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Writings on the walls:

Images, stories, haunt amidst the rubble

September 26, 2010
By Kremena Spengler — Staff Writer

NEW ULM - The images and stories haunt us, as Dr. Shanna Bunce, a New Ulm pediatrician, flips through the photos on her laptop screen.

A road winds amidst piles of rubble that still bear small signs of the lives buried underneath - a piece of furniture, a broken pot, a piece of cloth...

Buildings still standing are stamped with signs in green (safe), yellow (retrieve belongings with caution) and red (do not go in).

Article Photos

People at the camp

A "pancaked" office building lies on its belly, the bottom story gone, the top several intact...

Armed with buckets, shovels and wheel barrows, almost like children on the beach, people attack the rubble - a heart-breaking, Sisyphean task...

Writings that look like graffiti - but aren't - cry out from semi-demolished walls.

These walls are makeshift message boards - and the messages - cries of desperation - now feeble traces of people gone - break your heart.

"Help me, emergency," says one.

"Find a doctor..."

"I am starving, send food..."

"If you see so and so, call this number..."

Riotous tropical vegetation erupts from every crack in defiance, as passers-by go about their daily tasks...

A market stall on the side of the road bustles with life...

School children in tidy uniforms trek to school...

A woman washes clothes in a brook, with a pig looking on...

Tents dot the hills in the distance...

A man with a gun stands guard at the gate to a road leading into an open pit where a chemical company used to dump its garbage.

Beyond the gate, an enormous patchwork of tents sprawls in the tropical sun; miles and miles of chantytown...

A small group of men, women and children stand in a "water line" in the glaring heat. They wait for their daily 3 liter (0.8 gallon) allotment - to drink, cook and bathe...

Under a canopy - a "child-friendly place" cleared of garbage and shards of glass - children study and play...

Workers roam around the camp, collecting garbage - under a work-for-cash program that lets them earn money for food.

These are skilled workers - electricians, plumbers, teachers - whose jobs were destroyed when the infrastructure collapsed...

A mother poses with a smiley, beautiful baby against the tents...

In the pharmacy - a table in the deluxe tent that serves as clinic - another group waits to get prescriptions filled - perhaps.

The clinic is a large tent, with four "rooms" sectioned off by plastic walls, two chairs and a small bench...

This is Haiti - devastated by last January's earthquake - a land where the voices of the dead echo from the walls, as the living hustle to survive...

Dr. Bunce is back from the island country, where she spent the second half of June working in the tent clinic.

The refugee camp - a tent city of some 12,000-13,000 people - is run by the Minneapolis-based American Refugee Committee (ARC).

Camps like this - and the more organized, better-equipped tent camps ran by charities such as Oxfam - dot the open spaces in and around Port-au-Prince and the hilly countryside.

Tents are raised in relatives' backyards, in the hills surrounding the city, on any open ground, says Bunce.

Bunce administered mostly basic medical care in the clinic.

From about 8 a.m. to about 5 p.m. she saw children with skin infections, from playing in the dirt; treated scabies and other "superinfections," fevers, pneumonia...

People showed up with cranial abrasions (from clearing rubble with no safety equipment).

There was a typhoid epidemic, some malaria, burns (from cooking on open fires), the occasional broken limb, and of course, trauma...

Everybody is suffering from post-traumatic stress, Bunce says.

It is the very rare family that did not lose someone; those who didn't just had to walk down the street to get water the next day - no further explanation needed.

Bunce struck up a conversation with a teacher, who kept saying, nah, there's no money in teaching, he won't go back to that.

It transpired, in the course of the conversation, that he had lost every single one of his students and most of his colleagues; only four people had walked out of the school alive.

He won't go back to teaching because he can't, said Bunce.

She met a homeless woman still looking for her husband and four children, six months after the quake.

Mental health services are lacking.

Medications - when available - were dispensed from a table in the corner of the tent.

Bunce arrived with two suitcases - her airline allowance - full of the basics - stethoscopes, thermometers, Doppler equipment, anti-bacterial ointment, tooth brushes, toothpaste, soap, gloves, band-aids, burn cream...

Her clothes were in her carry-on bag, which she left behind.

She lived in an ARC house - a dorm - camping out on the dining room floor.

She was driven to the tent camp in an ARC vehicle; it took about an hour to travel the four to five-mile distance along the rutted roads.

Bunce received one meal at the house, otherwise surviving on the high protein bars she had brought.

She also made sure she had bottled water, frozen the night before, to keep her going as the day progressed in the sweltering, humid heat.

She cooled herself with a wet wash rag.

"It is really tiring, sitting in the heat," says Bunce.

After clinic hours, Bunce worked on sorting through boxes of supplies, various reports, and writing a volunteer manual.

Showers were available at the house.

Medical help is needed in Haiti because most local doctors and other medical personnel were killed, as hospitals collapsed.

Bunce worked along with surviving Haitian colleagues and interpreters- and was impressed by their coping skills, teamwork and work ethic.

"They are coping with the whole thing with dignity and grace," said Bunce.

"Haitian on Haitian violence is at a low, and everybody works incredibly hard."

Not everything has been destroyed; for example, some schools, mostly private, are still standing, and school there has resumed.

With monumental piles of rubble to be cleaned, rebuilding is slow, and there are few jobs.

Bureaucracy might be playing some role in slowing the process - but it is also the sheer enormity of the task.

In this tropical region, construction is mostly rebar and concrete, which is especially hard to remove.

Bodies continue to turn up daily.

Photos courtesy of

Dr. Shanna Bunce



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