UCLA History Professor Witnesses Devastation, Says Rural Haiti in Peril

UCLA History Professor Witnesses Devastation, Says Rural Haiti in Peril

History professor Lauren Robin Derby has returned from the border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, where rural villages are feeling the trauma of the Jan. 12 earthquake. "None of the medical aid is getting to them," she says.

Middle-class families in Port-au-Prince were widely affected because they lived in multistory buildings that were made out of concrete prepared with dirt instead of sand, and they just buckled.

By Letisia Marquez for the UCLA Newsroom

THE DEVASTATING HAITIAN earthquake that has killed more than 150,000 people has impacted even the most remote areas of the Caribbean island Haiti shares with the Dominican Republic, according to Lauren Robin Derby, a UCLA history professor who recently returned from the border between the two countries.
Even the smallest rural clinics in the Dominican Republic are treating dozens of Haitian earthquake victims, often without the equipment and medications necessary to treat such serious injuries as broken limbs, she said.
"None of the medical aid is getting to them," said Derby, who spoke this week to a UCLA Latin American studies class about her recent trip to the border area. "I interviewed one man, Carlos Jeune, who pleaded with me to get him out of one of the clinics so he could receive the surgery he needed."
Jeune had a crushed leg.
"They don't have morphine or trauma specialists or any of the medical personnel and medications that we take for granted in the U.S.," she said. "These are small rural clinics that are set up to treat diarrhea and provide maternal care, but they are not prepared for the injuries that are coming out of Haiti."
One makeshift hospital in the Dominican border city of Jimani was performing 60 amputations daily last week, Derby said.
For the past year and a half, Derby has traveled to Bánica in the Dominican Republic, a rural town of 8,000 people, to conduct research on shape-shifter legends, which involve human beings who transform into animals. When she returned last week to continue her research, she didn't expect to find that the earthquake had affected the mountainous area, which is more than five hours from the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince.
"I was really struck by how everyone had lost someone in this tragedy — and even in an area that is so isolated from Port-au-Prince," she said.
Many of the Haitians Derby interviewed in several small hospitals were educated, middle-class refugees who had lost family members, homes and livelihoods and were worried about how they would rebuild their lives.
One Haitian college student she interviewed was just a semester shy of completing his agronomy degree; he was at a Dominican hospital seeking treatment for his uncle, a psychology professor at the Ecole Normal Superior in Port-au-Prince who was giving a lecture when the building collapsed in the earthquake.
"Middle-class families in Port-au-Prince were widely affected because they lived in multistory buildings that were made out of concrete prepared with dirt instead of sand, and they just buckled," Derby said. "I just worry about how these families will rebuild their lives when there is nothing left for them to go back to."
Immediately after the earthquake, the Dominican government sent vehicles to Port-au-Prince to transport victims to various Dominican hospitals; some Haitians also made their own way to the border to stay with relatives.
The spirit of cooperation between the two countries is a bright spot in Dominican–Haitian relations, Derby said. When the Dominican economy crashed in 2003, many Dominicans blamed an estimated 1 million Haitian immigrants for their economic woes; Haitians were beaten and, in some cases, killed.
But Dominican hospitals and families have opened their doors to Haitian earthquake victims, she said, and solidarity organizations have raised hundreds of thousands of pesos for relief supplies.
"Right now, the Dominican government is being amazingly good about allowing Haitians into the country," Derby said.
Still, she worries that the Dominicans, like Americans, might forget about the plight of Haitian earthquake survivors several months from now.
Students have asked Derby what they can do now for Haiti and she's suggested they wait until the critical emergency has passed and reconstruction has commenced. 
"It's going to take years to rebuild," she said. "There will be plenty of opportunities to help Haitian refugees, particularly orphaned children and amputees."
There will be a need to help rebuild schools and the university, which were razed in the earthquake, and to provide educational materials and training until institutions are functional again, Derby said.
"Education is a priority, especially since the country has lost much of its most educated citizenry and there will be a huge brain drain resulting from the capital's devastation," she added.

Published: Wednesday, January 27, 2010