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Desperation in Gonaives

Haitians fight back from the brink

By Karl Penhaul

Editor's Note: In our Behind the Scenes series, correspondents share their experiences in reporting news. Karl Penhaul filed this story while covering relief efforts in Haiti amid the destruction from Tropical Storm Jeanne.

Video correspondent Karl Penhaul
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GONAIVES, Haiti (CNN) -- The city was knee-deep in mud, bodies still lay decomposing on waste ground. Homes were wrecked and lives shattered. But in the week we were in Gonaives, I didn't see anybody cry.

They had no time to cry. The people of Gonaives fought for their lives to survive the flash floods and mudslides of Tropical Storm Jeanne. And every minute since then they've been fighting for their lives just to get enough water to drink and scraps of food to eat.

We stood one afternoon at the mass grave site set aside for the storm victims. We stood so close the dirt under our feet began to crumble and fall into the pit. We stood so close the acrid smell of death made us retch.

A municipal dump truck, usually used for carting the trash, backed up to the 14-foot hole gouged out by a backhoe and tipped out more bodies.

There were no last rites. No last goodbyes. No weeping relatives at the graveside. As the corpses fell into the pit they stirred up a cloud of dirt -- dust to dust -- and that was it. Maybe their loved ones had died too. Or perhaps they were simply battling for a place in line outside an emergency distribution center to get their hands on enough wheat, split peas, rice and oil to get by for the next few days.

Young Argentine soldiers from the United Nations Stabilization Force -- the unit sent in to help restore political stability -- tried their hardest to maintain order at the aid centers. We saw some U.N. officials and aid workers shaking their heads in disbelief, knowing that all the goodwill in the world was just not good enough right now.

Every extra hour it took for aid organizations to coordinate the relief effort meant more acute suffering.

These Haitians were hungry and desperate. Really desperate -- the kind of desperation you see when somebody is fighting back from the brink.

Bodies clawed at one another and pushed and crushed. Eyes stared manically, hands flailed grasping nothing but thin air. Women who had survived the worst storm of their lives now knew they had to trample their neighbors and friends if they hoped to fill their children's bellies with international food aid.

Automatic weapons fired into the air. Clouds of tear gas rose up. The crowds ran and choked. One elderly woman lay vomiting on a pile of debris that was once a home. An Argentine soldier who minutes earlier had been shooting into the air was now administering water.

A French journalist standing nearby, undoubtedly an old hand in Haiti, gave me that Gallic shrug: "Ah, c'est Haiti" ... "It's Haiti"... as if to say, "What do you expect? This is normal."

True, it may be all too familiar. Political upheaval and disasters, both man-made and natural are the stock-in-trade of Haiti, a country CARE International President Peter Bell referred to as "a country as poor as any other on Earth." But we can't just shrug and think the line "C'est Haiti" will explain away this mess.

Unsung heroes

Amid the chaos and the disaster there are stories of true heroes. We came across skinny 17-year-old Mackenson Joseph chatting to a trauma psychologist from Medecins Sans Frontieres in a clinic in downtown Gonaives. We followed him home and he told us how he leapt into the raging floodwaters to save his sister Adeline, a tiny 9 year old with a shy smile and dusty braided hair.

The water and mud was swirling around his neck and he leapt out of the window of his home to save Adeline. It was pitch dark by then. When he reached Adeline, she clutched on to his neck as he grappled with debris and clung on to pieces of houses that still protruded from the swirling floodwaters.

After 30 minutes trying to keep himself and his sister above water, they reached the safety of a rooftop. They stayed there all night watching dead bodies and the wreckage of homes float by.

Such heroic escapades are supposed to be uplifting and give us reason for cheer in the face of disaster. Hope that a brighter future will loom out of the darkness. Not here.

There's no happy ending for our hero Mackenson. His home is partially destroyed, ankle deep in thick mud and sewage.

He says he cried out of sheer fear the night of the storm. Now every night in his dreams he sees those corpses floating by in the floodwaters of his mind.

And every morning when he opens his eyes, a different nightmare unfolds before him: crushing poverty.

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