Twin tragedies on opposite sides of the world are piling misery on people who have seen far more than their share.
In Afghanistan a group of gunmen known for sadistic tyranny rocketed back into power after 20 years as Western and Afghan leaders walked away with a sad shrug. In Haiti yet another earthquake and yet another storm struck a country exceptionally ill-equipped to handle either.
On the face of it, little links the two catastrophes. One can easily be blamed on geopolitics and an unwinnable war, the other on motion in the Earth’s crust and troposphere.
And yet these assaults on the usual suspects are deeply connected. They are unfolding in two nations that, as the planet strains with stressors both natural and willful, sit at the fault lines of everything that the 21st-century world struggles to control.
Once more, some of the world’s least fortunate people have become even less so. And whether the catalyst is war or weather, the suffering in both places is rooted in two all-too-human syndromes: poverty and corruption.
That’s no accident. Both Afghanistan and Haiti have been invaded and occupied by Western powers for great parts of their histories, and both have suffered under corrupt governments propped up by the self-interest of Western nations. The United States, for one, has done both things to both countries.
As much as the West would like to ignore the fact, both countries are victims of power dynamics and unabashed greed that have stacked the cards against them. The fact that neither has a functioning government able to help them in their time of need is a direct consequence of “Great Games” played by other nations for money and influence.
This predicament should sound a warning siren in a world ravaged by extreme weather, viral infection, religious intolerance and political opportunism. Fundamental inequalities in the availability of food, water, medicine and education mean that people unlucky enough to be born outside of privilege have few opportunities to change their place in the world.
Haiti embodies this. Afghanistan, too. The most vulnerable are usually the first to fall, and falling they are.
In Afghanistan — invaded by everyone from the Greeks and the Mongols to the Soviet Union and a US-led NATO operation — they fell across the past half century. They fell when the Soviets came in 1979, when the Taliban first came in 1996, when the U.S.-led coalition displaced them in 2001 and again when they returned this week.
In Haiti — which endured a two-decade U.S. occupation from 1915 and U.S.-backed dictators for most of its history since — they continue to fall under crushing poverty, political chaos and natural disasters, including a devastating 2010 earthquake.
Can these well-carved paths be altered? Is there a chance that people in places like Afghanistan and Haiti can forge a different way forward? Many on the ground doubt it.
In a lifetime of reporting in some of the world’s least favored nations, I have come across hope in the unlikeliest of places: in El Salvador, where three boys took a break from picking through a landfill to wrestle and laugh; in Iraq, where a merchant marine captain dipped in nitric acid for his political opinions dreamed of telling his story in court; in southern Mexico, where a young man sneaking northward hoped to find out why his father had died in a Texas detention center (suicide, he would later learn).
But hope has been especially elusive in these two places, whose new disasters seem to confirm people’s lack of faith that somehow, someday, things might get better.
In Afghanistan in 2002, after the 9/11 attacks and the tectonic shifts they brought to a nation already accustomed to a generation of war, 12-year-old Hamida was picking through rotting vegetables by the roadside to feed her 10-member family.
“Under the Taliban, under the new government, it’s the same,” she whispered, hiding her face behind a mud-caked shawl. “I can’t imagine anything will ever change.”
In Haiti in 1998, on the heels of a hurricane that had devastated large parts of the country, a young man in a squatter camp saw little reason to dream of anything better.
″Every day I wake up and put water on my face. I look in the mirror, and I see nothing,″ said Fritzner Midil, then 24.
At the time, I found Hamida’s resignation and Midil’s despondency hard to bear. Surely, I thought, things can only get better from here.
Two decades later, Haiti has suffered more hurricanes, more earthquakes, and more U.S. intervention. The Taliban have reversed their 2001 defeat, sweeping into Kabul triumphantly this week with a new generation of young militants at their resurgent core and a promise of inclusivity that no one is certain they will keep.
And I wonder what Hamida and Midil think of all this. I wonder whether Hamida went to school, started a family, built a life. And Midil? I wonder what he sees in the mirror today.
Niko Price, a London-based executive producer for AP’s global video service, has reported from 49 countries, including Afghanistan and Haiti. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/NikoPrice.