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Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World

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Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World Cover

 

 

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Six years after the fact, Dr. Paul Edward Farmer reminded me, “We met because of a beheading, of all things.”

It was two weeks before Christmas 1994, in a market town in the central plateau of Haiti, a patch of paved road called Mirebalais. Near the center of town there was a Haitian army outpost-a concrete wall enclosing a weedy parade field, a jail, and a mustard-colored barracks. I was sitting with an American Special Forces captain, named Jon Carroll, on the buildings second-story balcony. Evening was coming on, the towns best hour, when the air changed from hot to balmy and the music from the radios in the rum shops and the horns of the tap-taps passing through town grew loud and bright and the general filth and poverty began to be obscured, the open sewers and the ragged clothing and the looks on the faces of malnourished children and the extended hands of elderly beggars plaintively saying, “Grangou,” which means “hungry” in Creole.

I was in Haiti to report on American soldiers. Twenty thousand of them had been sent to reinstate the countrys democratically elected government, and to strip away power from the military junta that had deposed it and ruled with great cruelty for three years. Captain Carroll had only eight men, and they were temporarily in charge of keeping the peace among 150,000 Haitians, spread across about one thousand square miles of rural Haiti. A seemingly impossible job, and yet, out here in the central plateau, political violence had all but ended. In the past month, there had been only one murder. Then again, it had been spectacularly grisly. A few weeks back, Captain Carrolls men had fished the headless corpse of the assistant mayor of Mirebalais out of the Artibonite River. He was one of the elected officials being restored to power. Suspicion for his murder had fallen on one of the juntas local functionaries, a rural sheriff named Nerva Juste, a frightening figure to most people in the region. Captain Carroll and his men had brought Juste in for questioning, but they hadnt found any physical evidence or witnesses. So they had released him.

The captain was twenty-nine years old, a devout Baptist from Alabama. I liked him. From what Id seen, he and his men had been trying earnestly to make improvements in this piece of Haiti, but Washington, which had decreed that this mission would not include “nation-building,” had given them virtually no tools for that job. On one occasion, the captain had ordered a U.S. Army medevac flight for a pregnant Haitian woman in distress, and his commanders had reprimanded him for his pains. Up on the balcony of the barracks now, Captain Carroll was fuming about his latest frustration when someone said there was an American out at the gate who wanted to see him.

There were five visitors actually, four of them Haitians. They stood in the gathering shadows in front of the barracks, while their American friend came forward. He told Captain Carroll that his name was Paul Farmer, that he was a doctor, and that he worked in a hospital here, some miles north of Mirebalais.

I remember thinking that Captain Carroll and Dr. Farmer made a mismatched pair, and that Farmer suffered in the comparison. The captain stood about six foot two, tanned and muscular. As usual, a wad of snuff enlarged his lower lip. Now and then he turned his head aside and spat. Farmer was about the same age but much more delicate-looking. He had short black hair and a high waist and long thin arms, and his nose came almost to a point. Next to the soldier, he looked skinny and pale, and for all of that he struck me as bold, indeed downright cocky.

He asked the captain if his team had any medical problems. The captain said they had some sick prisoners whom the local hospital had refused to treat. “I ended up buyin the medicine myself.”

Farmer flashed a smile. “Youll spend less time in Purgatory.” Then he asked, “Who cut off the head of the assistant mayor?”

“I dont know for sure,” said the captain.

“Its very hard to live in Haiti and not know who cut off someones head,” said Farmer.

A circuitous argument followed. Farmer made it plain he didnt like the American governments plan for fixing Haitis economy, a plan that would aid business interests but do nothing, in his view, to relieve the suffering of the average Haitian. He clearly believed that the United States had helped to foster the coup-for one thing, by having trained a high official of the junta at the U.S. Armys School of the Americas. Two clear sides existed in Haiti, Farmer said-the forces of repression and the Haitian poor, the vast majority. Farmer was on the side of the poor. But, he told the captain, “it still seems fuzzy which side the American soldiers are on.” Locally, part of the fuzziness came from the fact that the captain had released the hated Nerva Juste.

I sensed that Farmer knew Haiti far better than the captain, and that he was trying to impart some important information. The people in this region were losing confidence in the captain, Farmer seemed to be saying, and this was a serious matter, obviously, for a team of nine soldiers trying to govern 150,000 people.

But the warning wasnt entirely plain, and the captain got a little riled up at Farmers denunciation of the School of the Americas. As for Nerva Juste, he said, “Look, that guy is a bad guy. When I do have him and the evidence, Ill slam him.” He slapped a fist into his hand. “But Im not gonna stoop to the level of these guys and make summary arrests.”

Farmer replied, in effect, that it made no sense for the captain to apply principles of constitutional law in a country that at the moment had no functioning legal system. Juste was a menace and should be locked up.

So they reached a strange impasse. The captain, who described himself as “a redneck,” arguing for due process, and Farmer, who clearly considered himself a champion of human rights, arguing for preventive detention. Eventually, the captain said, “Youd be surprised how many decisions about what I can do here get made in Washington.”

And Farmer said, “I understand youre constrained. Sorry if Ive been haranguing.”

It had grown dark. The two men stood in a square of light from the open barracks door. They shook hands. As the young doctor disappeared into the shadows, I heard him speaking Creole to his Haitian friends.

I stayed with the soldiers for several weeks. I didnt think much about Farmer. In spite of his closing words, I didnt think he understood or cared to sympathize with the captains problems.

Then by chance I ran into him again, on my way home, on the plane to Miami. He was sitting in first-class. He explained that the flight attendants put him there because he often flew this route and on occasion dealt with medical emergencies on board. The attendants let me sit with him for a while. I had dozens of questions about Haiti, including one about the assistant mayors murder. The soldiers thought that Voodoo beliefs conferred a special, weird terror on decapitation. “Does cutting off the victims head have some basis in the history of Voodoo?” I asked.

“It has some basis in the history of brutality,” Farmer answered. He frowned, and then he touched my arm, as if to say that we all ask stupid questions sometimes.

I found out more about him. For one thing, he didnt dislike soldiers. “I grew up in a trailer park, and I know which economic class joins the American military.” He told me, speaking of Captain Carroll, “You meet these twenty-nine-year-old soldiers, and you realize, Come on, theyre not the ones making the bad policies.” He confirmed my impression, that hed visited the captain to warn him. Many of Farmers patients and Haitian friends had complained about the release of Nerva Juste, saying it proved the Americans hadnt really come to help them. Farmer told me he was driving through Mireba- lais and his Haitian friends were teasing him, saying he didnt dare stop and talk to the American soldiers about the murder case, and then the truck got a flat tire right outside the army compound, and he said to his friends, “Aha, you have to listen to messages from angels.”

I got Farmer to tell me a little about his life. He was thirty-five. He had graduated from Harvard Medical School and also had a Ph.D. in anthropology from Harvard. He worked in Boston four months of the year, living in a church rectory in a slum. The rest of the year he worked without pay in Haiti, mainly doctoring peasants who had lost their land to a hydroelectric dam. He had been expelled from Haiti during the time of the junta but had sneaked back to his hospital. “After the payment,” he said, “of an insultingly small bribe.”

I looked for him after the plane landed. We talked some more in a coffee shop, and I nearly missed my connecting flight. A few weeks later, I took him to dinner in Boston, hoping he could help make sense of what I was trying to write about Haiti, which he seemed glad to do. He clarified some of the history for me but left me wondering about him. He had described himself as “a poor peoples doctor,” but he didnt quite fit my preconception of such a person. He clearly liked the fancy restaurant, the heavy cloth napkins, the good bottle of wine. What struck me that evening was how happy he seemed with his life. Obviously, a young man with his advantages could have been doing good works as a doctor while commuting between Boston and a pleasant suburb-not between a room in what I imagined must be a grubby church rectory and the wasteland of central Haiti. The way he talked, it seemed he actually enjoyed living among Haitian peasant farmers. At one point, speaking about medicine, he said, “I dont know why everybody isnt excited by it.” He smiled at me, and his face turned bright, not red so much as glowing, a luminescent smile. It affected me quite strongly, like a welcome gladly given, one you didnt have to earn.

But after our dinner I drifted out of touch with him, mainly, I now think, because he also disturbed me. Writing my article about Haiti, I came to share the pessimism of the soldiers Id stayed with. “I think we should have left Haiti to itself,” one of Captain Carrolls men had said to me. “Does it really matter whos in power? Theyre still gonna have the rich and the poor and no one in between. I dont know what we hope to accomplish. Were still going to have a shitload of Haitians in boats wanting to go to America. But, I guess its best not even to try and figure it out.” The soldiers had come to Haiti and lifted a terror and restored a government, and then theyd left and the country was just about as poor and broken-down as when they had arrived. They had done their best, I thought. They were worldly and tough. They wouldnt cry about things beyond their control.

I felt as though, in Farmer, Id been offered another way of thinking about a place like Haiti. But his way would be hard to share, because it implied such an extreme definition of a term like “doing ones best.”

The world is full of miserable places. One way of living comfortably is not to think about them or, when you do, to send money. Over the next five years, I mailed some small sums to the charity that supported Farmers hospital in Haiti. He sent back handwritten thank-you notes on each occasion. Once, from a friend of a friend, I heard he was doing something notable in international health, something to do with tuberculosis. I didnt look into the details, though, and I didnt see him again until near the end of 1999. I was the one who made the appointment. He named the place.

Product Details

ISBN:
9780812980554
Author:
Kidder, Tracy
Publisher:
Random House Trade
Author:
Greitens, Eric
Subject:
Humanitarians
Subject:
Medical - Physicians
Subject:
Physicians
Subject:
Human Rights
Subject:
General Biography
Subject:
Military
Subject:
Biography/Medical
Copyright:
Edition Description:
Cloth
Series:
Random House Reader's Circle
Publication Date:
20090831
Binding:
TRADE PAPER
Grade Level:
from 9
Language:
English
Illustrations:
16-page black-and-white insert
Pages:
320
Dimensions:
9 x 6 in 1.18 lb
Age Level:
from 14

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Related Subjects

Biography » Medical
Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » Medical Biographies
Health and Self-Help » Health and Medicine » Politics of Health Care
History and Social Science » Latin America » Haiti
History and Social Science » World History » Caribbean

Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World Used Trade Paper
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Product details 320 pages Random House Trade - English 9780812980554 Reviews:
"Synopsis" by , In an inspiring memoir from one of the world's most elite warriors, Eric Greitens recounts in remarkable detail his time as a Navy SEALand#8212;from the most harrowing encounters and brutal attacks, to the lessons learned from his humanitarian efforts.
"Synopsis" by , THE HEART AND THE FIST shares one manand#8217;s story of extraordinary leadership and service as both a humanitarian and a warrior. In a life lived at the raw edges of the human experience, Greitens has seen what can be accomplished when compassion and courage come together in meaningful service.

As a Rhodes Scholar and Navy SEAL, Greitens worked alongside volunteers who taught art to street children in Bolivia and led US Marines who hunted terrorists in Iraq. Heand#8217;s learned from nuns who fed the destitute in one of Mother Teresaand#8217;s homes for the dying in India, from aid workers who healed orphaned children in Rwanda, and from Navy SEALs who fought in Afghanistan. He excelled at the hardest military training in the world, and today he works with severely wounded and disabled veterans who are rebuilding their lives as community leaders at home.

Greitens offers each of us a new way of thinking about living a meaningful life. We learn that to win any war, even those we wage against ourselves; to create and obtain lasting peace; to save a life; and even, simply to live with purpose requires usand#8212;every one of usand#8212;to be both good and strong.

"Synopsis" by ,

How best to save the worldas saint, soldier, or . . . both?

Like many young idealists, Eric Greitens wanted to make a difference. Throughout college and after, he traveled to the world's trouble spots, working in refugee camps, serving the sick and the poor on four continents, from Gaza to Croatia to Mother Theresa's home in Calcutta, among others. Yet he could not prevent violence or save anyone from becoming a refugee, he could only step in afterward, and try to ease the damage.

So he joined the Navy SEALs, and became one of the world's most elite warriors. In a moving and inspiring, and yet also humble memoir, Eric offers something new in the history of military memoirs: a warrior who wanted to be strong to be good, only to discover that he had to be good to be strong. Throughout his SEAL training and deployments in Kenya, Thailand, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the lessons of his humanitarian work bore fruit. The result is a lesson for us all: The heart and fist together are more powerful than either one alone.

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