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Shaken to the core

Last winter's earthquake changed Haiti forever. It also left an indelible mark on four writers who witnessed the disaster and its aftermath.

By Various Writers

‘Before aid came, brave Haitians gathered the dead’
By Marc-Arthur Fils-Aimé

Our cat warned us early in the morning of Jan. 12 of the coming catastrophe. That morning, he refused to eat his food. When I came home from work at about 4:45 p.m., just a few minutes before the earthquake, I found him meowing and stumbling as he walked. The thought that he might be dying went through my mind as the earth began to tremble.

I leaned against a wall for 40 interminable seconds. Then I went outside and realized the extent of what had happened. 

My neighbours began to gather to share accounts of who and what had been lost. Our first reflex was to comfort each other, and then to begin checking with family, friends and co-workers. Getting news was difficult as telephone lines were mostly cut and cellular networks damaged. The building that houses the Karl Lévêque Cultural Institute where I work had fallen. Our program director, Marie-Carmel Laurenceau, was there at the time of the earthquake but managed to get out. 

For the first three days, before the Haitian government spoke to its people and before aid came from other countries, Haitian citizens braved the rubble and the aftershocks to rescue survivors and gather the dead. At first, U.S. soldiers occupied the airport only to facilitate repatriation of their citizens. Only after complaints from France and Venezuela did they allow aid flights from other countries.

Soon, large non-governmental organizations arrived with sophisticated material and large amounts of food that they distributed, often in humiliating ways. Meanwhile, our rural partners sent food into the city even though transportation was difficult. Dominican and Puerto Rican friends were creative in sharing their solidarity, and that touched our hearts.

The first gestures from our overseas partners, including The United Church of Canada, reminded us that small institutions like ours can count on aid that is shared in solidarity, without fanfare, and directed to good places in good time.

Throughout January, our staff visited local and rural partners to discuss a new work plan. Our partners asked us to help them rebuild their community schools and to increase support to existing “economy of solidarity” projects. That work has unfolded as others wasted huge sums on fleets of cars and colossal salaries for people who had suddenly become experts on Haitian catastrophes.

The earthquake was a natural phenomenon that became a social catastrophe with as many as half a million deaths and countless people displaced. Unfortunately, Haitian politicians and some foreign powers have not drawn the lessons that are necessary to bring about a new Haiti.

Marc-Arthur Fils-Aimé is the director of the Karl Lévêque Cultural Institute, a United Church of Canada global partner.

‘I could hear cries for help that I could not answer’
By Willard Metzger

Within an hour of the disaster, throngs of wounded began to arrive. Our hotel was one of the few buildings still standing after the earthquake, and it soon became a makeshift medical clinic. All through the night, in the walled-in courtyard outside the hotel, we ripped bedsheets into bandages, broke furniture into splints and applied watered-down iodine to gaping wounds. 

A feeling of utter helplessness ate away at us. A rumour had circulated that a doctor was staying at the hotel, but that was not the case. We just had some bedsheets and willing hands. With the first light of day, those who had been afraid to move through the night began to arrive at the hotel. I could feel my emotions evaporate as the morning sun lit a sea of faces that either begged silently for attention or stared blankly into the mayhem. Our limited first-aid supplies were quickly exhausted. But the wounded kept coming. 

Beyond the stone wall that surrounded the hotel courtyard, I could hear more cries for help that I could not answer. The wall provided a visual distance, but the sound of weeping still grabbed me. Then, above the wailing, a new sound emerged. The Haitians began a purposeful chant.

“What are they saying?” I asked one of the Haitian hotel staff. “They are praying,” he responded, then paused to interpret for me. “God forgive us,” he repeated in English. I nodded my understanding.

“And then,” he continued, “they say, ‘God, we forgive You.’” I blinked. No nod of understanding. The prayer startled me. It almost sounded sacrilegious. Who are we to forgive God?

I’m not sure what they meant, and I was too stunned and exhausted at the time to ask. But as the prayer worked on my heart, it revealed to me a new understanding of the fallen people that God has created. God’s people have become greedy and selfish — poor stewards of an Earth that can adequately sustain us all. Unjust systems and unequal access to resources meant Haitian buildings crumbled in the earthquake and Haitians lacked the food and medicine to cope with the natural disaster. Innocent children suffered as the result of a fallen humanity. 

“God, we forgive You,” they chanted.

I slumped along the wall and allowed tears to wash my face. The prayer burned into my heart and left its mark on my faith. 

Willard Metzger, director of church relations for World Vision Canada, was in Port-au-Prince with a church group from the Maritimes when the earthquake struck. None of his team was injured.

‘Slowly, life is reborn from the rubble’
By Horlna Pierre

I am 47, the mother of three children, widowed, and employed for the past 25 years by the ecumenical agency of Haitian churches, Service Chrétien d’Haïti. I am one of the survivors of the earthquake of Jan. 12. On that disastrous afternoon, the shadow of death enveloped me, but our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ granted me a chance to begin again. In his infinite goodness, I was given a triple miracle.

First, our office collapsed around my head, and by reflex I took refuge under my desk. That way, I just barely escaped the pieces of concrete that took so many lives.

Second, a small tunnel was left just below the ceiling, and I was able to crawl out over the rubble, ending up under blue sky at the other end of the office. I could have been asphyxiated had I not had that escape route.

Finally, when I emerged on the roof, I was spotted by three youths in the street below, who improvised a ladder. But the distance was too great and the ladder too short. God gave me wings, and I threw myself into the air and landed on the ladder without breaking any bones.

Every survivor of Jan. 12 has a story to tell. So too do those who died, but they cannot tell their stories. They are not anonymous: they had their past, their families. 

All of those who died are mourned. Many bodies were thrown into mass graves, never identified, all social classes mixed together. Death re-established a social balance by bringing together the rich and the poor, the intellectuals and the illiterate.

One truth remains: our capital city was destroyed. But we can rebuild upon these ruins. We must channel this extraordinary mobilization of global support for Haiti.

The time has come for a new country, a new beginning, a new mentality, a new way of doing and acting. It’s now or never for reconstruction. We must invest not only in rebuilding but also in each human person so that every Haitian can stand once again.

Slowly, life is reborn from the rubble. We move from emergency to rehabilitation. May God continue to accompany us. 

As for me, I am alive: this is a special grace. I have no right to flee, to leave my country. I am proud to be among those who have decided to stay and to participate in the rebuilding of Haiti.

Horlna Pierre is the administrator at Service Chrétien d’Haïti, one of the implementing agencies of the ACT (Action by Churches Together) Alliance, of which The United Church of Canada is a member.

‘The woman wanted someone to take her child’
By Catherine Porter

She looked my age, the woman with the red pyjama pants and bare feet. A scar framed one eye. 

She arrived to the lineup of children — many of them fully naked — snaking around a dusty yard in Port-au-Prince’s notorious Cité Soleil. I was there on a Sunday, delivering hot meals to children with some well-to-do Haitians. They called it their Sunday project. For most of them, it was their first time in the slum known for gangs, guns and poverty.

The woman had come for food. She was six months pregnant, she said. It was her third child. And she was only 16.

When I met her, she was holding her sister’s baby and talking to one of the Sunday project co-ordinators, a 21-year-old college student named Cynthia.

Cynthia told me this young woman had given away her first two children and was looking for someone to take her third. She scribbled her number down.

“What will you do for her?” I asked. She replied, “I am going to ask my friends to see if anyone is looking for a baby.”

This happened three months after the earthquake shattered so many lives in Port-au-Prince. It was in a part of the city least affected by the quake. In Cité Soleil, people had lived in makeshift tents and tin huts long before Jan. 12.

But the incident haunted me for weeks — both that someone would give up her child to a complete stranger, and that the complete stranger’s first impulse was to take the child.

What kind of poverty would make both of these things possible?

What will happen to that baby? Will she be sold to a trafficker and whisked across the border to work in a brothel? Will she be given to another family to work as a child slave? Or will she work as a “street rat,” running into traffic to clean dusty cars with dirty rags at red lights? 

While the rest of the city was still striving to rebuild, talking of a “new Haiti,” here was a place of utter hopelessness. There was nothing to pick up and repair. There was nothing worth saving.

When I left the yard, about 50 children had wolfed down spoonfuls of macaroni and cheese. But still the line grew, and Cynthia told me there wasn’t enough food for all of them. 

The woman sat in the doorway of an abandoned building. She wouldn’t eat that day. 

Catherine Porter is a columnist with the Toronto Star.

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