PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (JTA) — Arele Klein, a volunteer for the ZAKA disaster relief organization in Israel, shares his experiences and thoughts in the following journal from the earthquake zone in Haiti.
Thursday, Jan. 14, 2010, 10 A.M.: Two days after the quake, the phone call comes in from ZAKA Operations Commander Haim Weingarten: “You’ve been selected as a member of ZAKA’s delegation to the earthquake disaster in Haiti. We’re talking about a very difficult incident on the scale of the tsunami. Volunteers should be physically fit, mentally prepared and with experience. Please give your permission and ask for your wife’s approval.”
As a ZAKA volunteer of long standing, I have no hesitation. I give a positive answer on the spot, on the condition that my wife agrees. I go home, tell my wife about the mission and ask for her approval.
“My head says no, my heart says yes,” she says. With that, I receive her blessing.
All members of the delegation arrive at the Home Front Command base for briefings, vaccines and medications against all kinds of diseases that might break out in the disaster area. Only then do I begin to understand what I am about to do. Fear of the unknown begins to creep into my thoughts.
Overnight, aboard the 14-hour flight from Israel to Haiti
It’s a good opportunity to meet new friends from the Israeli delegation, the Home Front Command, rescue specialists, medical professionals, members of the Israel Police Forensic Unit and others. There are a lot of good people with the volunteering spirit who want to help, assist and rescue.
Friday, Jan. 15, erev Shabbat
We land at the destroyed Port-au-Prince airport, and I immediately begin to understand what this is about. Planes carrying aid from around the world land one after the other. I see the collapsed buildings and inhale the acrid smell of decomposing bodies. It’s a smell that is so familiar to us as ZAKA volunteers, but I never encountered it so overwhelmingly.
I find myself, together with the members of the Israeli delegation, on a soccer field — our makeshift base. Amid the turmoil and commotion, a minyan for Shabbat prayers forms. The head of the IDF delegation, Brig. Gen. Shalom Ben Aryeh, joins Rabbi Shaul Ofen and others in prayer. The words of the prayers take on an even deeper significance and meaning: “O King who causes death and restores life.”
We still haven’t managed to unpack the containers, so all that we brought for Shabbat remains packed away. We receive an assignment of two challahs and can only dream of the fish and meat we normally eat on Shabbat. At least our situation is better than that of the other ZAKA delegation that arrived directly from Mexico; they only have canned goods.
The sophisticated field hospital is built overnight, under incredibly difficult conditions. We are ready to begin work.
The ZAKA delegation is assigned to work in the field hospital as paramedics. We are also given responsibility for the deceased. I still haven’t had time to breathe, but word already has spread and a long line of Haitians awaits treatment.
Words cannot describe the pain and sorrow that confront us — such difficult images, so hard to bear. Men, women and children are in various states of injury, from light to critical, many with severed or dangling limbs, all waiting in line quietly. The calm is chilling. There are no cries or screams, just a line of Haitians waiting.
The ZAKA volunteers receive severed organs for burial — hands, feet and other organs — in numbers that are impossible to count. I feel a strong need to put my feelings on hold, to try to work like a robot. But the strategy doesn’t work for long. When no one notices, I move away from the tent and break down, crying for the sorrow and grief that has descended on the people of Haiti. Here are human beings, people just like me, in such a state of sheer helplessness and horror.
Sunday, Jan. 17, 12 P.M.
A Haitian child who appears to be around 10, the same age as my son, arrives at the hospital after being rescued from one of the collapsed buildings, hovering between life and death. His mother muttered words and phrases in a language I can’t understand. But her eyes, streaming with tears, express everything. After 30 minutes attempting to save his life, I inform her that her son died. The intensity of her cries pierces the air with pain.
Like all ZAKA volunteers, we are used to receiving expressions of gratitude from both religious and secular people with phrases such as “Good for you” or “You’re doing holy work.” But there can be no comparison to the extent of the kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God’s name) that the ZAKA delegation is doing here in Haiti.
The public address system in the field hospital never seems to stop in its calls for our presence: “Arele from ZAKA, please report. Sami from ZAKA, please report.” From the commander on down to the individual soldiers, everyone understands the importance of, and praises, the work of the ZAKA volunteers.
We have made such warm and friendly personal connections here. I think to myself, why do we need to fly so far to realize how special the people are in Israel?
Monday, Jan. 18, 4 A.M.
As we attend to a woman in labor with twins, the first baby is still-born. Trying to figure out how to deliver the terrible news to the mother, I am surprised when the monitor jumps to life, showing that the second child is alive.
We cannot count the number of bodies we’re transferring for burial in a mass grave. The human brain cannot absorb the quantity of bodies we’ve seen in these first few days in Haiti. I discover a strange sight at one of the mass graves: Families have a special tune that they sing at the graveside, a song that moves back and forth from song to tears, singing and crying. Who can understand it?
I receive a 4-year-old boy for treatment accompanied by his 16-year-old brother — the only survivors in the family still buried beneath the rubble of their home. Again the scene repeats itself: There was nothing to do but pronounce the 4-year-old child dead. When I announce the painful news, his brother cries out in anguish and, in total despair, begins running toward the mountains. He does not want to receive his brother’s body.
We continue to receive the injured, who wait patiently in line for treatment. We work like machines, but the line only seems to get longer. But who can stop at the sight of people so desperate for help?
(Arele Klein, 39, a married father of two, has volunteered with ZAKA for 16 years. Haiti is his first international assignment.)