At the end of April two contingents of soldiers from the BDF Light Engineer Company were deployed as part of a task force to Haiti, to participate in the rebuilding effort along with the Louisiana Army National Guard.
Last week Thursday 7news got a special opportunity to join the thirty light engineers as they completed week three of their four week rotation.
Special correspondent Janelle Chanona flew to Haiti on Thursday morning and was back by Thursday night. Here's her story from that whirlwind visit:
Janelle Chanona Reporting:
Our journey to Haiti begins as we board a United States military aircraft at the Phillip Goldson International Airport.
For much of the three and a half hour flight to the capital city Port-au-Prince, the only view out the window is the wide blue expanse of the Caribbean Sea.
Then suddenly, Haiti's mountainous landscape comes into focus.
Haiti boasts the proud history of being the first republic to be controlled by a black leader following a successful slave revolution in 1804. But the pride of such independence has long since been replaced by the shame of more political violence and corruption, poverty and natural disasters than any other Caribbean nation.
For decades, the United Nations has spearheaded
numerous peacekeeping and poverty relief
initiatives. In 2008 alone, four hurricanes
devastated the impoverished country. When the
earthquake hit on January 12th 2010, it severely
crippled an already struggling state.
In the aftermath, Haiti's friends rushed to render
aid to her more than nine million citizens.
The presence and assistance of international
organizations and military forces has been a
stabilizing force on the island.
For the past month, Belizean soldiers have been
hard at work in Gonaives, the fourth largest city in
Haiti as part of New Horizons 2011.
Military Liaison Officer -
Nugent, Louisiana National Guard
"We got twenty nine Belize Defence Force
personnel that have been working alongside US
forces on those engineering projects."
Along with their Japanese and Columbian
counterparts, the Americans and Belizeans are
constructing two medical clinics, a school building
Brigadier General Dario Tapia, Commander, BDF
"It's a good signal to the country that we
have the will to be able to assist them in a time
of need because it could happen to Haiti today,
tomorrow it could be Belize."
Like many Caribbean countries, there are many
similarities between Belize and Haiti. Even
from the air, beautiful beaches beckon tourists,
market scenes are little more than organized
confusion and a helicopter landing always draws
a crowd. But just beneath the surface lay the
scars. Many important buildings, including the
international airport, are badly damaged but are
still in operation. Tens of thousands live in tent
cities. Bridges traverse dried up rivers. Because
deforestation has claimed the majority of the
forest cover, when the rains do come, flooding
ravages much of the country. The hurricanes
wiped out much of Haiti's agricultural crops. Today
farmers fight the drought to produce banana and
Tens of thousands of Haitians have fled this
reality for greener shores, including Belize. But
what you may not know is that Belize has had a
yearly military presence in Haiti since 1994. That
year, Commander of the BDF, Brigadier General
Dario Tapia, then a young captain, served as a
peacekeeper in Port-Au-Prince.
Brig. Gen. Dario Tapia
"The challenges remain, it hasn't changed.
A lot of people are without jobs, you fly here and
you can see how barren the mountainside is. It has
not changed much. Much has been achieved but
there is much to be done in Haiti."
And as task force commander Colonel Kenneth
Donnelly explains, military missions like New
Horizons are a win-win situation.
Colonel Kenneth Donnelly, Task Commander
"To give soldiers an opportunity to
deploy into an austere training environment and
conduct a training exercise that gives back to the
community- new schools, new medical clinics."
"You came to save us."
And according to residents in the area, the new
facilities are eagerly anticipated.
Guerea , Translator
"He said he didn't have a Government that
support the idea of having a clinic everywhere. He
said thank you for building the project."
While interaction between the locals and the
soldiers has been limited but the Belizeans say the
experience has been overwhelming.
Corporal Freddie Villeda, BDF
"It's heartbreaking because there is real
poverty here. We don't see this much in Belize. So
you feel broken hearted when you come by the
roadside and you see little kids begging for food,
begging for this and that. It's something sad."
"How you deal with that, when you start getting down?"
Corporal Freddie Villeda
"Well, it just gives you more courage, because when I'm on my site,
I work harder because I know that both this
school and this clinic are for them."
Armed with that sort of motivation, the soldiers
are three days ahead of schedule. Commander of
the Light Engineering Company Captain Thomas
Cal says the support back home helps his troops
Captain Thomas Cal
"Those are the wives, the sons, daughters,
parents, the immediate families and extended
families because without their help, we wouldn't
be able to focus here and work hard on the day to day basis."
This mission is Lance Corporal Cynthia Salazar's
second visit to Haiti.
Lance Corporal Cynthia Salazar
"Some of the kids allow me to listen to
the music and bring fruit and mangoes for me to
eat, that's the only thing I have from Haiti. The
mangoes and listen to the music, that's all."
"So which ones are nicer? Belize mango or Haiti
Lance Corporal Cynthia Salazar
"Belize mango. (laughs.)
My own interaction with the children living near
the work site didn't include mangoes but showing
them their pictures on my digital camera was a hit.
Belize's role in the Haitian crisis is small but the big
picture here is that to bring true and meaningful
change to a country with this many challenges will
take cooperation on every scale from everyone
willing to help. From Port-Au-Prince Haiti, I am
Janelle Chanona for 7 News.
That first contingent of soldiers is scheduled to return on the 28th of May, while the second contingent will deploy tomorrow and return on the 25th of June.