Magazine article The Christian Century

Out of the Rubble. Haiti's Long-Term Needs

Magazine article The Christian Century

Out of the Rubble. Haiti's Long-Term Needs

Article excerpt

AFTER HAVING been buried for a week in the rubble of Haiti's January 12 earthquake, Ena Zizi was rescued by the Gophers. As they pulled her dirty and injured body out on a broken piece of plywood salvaged from the rubble and carefully passed her down over three stories of debris to the ground, the 70-year-old woman began singing. Her singing was inarticulate, as she hadn't had any water to drink for seven days. Yet her joy was infectious. The members of the Mexican rescue team who were carrying her began crying. In the shadow of the Roman Catholic cathedral, in this one small corner of Portau-Prince's tortured and grieving landscape, other rescue team members from South Africa and Mexico stopped their digging for a moment and applauded.

Zizi, who was severely dehydrated and had suffered a broken leg and dislocated hip, told an interviewer that she had yelled for help in the hours after the quake, then conversed with a priest who was trapped in the rubble nearby. After two days he grew silent, so she "talked only to God." When the Mexicans' search dogs brought rescuers dose, she sang until they found her.

The Mexicans who saved Zizi's life are known in their home country as Los Topos de Tlatelolco, or the Gophers of Tlatelolco. Tlatelolco was a giant apartment complex in Mexico City that was destroyed by earthquake in 1985. During that disaster, when the Mexican government failed to respond promptly, Tlatelolco residents formed their own rescue brigade and learned on the job. In the years since they have become stars among international rescue teams.

Unlike rescuers who stay on the surface and peel away the debris until they reach the victims, the Gophers have become world-renowned experts at gaining faster access to survivors by tunneling into rubble and propping up makeshift tunnels with debris. It means they put their fives more at risk, but that risk paid off for Ena Zizi.

The Gophers have a lot to teach us. We want to help the people of Haiti in their moment of crisis, but we're often scared of getting caught up in their complicated history and culture. Ena Zizi and others are calling on us to tunnel in.

Despite recent improvements in the country's economy and political culture, including an improved investment climate and reforms of the national police, the earthquake struck a country that is a poster child for vulnerability--Haiti's political, economic and social factors set it up to suffer more when it encounters inevitable natural hazards, in this case an earthquake. Any attempt to help Haiti recover in the long haul without attempting to understand that vulnerability will doom us to merely replicating that same condition; in other words, nothing will change. …

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