By Pooja Bhatia
After centuries of turmoil and neglect, Haiti’s spirit of determination and resilience continues to offer glimmers of hope amid the wreckage of the nation’s most devastating day.
Having lived in Haiti for two and a half years, my Kreyol is pretty good. But only after the earthquake did I begin to grasp the real meaning of the most rudimentary idioms. Take, for instance, the phrase “si dye vle”, which means “God willing”. Haitians append it as a matter of course to statements about the future – to wit, “N a we pi ta, si dye vle”: “I’ll see you later, God willing.”
I now fully comprehend the understatement with which Haitians respond to inquiries such as “how are you?” You hear “Mwen byen”, “I’m well”, a fair bit, even from those who live in the direst of misery. As often, you hear “Pa pi mal”, which can be translated as “No worse”. Haitians kvetch with subtlety. (A less common answer, but my favourite, is “yon pye, yon dan”, or “one leg, one tooth.”) These days, the most poignant response to my ears is “Mwen la”: “I’m here.” It’s simple and obvious, and these days it means too much.
I’ve taken to saying it, too, for I’m still kind of marvelling that I’m here, in my genteel neighbourhood of Pacot, where two of the three houses closest to mine are rubble and half the buildings are gone. My neighbours ask me how I am and I respond, “Mwen la”, and then they say “gras a dye”: “grace to God.” “N a we pi ta, si dye vle”, we tell each other.
This contingency, which now resonates so powerfully, has embedded itself into the language because life is precarious here. In my relatively brief time in this country, I have seen Haitians killed or injured with alarming frequency. You could be in a long-haul bus that jackknifes and overturns on a road that barely exists, or, because barely existing roads are the norm, you could be in an overloaded ferry that tips over. In the rainy season, water, mud and rock could wash you and your house away. You could die like my friend’s daughter did in 2008, when her high school – as most, utterly unregulated by the state – crumpled and killed 90 students. Less dramatic deaths are everywhere: diarrhoea from unclean water, untreated infections, malnutrition, childbirth. Most days in a typical Haitian life are fraught with danger. Haiti is hazardous to your health.
Life in Haiti has been precarious for centuries. The nation gestated in the womb of the hemisphere’s most brutal slavery, and it was born of a brutal, if glorious, revolution. Invasions, occupations, coups d’état – 33 at last count – and paramilitaries pervade its history. For decades the Duvaliers’ henchmen, the Tonton Macoutes, terrorised the population, and until a few years ago, the prospect of death by assassination, kidnapping and police brutality still lurked around every corner.
The days and the bodies had to pile up, and some of the piles of houses and schools and hospitals had to clear, before I drifted out of shock and the suspicion that it was all a bad dream. First came euphoria – “How lucky I was!” I thought, “How close to death!” – then some tears, and now, between aftershocks, the realisation that everything has changed.
The earthquake is crucially different than the litany of horrors history has visited upon Haiti. It stands out in its gruesomeness and reach, having claimed or maimed the loved ones of the vast majority of Port-au-Prince residents and turned hundreds of thousands out of their homes.
For days, the bodies were everywhere. No one knew what to do with their dead because the morgues were full and had no electricity anyway. So people left corpses in front of collapsed hospitals, unburied in the cemetery, near major intersections, lined up on football fields. They carried them up mountains to burn or bury. Outside one hospital lay 16 schoolgirls. Their pigtails, festooned with more ribbons than Christmas presents, peeked out from the sheets. In the coming weeks, many more will succumb to untreated wounds and undressed amputations. We’ll never know the numbers of the dead, let alone their names.
In a country deeply divided between a wealthy elite and the poor masses, the earthquake was a great leveller, an equal-opportunity catastrophe that struck rich and poor, pro and anti-government, alike. The hillside shantytowns where hundreds of thousands lived tumbled down slopes, we know, but so did the buildings where power resides: the UN Headquarters, whose seven stories buckled like an accordion; the Hotel Montana, where UN Special Envoy Bill Clinton and other dignitaries have stayed; the National Palace, whose white domes deflated like misbegotten soufflés; the National Cathedral, its midsection eviscerated. Even the Caribbean Market, the purveyor of Veuve Cliquot and Osetra caviar, collapsed, killing dozens of well-nourished shoppers inside.
The quake also razed tertiary cities along the southern peninsula, but because Haiti is over-centralised, the wreckage of Port-au-Prince leaves the entire nation ravaged. Haitians judged the earthquake “the end of Haiti.” Many of the three million residents of Port-au-Prince, at least the ones who survived, have family beyond the capital, and some – homeless, their workplaces obsolete – are thinking of going back. But then again, there’s little for them or their children there. The very word for the countryside, andeyo, literally means “outside”: the provinces lack jobs, acceptable schools or universities, police, electricity, decent roads and potable water. A friend who used to be a driver for a small NGO that no longer exists echoed the consensus: “There’s no life andeyo.”
So unlike in the aftermath of previous disasters, there is no “when this is all over” for anyone, save the dead and the dying and most of the international media, which for the most part descended like fruit flies on a beat-up mango and vanished when all the juicy stuff was gone.
Haitians often spend their life savings or go into debt for funerals that typically cost more than a year of income, so it must have been hard to bid their dead goodbye without any ceremony. But they did it quietly; there were no other options. Evelyne Louis, a 30-year-old housewife I met at Plaza Canapé Vert the day after the quake, was matter-of-fact about taking her sister’s body to the commissariat. The corpse disappeared the next day, but Evelyne had other things to worry about. One of her kids had a broken leg, another a broken arm, and a gravel-flecked abrasion marred her swollen ankle. She said she hadn’t been able to clean it because “we can’t find any doctor, we can’t find any supplies – and we can’t even find water to drink, let alone wash our wounds”. Evelyne looked like hell.
Immediately after the quake, suddenly homeless Haitians began converging on Champs de Mars, the country’s largest plaza, in the diminished shadow of the National Palace. A couple of days later, it looked like a demented fairground. Thousands of people snacked and chatted under a kaleidoscope of tarps held up by branches. Market ladies scrubbed chicken breasts with sour orange to tenderise and disinfect them before frying, keeping one eye on kids using empty soda bottles as soccer balls.
Of course, it wasn’t a fair. Amid all the apparently cheerful activity rose concrete dust and the stench of human waste. Profiteers were charging triple prices for food, water, soft drinks and soap. No one had seen any sign of international aid, though they’d heard it was on the way. “There’s been nothing, nothing, nothing at all since Tuesday,” a plumber calmly told me. No clean water, no food, no care for the gashed, abraded, and limbless.
The Haitian National Police occasionally circled the perimeter, but there were fears of lawlessness and accusations of theft. The night before, someone in the plaza had yelled “Water!!” and sent thousands of people racing away from the sea into the hills, fearing a tsunami. Some of them, like 29-year-old Dany Dorelis, abandoned their suitcases, stuffed with the clothes, documents, and photos she’d rescued from her house, to run two miles. “It was a ploy,” she told me. The suitcases were gone when she returned.
Still, for the most part, and despite scattered reports of gunfire and looting, life in the camps has been calm. Haitians just wait for aid, and in the meantime they get on with their lives. Haitians are such masters of making do that they have a word for it: degaje.
These days everyone must degaje. Displaced women valiantly sweep the plazas and camps. “Filth is a sin,” one of them told me. The homeless share their mattresses, sheets and food, for most are living on rapidly depleting savings. “All these people managed to escape death; they can’t die of starvation now,” said one woman at Champs de Mars, selling her fried potatoes and breadfruit at cost. Three young men camped out at Place St Pierre, filled with evacuees from Petionville’s slums, earned decent wages charging phones off a car battery that, in turn, they had juiced from a generator. The guy who owned the generator got a flat fee.
And while aid has been slow to materialise, Haitians are organising their former neighbourhoods in the new tent cities. Near Croix Desprez, on a hill overlooking downtown and the sea, community leaders have compiled censuses of the displaced, lists of the elderly, pregnant, young and sick, and rosters of the dead. “It’s all in preparation for the distributions, whenever they come,” said a friend who works in the area for a relief organisation. My aid-worker friend was frustrated that, nearly two weeks out, the thousands of people in the neighbourhood hadn’t received food, water or tents.
One of the first things I noticed about Haitians was that they all wanted to leave. Strangers asked me for visas, as though all Americans had an in with the US Embassy. Attractive young Haitians targeted blan (foreigners), for long-term relationships they hoped would lead to marriage and citizenship somewhere else. Most of the economic elite already had US passports or green cards; in 2008, a senator was imprisoned for violating a constitutional provision that all parliamentarians be citizens of Haiti. The ways Haitians attempted to escape testified eloquently to the inhumane conditions here: alighting unseaworthy vessels that frequently capsize; procuring tourist visas disingenuously; heading, often illegally, to the neighbouring Dominican Republic, where they face lives of hard labour and racist scorn.
But for all the suffering in Haiti, there is much grace. I can’t explain the lack of breast-beating, the steady determination to make do and the sheer resilience I’ve seen these weeks any other way. I hear the raucous laughter of my housekeeper, these days sleeping in the park with 18 family members, as she eats out of a washbasin. “Fò nou bay blag” – “We must tell jokes” – she says. I think of the passersby who caution me not to linger too long in front of threatening buildings. I remember the two women I met in Champs de Mars; one had lost a child and the other had lost all her assets. “Pray for us,” they told me. “We’ll be sure to pray for you, too.”
Pooja Bhatia is a writer in Haiti and a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.
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