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Saturday, January 23

Reporting from Haiti: no getting comfy in hell

Even in a war zone there's always one hotel that's a haven for correspondents, although they may live with the thought the place could be shelled during their sleep. There is no haven in earthquake-ravaged Haiti, where the angry earth continues to roil. There have been more than 50 aftershocks since the first strike, and several of those have been strong.

Reuters Senior Correspondent for Mexico & Central America, Catherine Bremer, provides an inside look at what it's like to be filing reports from hell. I see from her report that the by-now legendary Hotel Villa Creole ("Hotel Haiti") has a role in her account.

The hotel is charging now, at least for storing gear, which is only fair; the owner couldn't keep letting rooms for free as he did in the first days after the quake. This reminds me I forgot to mention in the Hotel Haiti post that the hotel had also set up a makeshift medical clinic, at least in the first days.

Catherine's account backs up what can be seen by following CNN's coverage of Haiti: many reporters do help Haiti's survivors in personal ways. Then comes the high-wire balancing act of being involved without overly identifying.

I think the latter happened to CNN's Soledad O'Brien. Doubtful she lacks physical courage or stamina but she's the mother of four; she was admittedly blindsided by having to watch orphaned children and babies go without critical medical treatment and suffer for lack of food and water in stifling heat. Then she became involved in a mission to get a group of orphans U.S. visas that ended in their being turned away before even reaching the U.S. embassy's gate.

She didn't lose it on camera. But from her on-camera outburst, once she returned to the CNN studio in the USA and discussed the issue of visas for Haitian orphans, I suspect she had to be yanked from the assignment. It happens, in any event. The journalists who can get involved and still maintain perspective while standing witness to horrific events are a special breed -- first-responder types. Without those types the news of the day would often be unbearable to watch.
Haiti: emotional, logistical roller coaster for media
Catherine Bremer
January 22, 2009, 12:51 PM ET

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - Tents, satellite receivers, laptops and cables cram the garden of a partly collapsed hotel in Haiti where journalists frantically type, shout into satphones, curse when the generator cuts out and run to the poolside each time an aftershock hits.
Hundreds of reporters, photographers and TV crews descended on Haiti after the January 12 earthquake that killed up to 200,000 people in the Western Hemisphere's poorest state.

Many wear the same filthy clothes every day, rinse their underwear during a daily three-minute splash in a shared bathroom and sleep well away from walls because of constant aftershocks. Using the cracked hotel's basement toilets is nerve-wracking.

In downtown Port-au-Prince, another damaged hotel sheltering foreign media has no running water, so journalists lather up in the swimming pool in their underwear.

Others camp out on the runway at the airport, where they can get better Internet connections with big satellite dishes. They live on crackers, peanut butter or army rations, use putrid toilets and get little sleep as military planes thunder about and aid trucks offload boxes of food aid.

"The pool has been a boon for us, we've all been washing in it. Every morning we stand around and do our ablutions -- they just stick a load of chlorine in it each day to clean it," said Sky News correspondent Robert Nisbet at the Oloffson hotel.

The logistical challenges of covering a story in a country whose infrastructure is in ruins come on top of the emotional toll of bearing witness to decaying bodies, orphaned children, casualties with hideous wounds and a sea of hungry refugees.

Many reporters admit to having cried. Most have handed out bandages, antiseptic cream, water, food or cash to earthquake victims and several have intervened to save lives.

One journalist called a military unit and refused to budge from a casualty scene until they came to fly out a boy with a gangrenous leg. Another carried a girl with a serious leg wound down a mountainside to get her to a surgeon.

"Her father was crying and crying. He lost his wife in the quake so the girl was all he had left," the journalist said. "I just couldn't leave her there knowing she would die."


Many of the foreign media who first raced into Haiti after the magnitude-7 quake ended up at the Villa Creole hotel, which, despite having its middle part turned to rubble, has sheltered scores of journalists, aid workers and medics.

Media groups pay for rooms to store gear -- correspondents sleep on the grass, on the roof or in vans but rarely inside -- and outgun each other with flashy Bgan Internet systems, wireless radios, inflatable mattresses and big frame tents.

The hotel's indomitable staff serve up hot meals despite shortages and come round each night with blankets.

Few reporters could sleep the first few nights, lying in the garden haunted by groans and wails from the injured and dying on the other side of the wall.

"We are all just processing so many images and emotions. It's the first time I've covered something where you drive past bodies in the street," said Nisbet. "The first time, everybody in the car was silent for ages. The smell is the worst thing."

Each night photographers sit around the pool editing sobering images on their laptops.

Everyone works until they collapse, but they chug beer too -- and the French journalists conjure up red wine -- to try to wind down from the day's grim scenes.

Haitians pester journalists for water, food and face masks, or offer their services as fixers and drivers. Reporters pay inflated prices, knowing how badly the money is needed.

And there are moments of hilarity. Wednesday morning's strong magnitude-6 aftershock jolted everyone out of their tents at dawn and sent two reporters racing stark naked from their bathrooms to the poolside breakfast area.

Reporters strive to write stories that will draw aid and medics, and try to comfort victims. Workaday items become their most treasured possessions: a notepad, boots, head mask and head torch. One cherishes a tube of apricot scrub to rub her face each night to get rid of the stink and grime from hours of riding a motorbike through scenes of hell.

A coveted pack of chocolate biscuits is given away in an impulsive moment to a pair of hungry orphans. It was worth it to hear them giggle, the first laughter heard in days.

(Editing by Doina Chiacu and Alan Elsner)

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