The same rains that were spreading cholera across southern Haiti were blocking Andrea Bruce from getting to the story.
The National Geographic photographer had arrived a few weeks after Hurricane Matthew struck the island in October to document a new surge of cholera cases spreading across some of the country’s most remote areas.
When she found the roads to the hardest-hit areas too waterlogged to drive, she set out on foot. As she traveled, she watched the floodwaters sweep away a truck. Nine times during her trek, she had to wade through waist-high rivers with her camera over her head. Once, when a strong current dragged her downstream, two passersby had to grab her and pull her to safety.
When Bruce reached the mountainous epicenter of the cholera crisis, a town called Rendel, she found crumbled homes, some with just a door frame or a single piece of furniture left standing. Residents were scrapping together small shacks from the rubble.
“When I woke up [each day] the first thing I’d hear were the hammers of people trying to rebuild their homes,” she says. “That’s actually a great sound.”
Bruce, who has spent 15 years photographing conflict around the world, says the resilience she encountered in Haiti is unlike anything she’s ever seen. “When you ask what happened, they tell you their story in a calm, matter-of-fact way,” she says. “But every story is one of the most dramatic I’ve ever heard.”
How It Began
Hurricane Matthew battered Haiti with 145 mile an hour winds, halting the slow reconstruction that’s been under way since 2010’s devastating earthquake. Some 175,000 people were displaced in the immediate aftermath of Matthew, as homes, health clinics, and schools were toppled. From the rubble and murky water, a familiar enemy returned: cholera.
The illness, which comes from contaminated food or drink, causes vomiting and severe diarrhea. Without treatment, victims become severely dehydrated and can eventually die. Since the hurricane, there have been more than 8,000 suspected new cases. Since the 2010 earthquake, some 800,000 people have been infected overall, and at least 10,000 killed.
The disease was brought to Haiti by the same people who came to help in the months after the 2010 quake. The source of the outbreak was traced back to Nepalese UN peacekeepers who’d disposed of their sewage in a river near their base. The waste contaminated water supplies and spread rapidly. Before that, the island nation hadn’t seen a case of cholera for 150 years.
“Haiti was the perfect storm for cholera,” says Sean Casey, director of emergency response at the International Medical Corps, who was in Haiti in 2011 when the disease first appeared. The country’s high population density and displacement, coupled with a general lack of sanitation, helped cholera spread quickly.
The More Things Change
Six years later, says Bruce, a strong distrust of the UN still lingers in Haiti. Shooting in a coastal city after Matthew, she came across a statue of a Haitian with his fist in the air and a foot on a pile of skulls of cholera victims. Resting on top of the skulls was a UN peacekeeper’s helmet.
Today, Haiti’s cholera treatment centers are well-stocked, and health workers are delivering vaccines. Yet the “horror movie-esque” disease is still crippling communities, says Bruce. Clinics remain full of vomiting, feverish patients on wooden-slat beds.
That’s because the conditions that first allowed cholera to spread have not changed. In half of the clinics she visited, Bruce says she watched as bodily fluids from patients were mopped up, then taken outside and dumped on the ground 20 feet away. Every time it rains, she says, the waste washes into the river—and cholera spreads all over again.
Despite $13.5 billion donated for reconstruction, few permanent infrastructure projects have been built since 2011. When Casey returned to Haiti with the International Medical Corps after Hurricane Matthew, he found that not only had the country’s sanitation failed to improve, but that many of the facilities set up five years ago to treat the disease had been destroyed in the storm.
“We’re seeing this again today because we haven’t made investments in the infrastructure,” he says.
The Blame Game
Haiti’s cholera victims and their families have spent years pursuing a $40 billion redress lawsuit seeking compensation from the United Nations. Since the 2011 outbreak, the UN has been widely condemned for failing to acknowledge the relief workers’ responsibility in the outbreak. Among the critics are the UN’s own independent human-rights advisers.
The international organization, fearing liability for damages in this and future lawsuits, finally acknowledged its role this August. Yet shortly after the long-overdue acknowledgment, a U.S. court ruled that the UN has immunity from prosecution within the United States.
Speaking at a UN Generally Assembly meeting on December 8, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon issued the organization’s first official apology for not doing enough to halt the disease’s spread. But he stopped short of accepting responsibility. Instead, he pledged half of a $400 million UN cholera-response package to provide direct assistance to victims or families of victims of the disease.
"This has cast a shadow upon the relationship between the United Nations and the people of Haiti,” Ban said. “It is a blemish on the reputation of UN peacekeeping and [on] the organization worldwide."