Seeing with one's own eyes the reality behind the numbers of the Haitian tragedy arouses dismay, on the one hand, and indignation along with the urgency to cry out for help, on the other hand. Those who have read the 2020 report on hunger and malnutrition in the world drawn up by the FAO know that 48.2% of the population of Haiti (more than 5,000,000 people, just under half the country's population) suffers from chronic hunger; 21.9% of children under the age of five suffer from stunting, 6.5% of them die. 70% of the population lacks health care, 60% lacks access to electricity, 27% lives below the poverty line... and so on and so forth.
As I land in Port-au-Prince, capital of this devastated nation, I too have in mind these and many other tragic numbers that I read to prepare for a short trip. I left Santo Domingo, and anyone who has made this flight will immediately notice the border between the two countries by the change in the landscape: green in the Dominican Republic and desert in Haiti. And this alone makes you feel uneasy. When the car I’m in begins to cross the city, the spectacle of swarms of children and piles of garbage totally absorbs me: the numbers become faces (which of the twenty or so little ones I've seen won't be celebrating their fifth birthday?). Not even the harsh braking to avoid the countless potholes of the bumpy roads distracts me. At most, I am reminded that we have to maintain a high speed and keep close to the lead car: just yesterday eighteen Protestant missionaries were kidnapped - in one of the many abandoned areas of the country - and there is no need to make stops or take detours.
Kidnapping has become, so I’m told, one of the main sources of income for quite a few young people who have made this activity the only source of income in their lives. There are virtually no job prospects...the most prosperous one is kidnapping. Seventy percent of the population is under the age of 30! The luckiest young people, and the few who don't give up in spite of everything, hope to get their diplomas as soon as possible and fly to the United States: they too claim a piece of the American dream, and it doesn't matter if that means leaving their country, their families, their friends. Haiti seems to have nothing to give to the 65% of its population who is under 25. When it comes to women, their fate is even sadder and full of violence: surviving hunger is not always a harbinger of good news. The exploitation of girls and children is a daily habit.
Some articles about how to flee Haiti are shown to me. To reach the United States, young Haitians must go to nearby Santo Domingo and then take a flight to Chile, the only country in the American continent that does not require a visa. After a few weeks of working to scrape together some money, they set out on foot (yes, on foot!) and begin a journey through all of Central America that can take up to three months. Those who can withstand sea crossings, mountain passes and forest crossings find themselves at last in front of the Rio Grande, which marks the border between Mexico and the United States, and the wall that tries to contain this continuous human tide in every way. These are data I know, but listening to the stories full of anger and disappointment and watching the images of people swept away by the flow of the river waters deliberately raised to "clean" the Rio Grande is quite another thing.
The political and cultural vacuum in this nation - the tragedy of the assassination of the President made the political vacuum even more dramatic - shifts hope outside its borders: every visitor is welcomed and asked for help. Locals stress that here there is no hope for tomorrow at all and the present is unlivable. There are examples - and they illustrate them to me - of NGOs and foreign associations that put in place rehabilitation and development projects. I am moved by some young people from the Community of Sant'Egidio who are committed to helping the children of a slum in the capital to grow up more happily, as far as possible, within the School of Peace. But it is like a drop in the ocean, or rather in the desert of life and hope.
They ask me to speak to the Pope about them, in the conviction that his moral authority can trigger a renewal process in a population that cannot find within itself a structured and fruitful way to deal with the its current situation. I think of Pope Francis' recent address to the Latin American popular movements in which he praised their ability to accompany and make grow a people, and I wonder if that might apply here as well. What I see is resilient people awaiting a new future for their country.
I see the good that some projects do, even in the medium term, projects that, although started by foreign entities, make local realities grow and empower them to become protagonists of their future by offering them a reason to do so, which is an even more precious gift than money and aids.
The cry for help of this young and tormented population resounds ever more powerfully in my head and in my heart: from today it takes the form of a very young mother whose gaze I met in a slum of the capital, or the form of the young bishop of Anse-à-Veau who told me of the terrible disaster caused by an earthquake that struck his city.
The cry for help of a nation cannot go unheeded, especially by Europe, which over the centuries has divided, plundered and finally abandoned this wonderful island. Many people ask me why Italy does not reopen the embassy in Haiti that was closed several years ago. I ask myself how we can return to walk together with this people, abandoning the terrible role of colonizers and assuming the friendly role of fellow travelers. Because, in this narrow world, we can only save ourselves together: us, now advanced in years, and the very young people who stand noisily along the streets all day long, left to their fate. Only together will we be able to save ourselves.