Jean-Philippe reached over with one hand and turned down the volume of the VHF radio dangling from his belt, and then turned his attention back to the traffic. Two hours in traffic already, and barely out central Port-au-Prince. He jammed his foot down onto the brake pedal as a colorful “tap-tap” careened past, missing the front bumper of the white MSF Land Rover “Defender” by centimeters.
He couldn’t believe it took so long to go anywhere. The road narrowed where a building had collapsed, spilling a mountain of broken concrete and twisted rebar over half of the road, but Jean-Philippe steered the Defender through without slowing, blaring the horn and motioning for pedestrians to get out of the way with his arm. Although there was no discernable boundary or change in landscape, Jean-Philippe knew he was leaving Port-au-Prince itself and entering Cite Soleil – one of the most notoriously dangerous places in all of Haiti – and he had no intention of sitting still in traffic, a lone “blanc” in an unnecessarily expensive vehicle.
He tried not to think about Mary-Anne, but couldn’t stop himself. How had the Sam’s Purse distribution gone? 82nd Airborne should have provided good enough security, but Brazillian MINUSTAH… well, that was another matter…
* * *
Randy struggled to jump from the moving jeep when it slowed to take a corner, but the burly soldier to his right held him fast. “NO!”, the man shouted, gesticulating wildly. “You stay!” Randy struggled again, but the soldiers’ grip only tightened.
His thoughts were racing. Where was Mary-Anne? Was she okay? Had she been able to get into the truck before it left? The last he’d seen of her was a hint of dirty-blonde hair disappearing into the swirling mob as the distribution descended into chaos. Randy pulled the mobile phone from his pocket and dialed Mary-Annes’ number. His relief when the call was answered turned to sheer horror when the voices on the other end were aggressive, male voices shouting in Kreole. His heart stopped. What had happened to Mary-Anne?
Randy pulled the VHF radio from his vest pocket, switched to the open channel for humanitarian operations and screamed into handset: “Help! Somebody please help. Distribution gone violent in Cite Soleil. Humanitarian staff unaccounted for! … Repeat, white female humanitarian staff alone and in danger in Cite Soleil!
* * *
Jean-Philippe stabbed at the power button of the Defenders’ CD player with his right hand, and in the same motion turned up the volume on his VHF radio. The Venega Boyz disintegrated into silence, and the radio squawked: “..repeat, white female humanitarian staff alone and in danger in Cite Soleil!”
Suddenly alert, his mind raced. It could only be Mary-Anne. Blaring the horn once more, Jean-Philippe spun the wheel and pushed the accelerator towards the floor.
* * *
Mary-Annes’ feet felt like lead. She remembered Randys’ advice – “when you go to distributions, be sure to wear shoes you can run in…” – and wished she hadn’t worn her combat boots. Why hadn’t she listened? She knew that Randy wanted her, and she knew that it would never work out for them. He was too… just too simple and basic. She needed someone deeper, more complicated. But right then she would have given anything to see his smile, hear him call her “Mally” (where the hell did that name even come from, anyway?), feel his hand, possessively on the small of her back…
She stumbled again. She could hear the shouts of the young men chasing her. She felt a hand grab for her shoulder, but she shrugged it away. “It’s almost over…”
A horn blared. Loud. She heard the sound of a large engine revving, and then the scrape of tires grinding to a stop on gravel. “Mehhhrreee! Get in the car. NOW!!”
She turned toward the street and Jean-Philippe motioning to her through the open passenger door of a white SUV. Mary-Anne lept into the seat and slammed the door behind her. Jean-Philippe gunned the engine and accelerated down the street and away from the scene. As Mary-Anne fastened her safety-belt she could see in the rear-view mirror the crowd of Haitian men shouting and waving fists in the air after them.
Mary-Anne was about to gush her thanks to Jean-Philippe when he turned to her, his face red with anger. “Idiote! You stupid girl! You could have been killed. Or worse. It was your blind luck that I was here.” He almost spat the words out.
Her blood still thick with adrenaline from her near encounter, Mary-Anne faced him, eyes wide. “How dare you?!?”, she almost screamed. “I am here helping. It’s dangerous work, but someone has to do it. Someone has to get off the logsbase occasionally and actually give food these people.” A wave of righteous indignation swept through her.
What arrogance. What conceit. She longed more than ever to see Randy again.
Jean-Philippe turned the Defender down a sidestreet and continued. “All you little charities are the same…” He said with a sneer. “You come here, you think you can help. But you don’t bother to learn about the country. You don’t even speak the f-king language! You Anglophones. Incroyable! You think that because you are foreign, because you are American, people here will love you. You think all you have to do is show up and give things away. You don’t learn the right ways to do things. You’re naïve to the danger. You are unprofessional. You could have been killed back there…”
The traffic was less now, and the light was fading rapidly. Mary-Anne could see that they were on the outskirts of the city, sort of near the airport. Jean-Philippe was driving her back to the Samaritans’ Purse compound.
Stung by his harsh words, but unsure of how best to respond, Mary-Anne answered from her heart. “Not everyone can be a big and oh so mighty as MSF.” “At least we do a bit more than spend money on big teamhouses, get wasted at expat parties, and take advantage of poor, local women…” She managed a slight sneer of her own. “At least we go to coordination meetings…”
Darkness had fallen, now, and Jean-Philippe stopped the car. “Your compound is just there”, he pointed across the road and about fifty meters ahead. They were alone in the darkness. He leaned towards her and said in a hard, quiet voice:
“Next time I suggest that you stay inside the distribution site and evacuate with the rest of your team when they leave. If your little charity must insist on running distributions in Cite Soleil, then at least do the minimum to ensure your own safety. Your antics will hurt the entire humanitarian community”
Mary-Anne had had enough of his arrogance. She leaned towards him in the dark. “Next time, I suggest that you mind your own business. Our little charity could sure teach you a thing or two about actually caring for the poor”, she said hotly.
In that split nanosecond, Mary-Anne could sense something strange in the tension of the moment. Something unfamiliar, scary and erotic. Her pulse raced, and she could her face flush in the darkness. Without knowing why, she pressed her knees together.
Jean-Philippes’ face was only inches from hers. Without thinking, Mary-Anne reached around, pulled him to her, and kissed him squarely on the mouth. She could feel the stubble of his beard, taste a faint hint of tobacco, smell the musk of his sweat mixed with the dust of the field. She pressed her lips tighter. He did not try to pull away, but returned her kiss. She felt his hand, first on her upper thigh, then on her waist.
Her head swooned. Deep in her loins, Mary-Anne felt a tight, hot ache.
The sun blazed down on the ramshackle assortment of tiny cardboard and corrugated iron shacks. The air reeked of human waste and unwashed human bodies.
“Back up! Back UP!”, Randy shouted angrily, waving his arms at the crowd of Haitians pressing forward and stretching it taut the nylon rope which marked the perimeter of the distribution site.
“Get them back”, he said with force, to the young solider next to him. The soldier replied politely with a southern drawl, “Sir, my major has told me to stay right here and until he tells me to move, I’m going to stay right here. It’s ok for the crowd to reach this point.”
Randy shook his head in disgust. “This is too close. We need a lot more space. Back them the hell up!”
Before the soldier could response he whirled around and went to find Major Keaton. The distribution was already four hours late due to miscommunication and mis-coordination, and they were now at the outer time limit for support from MINUSTAH and the 82nd Airborne. As he walked through the preparations for the distribution he saw Mary-Anne, head tilted back as she laughed at something one of the soldiers was saying. Randy swallowed back a wave of pure jealously. It was already hot and he was sweating and the wave of heat that flowed through him didn’t help. Mary-Anne’s caramel hair lit up in the bright sun and her brown eyes glowed. He could never get over the color of her eyes—brown flecked with gold. Her full lips were parted as she laughed—it was a joyful, youthful sound that seemed to defy the abject poverty of the most notoriously dangerous neighborhood in all of Haiti.
How the hell can I feel jealous at a time like this? We’ve got a distribution to run. But the feeling didn’t go away. It simply added to the tension of the moment.
“Mally, “ he said, touching her lower back possessively, “can you walk back through the line with me?”
She grinned at him. How can she look so beautiful and happy in this craziness? he wondered. A breeze playfully picked up a strand of hair and blew it across her face. Without thinking, Randy brushed his hand across her cheek to carefully place the errant curl behind her ear. “C’mon.”
An unreadable look crossed Mary-Anne’s face, but she followed him, chewing her lower lip silently.
Thousands of people crowded close, kept back by 100 soldiers of the 82nd Airborne and another 100 “Casques Bleus”—the blue helmeted UN Peacekeepers of MINUSTAH-Mission des Nations Unies pour la stabilisation en Haïti. The MINUSTAH troops here were all from BRABAT, the Brazilian Battalion. Randy looked around. No one back home in California would believe they needed 200 soldiers to do a food distribution. He knew people from his church imagined grateful brown or black women linking up obediently, smiling, voices shaking with gratitude. “Bless you my son” they’d say in Kreole as he handed them a sack of wheat or rice or whatever the carb of the month was.
The reality was so different. Soldiers, guns, riots, looting…
And the omnipresent rank stench of human excrement.
Despite the huge crowds kept back by the soldiers, within the distribution itself at least there was a discernable queue. A long line of women that started at the back of the trucks loaded with sacks and wound its way through the depths of Cite Soleil. They had decided only to distribute to women. Women behaved better….usually.
Randy started walking down the line slowly going back into the bowels of Cite Soleil with Mary-Anne while keeping an eye out for Major Keaton. He and Mary-Anne were soon separated as she stopped to smile and talk with the women. He smiled in spite of himself as he heard her say with her thick accent, “Ca va, Mama? Ca va bien?” Her smile more than made up for the lack of words.
As he walked, Randy saw some heavily pregnant women standing in line. They were pressed up against each other, each woman’s front pressed against the back of the next. There were over a thousand women in line who had been there for over five hours and the sun was getting hot. Randy began pulling the pregnant women out of the queue: “Go to the front, sister,” he’d say to each one. The women moved quickly, rushing to the front. However, so many of them were pregnant that Randy had essentially caused a rush of hundreds of women rushing to the front of the line. The rest of the women in the back, seeing the rush forward began to run towards the front, too, to make sure they got their share.
In almost no time the once orderly line disintegrated into a crowd of women, pushing and shoving to get as close to the food trucks as possible. To his horror, Randy saw Mary Anne get pushed and shoved by the upsurge of the crowd. He tried to move towards her but was held back by the heaving throng. “Mary-Anne! Mary-Anne!” he shouted. But his voice was lost in the growing din.
The soldiers “maintaining order” shouted and pushed back, but there weren’t enough of them to meet the wave of Haitian women running forward. Randy saw one woman fall and disappear instantly under the rushing bodies. He couldn’t see Mary-Anne anywhere. Some of the inexperienced soldiers near the front of the line ran back to help, leaving the front of the distribution inadequately protected. Then one of the BRABAT MINUSTAH soliders fired his weapon into the air. Complete pandemonium erupted: the crowd churned. There was shouting. More shots fired – Randy couldn’t tell who was shooting. Then hoards of young men, standing on the periphery of the distribution site watching, rushed up to the trucks and began throwing sacks of food out while men on the sides began moving in waving to their friends to join them.
Randy saw the MINISTAH soldiers firing into the air, and then, to his horror, climb into their vehicles. He heard calls for backup but knew that with the traffic in Port-au-Prince, help would never arrive in time. “Roll out ! Roll out!” bellowed one of the soldiers. A Brazillian MINUSTAH soldier near him grabbed his arm. “MOVE!!” the man shouted, dragging Randy along with him. “Mary-Anne!” shreiked Randy. A jeep bristling with guns, rolled back through the crowd and Randy was shoved into the back.
As he watched the scene grow smaller in the distance Randy was beside himself. He struggled to jump from the moving jeep, but the soldiers held him fast.
* * *
Covering her head with her hands, Mary-Anne crouched down moving as fast as she could diagonal to the flow of people. She had no idea where she was going or how long she had been battling against the press of bodies, but knew that she had to get out of the crowd. After what felt like hours, she made it onto the street. In near panic, she realized she had no idea where she was. Frantically, Mary-Anne searched for her mobile phone, but it must have fallen out during the chaos: she was totally alone in Cite Soleil.
She heard a shout behind her.
Mary-Anne turned and looked and saw a group of Haitian teenagers pointing and running in her direction. Fear gripped her. She began to run. All the years of half marathons back in Kentucky paid off. Mary-Anne increased her pace but a quick glance back showed that the young men were still running.
She reached a large intersection. Directly in front was what looked like a large walled compound. To her left, an open, empty field. To her right, a busy street.
Mary-Anne heard shouting behind her, turned and saw the growing crowd of young Haitian men closing in on her. Only 50 meters. She started running again…
One block… her legs ached and her lungs burned. One more glace over her shoulder – the mob was gaining on her.
Mary-Anne stumbled and almost fell. They were almost on her now…
Jean-Philippe swore under his breath as he slammed his sparkly purple Nokia cell phone on the table. It was the third time this week that food distributions run by other aid NGOs had turned violent in spontaneous tent camps where MSF was working. He knew it was a common occurrence. Big disasters always made even the most stable places insecure. Besides, who could blame people who hadn’t eaten a proper meal in four or five days for getting a little agitated at distribution sites where there clearly was not enough for everyone? But even so, there was a right way and a wrong way to run distributions. And doing it right was not that much harder than doing it wrong. Damned amateurs were making everything harder for everyone.
Jean-Philippe looked up to see a young Haitian woman with large brown eyes and beautiful dimples handing him a document. He reached up and took it.
The young woman gave Jean-Philippe big smile as she turned and left the small, cramped office. “Totally hot”, he thought to himself as he watched her voluptuous backside disappear through the door. He hadn’t been with a woman in – oh – at least six weeks, and was starting to feel “the need.” Just a few more days until R&R, and that would all change.
But even so, ever since… ever since Beirut, things just hadn’t been the same.
No amount of R&R hedonism could change that… no one could compare to her.
Jean-Philippe refocused on the document in his hand.
It was the next days’ food distribution coordination matrix that showed which NGOs would be distributing at which GPS coordinates throughout Port-au-Prince. Also listed was which MINUSTAH contingents would be providing armed security in each sector. Almost without even thinking, Jean-Philippe scanned the printout for Samaritan’s Purse. His finger traced the intersection of row and column:
- Secteur: Cité Soleil
- Sécurité: 82nd Airborne Division
“She should be okay…”, he thought silently. And then immediately reprimanded himself. Why should he care about some silly American girl, or what happened to her?
Jean-Philippe tossed the coordination matrix on his desk and fumbled in his pocket for the pack of Guallouis he always kept there.
Only three cigarettes left. Two to smoke, one to share.
* * *
That evening from the MSF teamhouse car park Jean-Philippe looked out over the sprawl of Port-au-Prince: Carrefour to the south, Cité Soleil to the north, and the Caribbean Sea due west. The sun had almost set, and the sky was deep orange near the horizon, gradating first to steel grey, and then blue-black overhead. Somewhere in the distance he heard what sounded like a shot. Then another. “Pistol, 45 or 9mm”, he instinctively thought to himself.
Rolf, the security officer, would have expounded at great length on the type of weapon capable of making such a sound, probably followed by some wildly unlikely story in which Rolf had been the intended victim of such a weapon but through stealth and stamina had managed to escape. But for Jean-Philippe, knowing that it was simply “a pistol” was enough. For humanitarian aid workers there were basically three types of guns: Large, medium, and small. This was obviously a small one. Small ones were effective to 25 meters, and he was obviously more than 25 meters away. That was all he needed to know.
His thoughts wandered to the next day. Once more, unconsciously, against his will, Jean-Philippe thought of Mary-Anne: would she be at the Samaritan’s Purse distribution in Cité Soleil the next day?
Ahhhh! He cursed himself. Why couldn’t he stop thinking about her? Why??? She was a silly, naïve, American girl who should never have come to Haiti. They were worlds apart. She could never understand what a man like him had been through, the things he’d seen, the things he’d done…
But as much as he tried, Jean-Philippe could not tear the image of petite Mary-Anne brushing a strand of dirty blonde hair from her face in the fading light of the logs base. Her gentle voice, her gait – at once awkward and utterly comely – and her shape, supple and lithe, beneath her dusty T-shirt and cargo pants.
An image of himself clutching her in passionate embrace flashed in him mind. Jean-Philippe felt his temperature rise. His mind reeled. He cursed himself again. He tried to forget.