Haiti: It is ten years since the earthquake. Who cares?

On January 12, 2010, an earthquake devastated parts of Haiti. For a very short while, the world claimed to care. Now it’s ten years later. Haiti has been rocked by mass demonstrations since July 6, 2018. The government has been stopped in its tracks, as well as the economy. Where were the reports from the global media? A country on months long lockdown, and the world by and large sighs, looks the other way, and says, “Haiti. We tried. C’est la vie.” Ce n’est pas la vie, c’est la mort, and we are the merchants of death. UN peacekeepers came, “fathered” and abandoned hundreds of children, left. The rubble remains. Food insecurity deepens. The population of restaveks, of child slaves, has grown incrementally in the past ten yearsThe earthquake death toll is officially 316,000. Who counts the dead we have left in the ten years since?

In today’s The New YorkerEdwidge Danticat writes: “Sorrowful anniversaries also inevitably make us wonder what might have been. What if three hundred and sixteen thousand people—the death count, according to government estimates—had not perished? What might they have contributed to their communities, their country? What if Haiti had actually been `built back better,’ as President Bill Clinton, who served in a triple role as United Nations Special Envoy for Haiti, international co-chair of the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, and one of the two Presidential faces of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, had often promised? What if the $13.5 billion in pledged and donated funds had actually been disbursed and invested in improving the lives of most Haitians, creating genuine paths for a better future? What if more seismic-resistant homes, hospitals, schools, and universities had been built, or rebuilt, to reduce future casualties? What if rural entrepreneurs, women’s organizations, and peasant farmers—who face the brunt of diminishing food production, environmental degradation, deadly hurricanes, and climate change—had been integral players in the reconstruction plans? What if. . . ?”

In today’s Le Nouvelliste, Haiti’s only newspaper, Editor in Chief Frantz Duval wrote: “January 12, 2010 not only recalls the greatest natural disaster to have ever struck Haiti, it is also the date that launched the second decade of the 21st century in our country.” Duval proceeds to characterize the decade as one of Good Samaritans, international aid institutions, and aid adventurers, largely stripping the country and nation of its resources. After describing the theft of past and present and threat to the future, both external and internal, Duval calls on Haitians to choose a future of mutual development based on dignity.

What if … ? What if … this theft is the future? Haitian-American poet Lemelle Moise asked similar questions, years ago, in her collection, Haiti Glass. Here are two poems:

mud mothers

the children of haiti
are not mythological
we are starving
or eating salty cakes
made of clay

the children of haiti
are not mythological
we are starving
or eating salty cakes
made of clay

because in 1804 we felled
our former slave captors
the graceless losers sunk
vindictive yellow
teeth into our forests

what was green is now
dust and everyone knows
trees unleash oxygen
(another humble word
for life)

they took off
with our torn branches
beheaded our future
stuck our breath up on pikes
for all the world to see

we are a living dead example
of what happens to warriors who
in lieu of fighting for white men’s countries
dare to fight
for their own lives

during carnival
we could care less
about our bloated empty bellies
where there are voices
we are dancing

where there is vodou
we are horses
where there are drums
we are possessed
with joy and stubborn jamboree

but when the makeshift
trumpet player
runs out of rhythmic breath
the only sound left is
guts grumbling

and we sigh
to remember
that food
and freedom
are not free

is haiti really free
if our babies die starving?
if we cannot write our names
read our rights keep
our leaders in their seats?

can we be free? really?
if our mothers are mud? if dead
columbus keeps cursing us
and nothing changes
when we curse back

we are a proud resilient people
though we return to dust daily
salt gray clay with hot black tears
savor snot cakes
over suicide

we are hungry
creative people
sip bits of laughter
when we are thirsty
dance despite

this asthma
called debt
congesting
legendarily liberated
lungs”

quaking conversation

i want to talk about haiti.
how the earth had to break
the island’s spine to wake
the world up to her screaming.

how this post-earthquake crisis
is not natural
or supernatural.
i want to talk about disasters.

how men make them
with embargoes, exploitation,
stigma, sabotage, scalding
debt and cold shoulders.

talk centuries
of political corruption
so commonplace
it’s lukewarm, tap.

talk january 1, 1804
and how it shed life.
talk 1937
and how it bled death.

talk 1964.  1986.  1991.  2004.  2008.
how history is the word
that makes today
uneven, possible.

talk new orleans,
palestine, sri lanka,
the bronx and other points
or connection.

talk resilience and miracles.
how haitian elders sing in time
to their grumbling bellies
and stubborn hearts.

how after weeks under the rubble,
a baby is pulled out,
awake, dehydrated, adorable, telling
stories with old-soul eyes.

how many more are still
buried, breathing, praying and waiting?
intact despite the veil of fear and dust
coating their bruised faces?

i want to talk about our irreversible dead.
the artists, the activists, the spiritual leaders,
the family members, the friends, the merchants
the outcasts, the cons.

all of them, my newest ancestors,
all of them, hovering now,
watching our collective response,
keeping score, making bets.

i want to talk about money.
how one man’s recession might be
another man’s unachievable reality.
how unfair that is.

how i see a haitian woman’s face
every time i look down at a hot meal,
slip into my bed, take a sip of water,
show mercy to a mirror.

how if my parents had made different
decisions three decades ago,
it could have been my arm
sticking out of a mass grave

i want to talk about gratitude.
i want to talk about compassion.
i want to talk about respect.
how even the desperate deserve it.

how haitians sometimes greet each other
with the two words “honor”
and “respect.”
how we all should follow suit.

try every time you hear the word “victim,”
you think “honor.”
try every time you hear the tag “john doe,”
you shout “respect!”

because my people have names.
because my people have nerve.
because my people are
your people in disguise

i want to talk about haiti.
i always talk about haiti.
my mouth quaking with her love,
complexity, honor and respect.

come sit, come stand, come
cry with me. talk.
there’s much to say.
walk. much more to do.”

I want to talk about Haiti. I want us to talk about Haiti … and not only on the anniversaries of the 2010 earthquake, but at least then. What if … ?

(Photo Credit: New Yorker / Jeanty Junior Augustin / Reuters)

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)

Haiti, like this woman’s song

Last Sunday, Canada’s Governor General Michaëlle Jean stood before a gathering in Calgary, broke into a song her mother used to sing to her, as a child in Haiti. She sang a song in Creole, and then, in English, said, “It’s a song of hope. Like this woman’s song, rose from the wreckage, that song that traveled over the airwaves to reach us. So I thought, even when we have nothing left, there’s always a song. There’s always music, words and then steps, to bring us back to life, to bring us together and to provide hope.”

You have to hear and see her sing to understand the power of the moment, to feel that moment in which she fuses her mother’s song, her mother’s daughter’s song, and the song of the woman rising from wreckage, songs that bind and songs that bring.

The past two weeks have been filled with many reports, many images, many words, many silences. Images of women emerging from the rubble, ghostlike with the chalk and dust covering their faces and bodies. Pictures of girls, panicked, traumatized, barely emerging from the rubble, from les décombres, from the ruins. The images, the stories, the words are haunting.

For me the hardest part is the living. There have been so many dead here, corpses are so common both on the street and oozing out of the wreckage, that it’s the living who haunt me.”

But what is the quality of the haunting?

Edwidge Danticat’s cousin Maxo died in the earthquake, died as well because the United States refused his asylum appeal.

“When Maxo was a teen-ager, his favorite author was Jean Genet. He read and reread `Les Nègres.’ These lines from the play now haunt me: `Your song was very beautiful, and your sadness does me honor. I’m going to start life in a new world. If I ever return, I’ll tell you what it’s like there. Great black country, I bid thee farewell.’”

Those with experience of Haiti know the intricate and intimate filaments of the tragedy, they know the names, which they must speak and share and weave into something new:

When Robinson and I last toured Cite Soleil in March of 2009, a small girl approached me from out of nowhere, shoving a tiny piece of paper into my hand. Then she ran away. On that paper she had scribbled her name: Adline Verne. It took me some time to understand how powerful it was that she had no concrete expectations and had asked nothing of me. She merely wanted me to know, for future reference, that she existed. Because she opened her hand to extend to me this information, I feel obligated by journalistic responsibility to report it. In Haiti, there are millions of voiceless, nameless people like Adline. Maybe now their voices will be heard.”

The Haiti that haunts cannot be the Haiti of the living dead nor can it be the Haiti of rubble. It must be the Haiti of the living, including the living who have died. It could begin with a song sung by a woman conjuring the woman who was her mother singing that song to the girl she once was, a mother’s song that then forms a chorus with another song, a song sung by a woman emerging from the wreckage, refusing to become one with the wreckage, refusing to become rubble, rising and traveling and reaching, among others, us.