In Haiti's chaos, priest risks all to deliver food
Sunday, November 21, 2004
It was not just good to see the Rev. Tom Hagan. It was good to see him alive.
On the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 24, we sat with Sen. Mike DeWine in the study of a magnificent old house in Worthington, minutes before Hagan said Mass on the pillared back porch shaded by century-old trees.
That morning, Hagan had asked congregants at a local parish to throw a little extra in the collection basket for Hands Together, the Haitian relief organization he started in 1996. It provides food, schooling and medical care for thousands of the poorest people on Earth.
DeWine had invited about 75 friends to attend the back-porch Mass and open their wallets for Hagan, whose sleep-deprived routine either has him in Haiti doing work for the poor or in the States raising money so he can go back and continue doing it.
Hagan savored the comfort of the old home, the fancy desserts and the intellects of the guests, his heavy eyes belying the opposite reality of his usual world, the one he had left two days earlier and would return to the next day.
The last time I saw Hagan and DeWine together was in May in Cite Soleil, a Portau-Prince slum of 400,000. Accompanied by a contingent of heavily armed U.S. Marines, Hagan showed DeWine and his wife, Fran, the Hands Together clinic, which treated 18,000 last year; the fooddistribution operation; and the five Becky DeWine School campuses, named for the DeWines' 22-year-old daughter, killed in a 1993 auto accident.
The DeWines stumbled upon Hagan during a brief visit to Haiti in 1998 and, moved by his selflessness, became stalwarts for his mission.
The Marines, who patrolled the slums, dredged garbage-filled canals and kept street gangs at bay, were due to pull out in weeks, to be replaced in July by up to 6,000 U.N. troops. DeWine and Hagan fretted then that if the new troops were passive, lawlessness would reign in the nation of 8 million struggling anew to establish a government.
Their fears have been realized. The thuggish chimeres have re-established their terrorizing control over Cite Soleil, where U.N. troops rarely venture. The gangs have threatened to behead children who go to school, and the Becky DeWine Schools, where 4,000 children learned and received their only hot meal of the day, have been closed for a month.
Several days before relaxing in Worthington, Hagan, who has been threatened at gunpoint by gang members, and a couple of his brave employees ventured into Cite Soleil in a truck loaded with sacks of rice and cooking oil.
''You go in there, and you don't see a soul," Hagan said. ''The people are there, but they're hiding. The markets are closed, the schools are closed, there's not a soul."
The convoy parked outside Fort Dimanche, a now-closed prison where torture once was the norm. In 15 minutes, 1,000 people came from nowhere.
''It really broke your heart," Hagan said. ''They were desperate for food. There was shooting going on, but no one seemed to be stirred by it. We got the food delivered, pulled out, and went back and filled up the truck again. We ended up taking three trucks and a bus filled with food.
''Then we went to a tougher neighborhood, Bellicose. The gangs knew we were coming. We got to a point and there was a group of guys with guns, and they moved aside and let us in. People started running like crazy for the food."
Hagan and his helpers refilled the trucks and bus and went to a third neighborhood.
''Everything was really devastated, and all of a sudden the gang members show up and they all have big guns. We decided there that instead of giving out the food ourselves, we would turn it over to the gang members. We worried that they would keep it for themselves so we stayed and watched, but they gave it out and we told them we'd come back with more. Each time you go in there, you're thinking, 'Oh man, something's going to happen this time.' You're afraid something will trigger trouble."
Hagan has been unable to open the clinic in Cite Soleil, where bodies of people and animals rot on the streets. ''A lot of people are dying," he said.
DeWine, R-Ohio, warned that nothing will change as long as the U.N. troops remain passive.
''Unlike our Marines, the U.N. is not having the impact because they're not doing the community policing, they're not getting out, they're not being assertive, they didn't go in and take control right away."
In a couple of days, Hagan mused as we sat in the study, he would be back in Cite Soleil, handing out food to desperate people, a world away from Worthington.
Joe Hallett is Dispatch senior editor. The e-mail address for Hands Together is firstname.lastname@example.org.