He gave up the camera.
Hoping against hope that he could some how retrieve the camera, but first wanting to escape the impending doom that was heralded by the rumbling tanks causing the streets to empty, with school children running for home, he headed to the state-run hospital, St. Catherine Laboure, located next to the clinic where he had spent the morning seeing pediatric patients. As he walked toward the hospital, he looked down an alley he was crossing. A gang of men, some carrying machine guns, was sprinting down the alley. John froze, thinking they could easily shoot him or kidnap him, thankful that he didn’t have his camera just then. But they continued on their frantic way, leaving him alone. On a field next to the hospital, John saw UN tanks traversing the wide open space. In the war between the gangs and the UN, the gang members were trying to get to a safe place.
At the hospital John waited for the tanks to pass and then returned to the clinic. Jean Claude, the man who gives John a ride to and from Soleil, and who grew up in Soleil, and one of the clinic guards whispered to John that the gang that controlled his camera was around the corner.
John and Jean Claude walked to where the gang of about 20 was standing. The obvious leader held a hunting rifle with a scope, pointed to the ground. John made a plea for his camera. The gang leader, who John said had the hard eyes of a killer, repeated that the camera had been destroyed. “Why do you have a camera anyway? Are you a journalist?” This line of inquiry was borne of the gang members’ fear that someone would take their pictures and give them to the UN. John persisted, believing that they would not destroy something that was could be so valuable to them. “I’m a doctor. I’ve been coming to Soleil for 25 years. There are medical pictures on the camera. I know people suffer terribly here.”
The gang leader was unmoved and repeated that the camera was broken. In the mean time, someone from behind was tugging on John’s pant leg, asking him if he had any money. In Creole, the gang members were discussing the fact that John would bring a good ransom price if he were kidnapped. Seeing that the discussion about his camera was going nowhere, John put his hand on the gang leader’s shoulder and told him, “You’re the boss.” John and Jean Claude turned around and walked down the street back toward the clinic.
At the clinic, the sisters listened to John’s story and assured him that he would get his camera back. A little while later, two gang members showed up to negotiate a price for the camera. They started out asking $1,000 but eventually settled on $100. John came into the room with the $100 and the gangsters produced the camera. They gave it to John and said, “Get rid of the f***** pictures.” John put on his glasses and tried to figure out how to erase the pictures. As he was doing this, the bandit yelled, impatient, “Give me the film! Give me the film!” As he was saying this, the camera began erasing the pictures and John showed it to him. At this, the gangster became friendly and offered John his hand. As the two gang guys left, John stopped the erasure of the pictures, preserving most that he had taken that day, none which were of any gang members. Shortly after this, John and Jean Claude drove out of Soleil and he returned to our lodging about 2:30 pm.
My reactions to all this? Frustration that John didn’t let the camera go. We love the camera—we’ve probably taken more than 2,000 pictures this trip alone—and it was a wedding gift from John’s brother and sister-in-law and family. But I love John more, and I think he ran an unacceptable risk to get the camera. These gang guys are absolute killers. If a person takes these kinds of risks long enough, it often catches up with him. Amazement and gratitude that John did get the camera back, both it and him unscathed, albeit $100 poorer. John seems to have some kind of karma protecting him, built up by years of coming to Haiti and dedicating so much of his time and talent to caring for very poor people. And finally acceptance that I’m never going to be able to convince John to do what I think is prudent. But, then again, I don’t always know best.
He reports for work again tomorrow in Cité Soleil.