Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Work goes on amid turmoil

Cincinnatian in calm Haitian town

By Cliff Radel
The Cincinnati Enquirer

[photo] Dawn Johnson
Civil war can't chase Dawn Johnson from Haiti. The Cincinnati native is too dedicated to her job. And her faith.

For seven years, the 1985 Sycamore High School graduate has helped Haitians dig wells near the town of Deschapelles, 90 miles northwest of Port-au-Prince.

"We are still calm here," Johnson said via e-mail Monday as rebel forces solidified their hold on the northern half of Haiti.

Phone service to the farming community of 2,000 people is spotty in the best of times. Johnson relies on her computer to communicate with the outside world. "People are listening to radios and going about their business," she wrote.

Johnson, 36, has a master's degree in water management and works as assistant director of Hospital Albert Schweitzer's Community Development Division in Deschapelles.

She has not done much work for four days, but not because of the war. It's carnival season in Haiti.

"A carnival band passed through (the hospital's) campus yesterday afternoon, as is their custom at this time of the year," Johnson wrote.

She conducted an 8 a.m. meeting Tuesday to discuss installing pipes for a new water system near the hospital.

After that meeting, workers' thoughts were elsewhere. Tuesday was the last day of carnival. And the weather was beautiful: sunny skies, highs in the upper 80s and lows in the upper 60s.

The hospital, Johnson noted, "is still working, but carefully, with an eye on the situation. We are still able to do field work."

Supply lines have not been cut. The main road to the capital was blocked Tuesday. But alternate routes remained open. The hospital is not running low on medicine or running out of beds.

"We are NOT seeing waves of people with gunshot and machete wounds from armed conflict," she wrote. "We have seen a few more of these injuries than normal."

Johnson has read numerous Internet reports coloring the civil war with the word "bloody."

"Many readers see that term and conclude there are widespread weapons battles with indiscriminant killing going on in all parts of Haiti," she wrote. "The majority of deaths until Saturday seems to have been combatants and targeted leaders, in specific and relatively short skirmishes."

Johnson termed the conflict "a generalized civil war." In places outside of the major cities, like remote, rural Deschapelles, it's business as usual "so long as supplies are getting in."

She knows rebel forces control the northern half of Haiti. On Sunday, the country's second-largest city, Cap-Haitien, fell.

"We are at least six hours driving time from Cap-Haitien," Johnson wrote, "much too far for wounded to get here."

She is well aware the civil war compelled the U.S. government to "strongly urge" American citizens to leave the country. The U.S. State Department will not reveal how many Americans are in Haiti, citing safety concerns. The Associated Press puts the number at 20,000.

Since 1982, that has included hundreds of Cincinnatians. They've visited Haiti to do short-term missionary work.

Dick Taylor, founder and executive director of the Over-the-Rhine-based Foundation of Compassionate American Samaritans has made 30 trips and taken 300 people with him over the last 22 years. These volunteers from the Queen City help build schools and churches.

"We go to Haiti," he said, "because poverty there is pervasive."

Taylor longs "to be there, to feel this civil war." But he's heeding the government's warnings.

Johnson isn't. "I am not leaving Haiti," she declared.

She's staying put for her personal safety, her friends and her Christian faith.

To leave the country, she would have to drive for hours to catch a plane, exposing her to the risk of getting caught in a crossfire between opposing factions. "We do not feel targeted as Americans or foreigners here (in Deschapelles)," she said.

But even if the war comes to the hospital, Johnson feels safe.

"As was my experience in October 1991," when Johnson was a Peace Corps trainee during a Haitian coup d'etat, "the Haitian staff around me have been reassuring me that they will look after me if there is trouble locally. I am careful, but not too concerned for my own safety," she added.

"So many of the Haitians won't let go of the Lord through thick and thin," she wrote. "He won't abandon them, so I keep hanging in with both."


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