By the night of our visit to Meille on Oct. 27, at least 303 people had died and 4,722 had been hospitalized. For the second time in a year, Haitian bodies were being piled into mass graves, nine months after the earthquake had claimed a government-estimated 316,000 lives. The most important river in the nation had become an artery of disease, and, as people fled the valley, the infection spread with them to every corner of the country.
As the disease spread, NGOs leapt into action, calling for donations and setting up mobile treatment centers. But the people in the communities did not trust them. Because the clinics would arrive just before families grew ill, many thought the clinics themselves were spreading the disease. Furious men pummeled aid stations with rocks and Molotov cocktails, burning tires and slashing the clinic tents. U.N. soldiers were sent to disperse the crowds.
The day after our story ran, CNN.com posted a follow-up, quoting Pugliese, that claimed all the Nepalese soldiers had tested negative for cholera before taking up their posts.
It took me a day to reach Pugliese. "When were the tests done?" I asked. "How many soldiers were tested? How were the results verified?"
Well, he said -- CNN hadn't gotten it quite right. It wasn't that the soldiers tested negative. It's that none of them tested positive. Because they had never been tested.
This turned out to not be unusual. The Medical Support Manual for United Nations Peacekeeping Operations lists neither diarrhea nor cholera as conditions precluding service. Worse, a standard medical examination has to take place only within three months of deployment, leaving plenty of time to be exposed to the disease.
On Oct. 29 -- 12 days after the first hospitalized death from the disease, and two days after my first story from the base -- protesters marched on the Nepalese installation. "The Nepalese brought this disease to the center of Mirebalais," a student shouted through a megaphone. The crowd chanted: "Like it or not, the U.N. must go." Among the marchers were cousins of Rosemond Lorimé.
The U.N. and its allies went on the defense. The peacekeeping mission had been stung by a series of scandals in Haiti in the six years since it arrived in the wake of a coup, and was resented by many Haitians as an occupying force. But for its faults, MINUSTAH was the vanguard of international aid and relief in Haiti, and a major investment by the world's powers. From 2004 through 2012, the U.N. would spend more than $4.75 billion on mission, about a quarter paid by the United States. The Security Council often advertised the Haiti mission as a positive example of its works. If the U.N. were discovered to have caused the epidemic in Haiti, its credibility would be catastrophically compromised -- Haitian lives destroyed by the very people sent to protect them.
"It's not important right now," one WHO spokesperson said in response to a question I'd posed about the epidemic's cause. It's "not a priority," said another. But if figuring out where an infection comes from isn't critical to containing an epidemic, what is?
Immediately after the protest, the U.N. invited my AP team to take a guided tour of the base. It was Oct. 31, half a month into the epidemic, and the mission wanted the rumors, and our previous reporting, squashed.
Pugliese greeted us at the gate alongside the Nepalese contingent's chief officer. Young soldiers fresh from the Himalayas milled in polyester workout shorts and T-shirts. There was no sign of Commander Dengue.
It was immediately apparent that the soldiers had literally covered up the most incriminating evidence, starting with the smell. They admitted to having undertaken repairs, including replacing the broken PVC pipe from the back of the base and scrubbing a drainage canal that emptied into the river. Yet the repairs had been superficial at best. A series of aboveground pipes that originated at the latrines still ran over the drainage canal, their cracks showing. One pipe was held together with what looked like electrical tape. In the river below, where the canal let out, a soupy brown mixture bubbled along the bank. Flies swarmed over it.