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Return to Haiti: Observations, Reflections, Tears

After 25 years, and many experiences, witnessing catastrophe

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In the slide show above, the people of Port-au-Prince struggle, mostly on their own, to revive amid the rubble. Photos by Ellen LeBow and Seth Rolbein

Haiti embedded itself in my life almost 25 years ago.

My first trip there was aboard a small private plane, a twin-engine Cessna that took two days and multiple stops to get from Cape Cod to Port-au-Prince. The final leg was over from the Bahamas, and an hour or so in, thousands of feet up, I leaned forward in panic and grabbed the arm of the plane’s owner.

“Something’s burning, man, what the hell is it?” I yelled.

He smiled. “It’s Haiti,” he said. “You’re smelling Haiti.”

That was 1986. My first reporting from there chronicled the fall from power of Jean Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier. Since then I have been back to witness things large and small, to see the election of Jean Bertrand Aristide, to stand in the wake of flood and hurricane, and also to move through rural Haiti and experience life far from the city. Ellen and I have a godchild in a town called Matenwa, a poor and remote place even by Haitian standards, where Ellen’s work building an artists’ collective has helped create hope and economic opportunity.

Readers may remember those images once popular among psychiatrists (maybe they still are) called Rorschach inkblots. In an abstract blotch, one person sees two bats flying, another sees lovers hugging, another sees a burning building. Haiti, I learned long ago, is a national Rorschach. Where one person sees destitution, another sees unvarnished beauty. Where one sees hopelessness, another finds transcendent humanity. Where some recoil in horror, others are drawn back over and over, often boxing a mixture of fascination and desire to somehow, some way, help.

And now, this.

My main focus in returning days after the earthquake was to chronicle the work of an intriguing team of urban and disaster relief planners and engineers affiliated with Boston University, quickly mobilized to offer the Haitian government help and advice. But Haiti being Haiti, there is much more to say.

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We enter Port-au-Prince at night, after a 12-hour bus ride from Santo Domingo that felt longer, crossing the border at an outpost that could have been a set from No Country for Old Men. It’s impossible to see the extent of damage in the darkness; that’ll wait until morning. We move into the crush and mash of Haitians grabbing suitcases, yelling and gesticulating in a way that is normal here, but in the States would mean imminent violence. A fellow traveler, in Haiti for the first time, motions to the cracked sidewalk. A small cluster of people are bent into a circle, peering intently at one man’s work, a vignette illuminated only by the light of a cell phone. The man is skinning a dead cat, surely for food. I find myself thinking that in Port-au-Prince, a failed city if ever there was one, we could have stumbled on a scene like that long before the earthquake.

***

By morning light, the wreckage looms around us, beyond anything the flat screen can convey. Immediate comparisons rise up. Ground Zero and 9/11? Yes, in terms of devastation, but Ground Zero was one block; you could turn your back and retreat in seconds into sanity, into vibrant Manhattan. Here every street, every turn, brings you face-to-face with another implosion. People are saying that 100,000 are dead (versus 3,000 on 9/11), and that’s just the immediate hit; within the rubble lie many bodies, and a putrid waft makes their presence known. The physical aftershocks are still coming, and with them other aftershocks: infection, disease, starvation. Surely they will claim many more lives. The only apt analogy is a massive bombing — but from the bottom up.

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Late afternoon, in a moment of quiet, Ellen asks, “Did you feel that?” “Yes,” I say, thinking she’s tapping her knee against my leg. “No,” she answers, “that’s an aftershock.”

***

The Haitian government’s point man for the effort to reconstruct and reinvent Port-au-Prince, according to President Rene Preval, is Patrick Delatour. Formally the minister of tourism, member of a powerful, wealthy, and well-connected family (he also happens to be First Lady Elizabeth Preval’s former brother-in-law), Delatour is a gruff but humorous man. Pragmatist but also philosopher, trained in the best American universities, able to joke in multiple languages while speaking the lexicon of planners and politicians, he easily moves from talk about the limitations of cement block construction to musing about the nation’s collective consciousness.

After a few hours of detailed conversation with the Boston University delegation, Delatour drops his jovial persona for a moment. “The loss to the nation has been so massive,” he says, “but of course each of us has our own losses. I’m no exception. My mother and father both are dead.”

The building they were in, like so many in Port-au-Prince, had shaken for 30 seconds and collapsed. Like so many, they lie deep in the rubble, crushed.

A group of Mexican relief workers promised Delatour that they would go in and get the bodies of his parents out. They began to clear the twisted nightmare of cement slab and block, rebar, and remnants of lives destroyed, but at a certain point they had to stop. Too dangerous, they told him.

A group of Irish relief workers came next, and with nationalist pride announced that they would get his parents out. They picked up where the Mexicans left off, but they too came to a point where it was too dangerous. With regret, they stopped.

And then a group of Haitians from the neighborhood, from the streets, came to him. We’ll get your parents out, they told Delatour. A deal was struck for payment, and the Haitians went to work. With bare hands, with tools no more powerful than forks or a small shovel, they found and removed both bodies.

“This, in the end, is how Haiti will rebuild,” says Delatour, and then, with a shrug, he resumes his ministerial persona.

***

Cement block is the scourge of the landscape. Cement slabs slash against one another like jagged icebergs that will never melt. Amazingly, the buildings that withstood the quake best were the oldest of Port-au-Prince’s architecture, ornate wooden gingerbread houses with corrugated zinc roofs, the kind of buildings disdained and demolished by modernity. But the wood flexed, nails creaked loose but not out, zinc shifted but was too light to crush the structure below.

Despite this evidence, no one is talking about returning to the historic forms.

***

Day after day, as we move through the city’s neighborhoods, we see no signs of international relief. The only places where we spot American soldiers are around the embassy, the airport, and a coastal highway far outside the city. On the other hand, Haitian street vendors are back, open-air markets are open, women are selling their wares in makeshift stalls filled with tomatoes and cabbages, cooking oil and carrots. They are doing so without fear of looting or rioting, trying to return to a sense of normalcy, eager for a few dollars. Where is the massive influx of aid? Where are the personnel? And where is the rioting, the lawlessness that CNN seems to suggest is prevalent? Haitians have always policed themselves, looked out for themselves, expecting little or nothing from the government. Now is no different.

Outside of the city, a Haitian friend bangs on the metal wall surrounding a large, open-air bivouac of Canadian soldiers. He does it more to make a point than because he expects anything; he asks whether they will soon distribute food to the hungry in their area. “We only have enough food to feed ourselves,” he is told.

***

At the end of a long day, with the luxury of a car, money in our pockets, and food waiting, we make our way along brutal streets to the Pétionville home of Barbie and James, gracious people who have opened their little oasis to us. Headlights illuminate those huddled on both sides of the road, kerosene lamps creating pools of amber in the pitch black. We pull up to a metal gate, beep, and someone from inside comes to let us in. We enter slowly, carefully, and as the gate closes behind us, I can see that people who have been standing on both sides of the driveway, waiting for us to arrive, can now unroll their blankets on the cement, gather their clan around them, and make ready for bed.

***

Before dinner, our small group holds hands and prays. The prayers are to God, of course, thanking Him for food, for our lives and survival, asking Him for help moving forward, to allow us to become a part of a resurrection that will take much longer than three days. Journalist at heart, I look from face to face rather than bowing my own, and the eternal religious questions, as old as Job, keep interrupting my grace:

How can someone who believes in a God merciful and just, a God you can approach with prayer, a God who looks down from above and intercedes, accept that this very God had reason to create this apocalypse? The suffering all around us — is that not sufficient to doubt His existence?

But I see this too: people are using their faith to pull themselves together and offer each other help. From the streets to the hospitals to the demolished churches, those who believe seem to have more fortitude and more to give.

The mystery of faith.

***

In early morning light, people push and shove onto a bus bound for Santo Domingo. We pass the U.S. Embassy, where a line of Haitians stretches hundreds of yards along sidewalks, parallel to cracked walls, past collapsed buildings. Futility fills the air, people clutching documents and babies, eyes dulled by loss and despair. One man who made it through says that at the front of the line, American troops, Haitian police, and French soldiers argue steadily; no one understands each other, no one understands the proper protocol. The man who made it through, an American citizen returning to rescue two of many relatives, recalls that an American soldier heard his plight and simply said, “If you walk past me, I won’t stop you.” And so he did.

We are stopped at the Dominican border, but only for a few hours, for a shakedown of a few more dollars, and then we are off again.

Arriving in Santo Domingo, the other capital city of this small island, I feel like a diver who has surfaced too quickly and is doubled over by the bends. Cars zoom past functioning traffic lights, a Pizza Hut and a bodega beckon side by side with plenty of food, the streets are wide and smooth, the buildings tall. Along the highway to the hotel we see an amusement park; a single glittering Ferris wheel is better lit than all of Port-au-Prince. The hotel room is luxurious, maybe too much so, because if everything really is connected, then this luxury is not detached from the suffering nearby.

Those are the kinds of thoughts Haiti always conjures, and probably always will. Only now, for a short while, the whole world is confronted with them. That will subside, and the world’s fascination will end — like the aftershocks, the hot shower, and the tears.

Seth Rolbein can be reached at srolbein@bu.edu.

3 Comments

3 Comments on Return to Haiti: Observations, Reflections, Tears

  • Anonymous on 02.08.2010 at 5:31 pm

    Haiti

    Thank you for your perceptiveness, for asking good questions, for your portrayal of the Haitian people as dignified, and the main source of support to each other. We’re inundated with the opposite – violent, rampaging, looting Haitians. What’s criminal is the lack of aid distribution, the underdevelopment, the exploitation of the Haitian people.

  • ibelieveinhaiti on 02.20.2010 at 10:43 am

    Thank you, Seth, for this reportage. It helps to counter the misinformation broadcast by journalists and others who ecidently have not ventured into the streets to see firsthand the Haitian response to the devastation. At a dinner in DC last night someone asked me, ‘But why IS it that with all the aid we’ve given them for so long, (sic) the Haitians haven’t been able to lift themselves out of poverty?’ As you know, attempting the correct answer to that question means going back a long way in history, and fixing some assumptions about aid flows, debt payments and coups d’etats–but also trying to convey Haitians’ resilience and resourcefulness and cohesion. As described in your article. Nothing beats the ring of truth.

  • Anonymous on 02.22.2010 at 5:13 am

    This report provides a much-needed reality check. Misinformation about Haiti, created in part by journalists scared to walk in the streets, continues to influence minds and policies. Recently at a dinner in DC someone asked the loaded question ‘Why, after all the years of billions in aid we’ve given them (sic), haven’t the Haitians done better for themselves?’ Deep breath: while the long response will include an historical run-down on, e.g., Napoleon, the US and the World Bank, and some basic arithmetic on debt reparation, how to convey the Haitian qualities of community ‘esprit’, resourcefulness and faith? With Rolbein’s witness-bearing piece, is how. Pass it on.

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