Haiti, “mes cousins jamais nés 
hantent les nuits de Duvalier”

Nadia François

Tragic haunting has moved recently to the center of the world stage. Tragic haunting is the haunting of singular, incomprehensible, inexpressible moments, and Haiti is the epicenter of the tragic haunting.

There are the images. Michael Mullady is a 26-year-old photographer, currently in Haiti. He’s been trying to photograph the conditions on the ground: “What I’ve witnessed will be sure to haunt me.” The tragic haunting of the witnesses is in the certainty of the ineffable trace the experience leaves on the soul and on the eye. Part of the tragic haunting is also the recognition that witnessing is a luxury. Haitian women and men don’t have time to witness. They gather. People like Nadia François from Delmas 75, in Port-au-Prince, spend the whole day and much of the night gathering and distributing for the community. Everywhere Haitian survivors are taking very good care of one another and of themselves. Hope rises from the ashes of the fires women make to cook, to clean, to purify. When the quake struck, what articles did the women take? They took pots and buckets. They knew. The work of sustaining leaves little time for witness. That time will come, but not now.

This tragic haunting, though singular, is not the first for Haiti. In November 2007, the Montreal-based band Arcade Fire announced its affiliation and with support for Partners in Health and its Haitian sister organization, Zanmi Lasante. In performance, word, song, and deed, they raised money and support for Zanmi Lasante and raised awareness about the ongoing devastation of Haiti by multinationals, by foreign forces, and especially by the United States. Their song “Haiti’ captures a bit of that:

“Haiti

Haïti, mon pays,
wounded mother I’ll never see.
Ma famille set me free.
Throw my ashes into the sea.

Mes cousins jamais nés
hantent les nuits de Duvalier.
Rien n’arrete nos esprits.
Guns can’t kill what soldiers can’t see.

In the forest we lie hiding,
unmarked graves where flowers grow.
Hear the soldiers angry yelling,
in the river we will go.

Tous les morts-nés forment une armée,
soon we will reclaim the earth.
All the tears and all the bodies
bring about our second birth.

Haïti, never free,
n’aie pas peur de sonner l’alarme.
Tes enfants sont partis,
In those days their blood was still warm”

My unborn cousins haunt the nights of Duvalier.

Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying tells the story of her father, her uncle, herself, her family, including Maxo, her cousin who died last month in the earthquake. Danticat’s Uncle Joseph and cousin Maxo were arrested and sent to Krome Detention Center, outside Miami. Krome: “a place that … all Haitians knew meant nothing less than humiliation and suffering and more often than not a long period of detention before deportation” Uncle Joseph died at Krome. Krome was a death sentence for a man of his age and ill health.

The penultimate chapter of Brother, I’m Dying is “Brother, I’ll See You Soon.” It is the book’s climax and the articulation of the tragic haunting. Uncle Joseph is buried in Queens, New York, not in Haiti. The chapter is framed by two mirror reflections of Haiti’s tragic haunting.

First, Uncle Joseph’s: “Uncle Joseph’s most haunting childhood memory, and the only one he ever described to me in detail, was one of the year 1933, when he was ten years old. The U.S. occupation of Haiti was nearing its final days. Fearing that he might at last be captured by the Americans to work in the labor camps formed to build bridges and roads, my granfather, Granpè Nozial, ordered him never to go down the mountain, away from Beauséjour. Uncle Joseph wasn’t even to accompany his mother, Granmè Lorvana, to the marketplace so that he might never lay eyes on occupying marines or they him. When he left home to fight, Granpè Nozial never told my uncle and his sisters, Tante Ino and Tante Tina, where he was going”

One day, Uncle Joseph had to go down the mountainside to the market. He came upon a group of six or seven white men in dark high boots kicking something on the ground. This is what the ten-year-old saw, what haunted him: “They kept kicking the thing on the ground as though it were a soccer ball, bouncing it to one another with the rounded tips of their boots. Taking small careful steps…, my uncle finally saw what it was: a man’s head. The head was full of black peppercorn hair. Blood was dripping out of the severed neck, forming dusty dark red bubbles in the dirt. Suddenly my uncle realized why Granpè Nozial and Granmè Lorvana wanted him to stay home. Then, as now, the world outside Beauséjour was treacherous indeed.”

The chapter ends with Danticat’s father’s tragic haunting: “My uncle was buried in a cemetery in Queens, New York. His grave sits by an open road, overlooking the streets of Cyprus Hills and the subway tracks above them. During his life, my uncle had clung to his home, determined not to be driven out. He had remained in Bel Air, in part because it was what he knew. But he had also hoped to do some good there. Now he would be exiled finally in death. He would become part of the soil of a country that had not wanted him. This haunted my father more than anything else.”

For Haitians, the tragic haunting is not new. It comes with US Marines and US immigration officers and Haitian dictators. Hope rises from the ashes, from the songs, from unmarked graves, from the memories, from the tears, the bodies, the warm blood. Meanwhile, in Miami, they’re moving prisoners out of Krome to prepare for the “potential influx of Haitian migrants”.

 

(Photo Credit: João Pina / Kameraphoto / New Yorker)

About Dan Moshenberg

Dan Moshenberg is an organizer educator who has worked with various social movements in the United States and South Africa. Find him on Twitter at @danwibg.