heart. “I urge people to contribute in the relief effort,” he said. It won’t solve all of Haiti’s problems, “but every bit helps.”

© 2010 Warren Harbeck

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