SA heroes share stories of Haiti

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Pretoria - Death and destruction has gripped the people of Haiti and for the South African men and women who were part of the heroic rescue efforts in the earthquake hit country, the vivid pictures of devastation will forever remain with them, writes Xoliswa Zulu.

As they tell their stories, one can only hope that by merely sharing their experiences there, they will one day be able to lay their ghosts to rest. Most say nothing could have prepared them for what they saw when they arrived in Haiti or for the stench of decomposing bodies that permeated the air.

Just two weeks after a 7, 0 magnitude earthquake devastated Haiti, it's been reported that over 150 000 people have been killed and the number could possibly rise as rescue efforts continue on a daily basis. Countries from all over the world have pledged support to the devastated nation in an effort to rebuild a country that many called home.

For Bruce Hepburn, who was part of Rescue South Africa's rescue contingent, images of a family who were killed inches from their door while attempting to escape the deadly quake in their home, will remain embedded in his mind.

"We worked long and hard and exposed ourselves to a lot of destruction and trauma," he said.

Hepburn, whose team was initially deployed to the United Nations Compound to search for any live victims, said being in one of the world's poorest nations, was heart wrenching.

"We were also deployed to a church that was badly burned and a convent next to the church, which was also a school for children. It was completely flattened," said Hepburn.

"While trying to find life, the nuns who had made it were right there with us, dressed immaculately and were so serene. They thanked us for helping them. It was a deeply moving experience. They were surrounded by complete destruction, but they remained poised, serene and with their dignity intact," he said.

Hepburn said while they experienced many difficulties, he and his team were proud of the work they did and overcame every challenge that came before them.

"You can't comprehend the complexity of managing a situation like that. All we could do was our best. When you lay down at night and thought back on what you saw, you couldn't help but feel concerned. You knew that people could still be alive but you didn't know how to get to them.

"And when we were out in the field, we were hoping and praying to find people alive. But we gave off our best and did the job that we were there to do," he explained.

For Ekurhuleni Metropolitan Municipality emergency services senior district manager for training, Tshidiso Leotlela, it was heartbreaking to "see what nature can do".

"I've attended many natural disaster hit areas, but nothing could prepare me for what I saw in Haiti. Where ever we were, we smelt the rot of dead people.

"We used masks to shield the smell. The team supported each other everyday and held prayer meetings everyday. You will never understand the destruction if you were not there," he said.

He said although he and his team were confronted with many traumatic experiences, they were deployed to Haiti to help those in distress.

"We found a woman lying on the streets of Port-au-Prince. She had a fema fracture. She had been lying on the streets for three days. She wasn't covered; she was just laying there, out in the open. At that point we knew why we were there. We were there to help people. Haiti was something I had never experienced, something I had never seen before," he said.

He added that while the city is gripped with poverty, it was amazing to see the compassion many of the city's natives had.

"There was a little boy running through the streets of Port-au-Prince without any shoes on. Someone called after him and took off his shoes and gave them to the little boy. That really touched my heart."

And while the people of Haiti try to put the pieces of their lives back together, the South African men and women who have returned home after heroically and selflessly offering their assistance now have to try and get on with normal life. In both cases, difficult tasks.