Revolution #194, March 7, 2010
Reporter's Journal on the Earthquake
KATASTWÒF—Voices from Haiti
Part 1: "It Has All Fallen Down"
On January 12, 2010 an extremely powerful earthquake struck Haiti—devastating the capital of Port-au-Prince and the nearby cities of Léogâne and Jacmel and killing over 200,000 people. As news of this human disaster spread, hearts throughout the world ached for the Haitian people. Millions donated money, medical aid or food, and many immediately went to Haiti to try and help.
Meanwhile, the U.S. government took control of the airport in Port-au-Prince. And as U.S. soldiers and military supplies came in, shipments of desperately needed aid were turned away or ended up piled up on the tarmac. In the week after the earthquake—as the U.S. actually blocked aid from getting into Haiti—it has been estimated that as many as 25,000 people died each day, as a result of treatable ailments such as bleeding, dehydration, suffocation and infection.
Revolution newspaper had run important articles exposing the history of U.S. domination of Haiti and how this created conditions of intense poverty and lack of infrastructure—direct causes of the huge death toll. There had been exposure of the whole way the U.S. was sabotaging aid deliveries and justifying this in the name of "security concerns."
But we needed to get a deeper picture of what all this really meant for the Haitian masses and how people were looking at and dealing with the situation. So 12 days after the earthquake—the Katastwòf as it is called in Kreyol—a Revolution reporter found himself on a bus from Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince. The following is the first part in a series of excerpts from his journal.
The bus is overwhelmingly Haitian-Americans. I talk to one guy from Brooklyn. His brother was killed in the quake and he is going home to help in any way he can. Another man, Alphonse, tells me: "I came to Haiti because I have two adopted kids. After the quake it took me four days to get through on the phone, to find out if they were okay. During that time, I almost lost my mind! Then when I reached them, my little boy, four years old, got on the phone and said 'Papa, our house fell down and I'm living in the street! I want you to come and pick me up. Come pick me up, Papa!' And I thought right then, 'I have to go to Haiti!' I love those kids!" With quiet anguish he told me: "My kids were not hurt in the quake, but how long can they live in the streets?"
Finally we pull into the bus station in Pétionville (a part of Port-au-Prince on the hill above the heart of the city). At one time this area was considered more prosperous and chic, with a vibrant club and restaurant scene. It had been hit hard by the earthquake but was not as devastated as other areas. The scene at the bus station is crazy—hundreds of people waiting for family, along with drivers offering rides. Alphonse introduces me to Janot, who he says will help me with my mission.
As it turns out, Alphonse had been an occasional reader of the Revolutionary Worker (the former name of Revolution) many years back in the U.S. He knows Janot is a revolutionary-minded activist, and entrusted me to his care on that basis. This was a tremendous stroke of luck, because for the rest of my stay Janot helped me understand the situation in basic terms, taught me the lay of the land and provided me with places (which is to say, loosely organized encampments on side-streets or in yards of damaged buildings) where I could sleep and get some food, water and companionship. He also introduced me to many other people who were a great help and proved to be great friends as well. (So Janot, if you're reading this now, kite-m di lot fwa, "mèsi anpil kamarad!" [let me say once again, "thank you, comrade!"])
Janot and I talked, sitting outside a day-care center that had become home for about 25 people who had come together in the wake of the quake. In days to come I would learn more about the people there and how they had organized the tasks of survival in a truly hellish landscape. But what struck me most then was that the street had been blocked off by cars parked crossways and cinder-blocks, and makeshift awnings strung across much of the street with nylon thread. Beneath, amidst the ruins of their once-neighborhood, under a brilliant Haitian moon, within the brief cool interlude of late night in the tropics, slept over a dozen men women and children. For a moment I allowed myself the illusory thought that maybe things weren't as bad as I thought... But it was not long before I began to confront the stark reality of the situation.
While in Haiti I stayed in two different encampments, both set up by a progressive organization called KASAV. KASAV stands for Kolectiv Ayisyen Solidarite Aksyon Voluntre, and a kasav is a root vegetable that is a staple of the Haitian peasantry. As the name says, these encampments sought to apply principles of collective action for the good of the people. Like everyone in Port-au-Prince, we lived outside and confronted a daily struggle to get food and especially clean water, but the situation in the KASAV areas was much better than in the big shantytowns and tent cities.
Here I was befriended by many people and got to hear their stories in greater depth. Daniel, the leader of the downtown encampment, introduces me to Roger, who volunteered to be my translator. Roger is 25 and had just started college when the quake hit, utterly destroying his school. Initially he saw helping me as a way to improve his English, but coming from his own experience he also had a great hunger to understand what had happened, and why, which made him an invaluable participant beyond just translation, and a wonderful companion as well.
Roger's language skills turned out to be pretty good for someone with little higher education who had never left the country. Mainly this came from books and from practicing whenever he came across a foreigner. But he was also into hip-hop and had a pretty good sense of street language. Sometimes when I was talking to him I would forget I was in Haiti, feeling like I was back in the U.S.
Nine Terrifying Seconds
Roger tells me his own story and thoughts about the Katastwòf:
"It was around 4 p.m. I was sitting in the front of the house with an English book. My sisters were upstairs watching TV. I heard a noise and I began to tremble. Then the whole house shook, very powerfully, and then I didn't have time to call to my sisters, I just ran out of the house. I didn't know what it was exactly, but the houses next door were falling over, one after another. Then I did shout to my sisters; I said 'get out, the house is falling.' We found my father outside too, and then we were all crying. All the neighbors were out in the middle of the street. We didn't know what was going to happen.
"This is so difficult for every Haitian. Now we have nothing, not food, not water, not electricity, clothes or homes...just our faith in God. I have only the clothes on my back. I can't think of anything now but myself and my family. We are sleeping outside, it is getting cold now, but we have no choice. Before this area was very beautiful, beautiful architecture but now it has all fallen down. This is something very heavy to go through, physically, mentally and emotionally. Sometimes it still affects me; sometimes I just start to shake, I can't speak, thinking about people dying..."
Another day I sit down with four guys: Voltaire, a reporter with Radio Metropole; Jacques, a teenager; Daniel and Roger. They paint a vivid picture of not only the quake but also the aftermath. Voltaire says he was at the university when the quake happened:
"There had been a demonstration called to protest the assassination of a well-known progressive professor the day before and I was covering it. I was leaning against a wall and it started shaking. I picked myself up and started to call my girlfriend. Then there was nine seconds of intense shaking, a pause and then more shaking. Houses were crashing down, the wall I had been leaning on partially caved in, trapping some students. Other students rushed to help them and then the whole wall collapsed, trapping them as well.
"It was 4:53 p.m. After the quake the air was filled with dust and debris—cars were crashing into each other as people who were trying to get home were blinded. The Palace radio station went off the air...."
Jacques: "Me and my family just waited in the middle of the street, standing there, thinking that everyone was going to die, but waiting to see what would happen. We stayed there until the next day."
Voltaire: "The day after there was no space to walk, the streets were covered with dead bodies, swollen and rotting, on every street. There was no one to pick them up. It was very terrible. My first thought was that God himself had come down to earth.... I saw a man on his cellphone talking, trying to find out if his wife and two kids were alive. Suddenly he took a gun out of his pocket and put it to his own head; he was about to kill himself. But people came around and argued with him, saying, 'No, what's done is done, we have to go on.' I took the gun from him and gave it to a Haitian policeman....
"Wednesday was awful. Everywhere you go you step on dead bodies. Families are crying out because they lost family members, almost every family. At night we can't sleep. People were trying to move the dead bodies away from their sleeping areas. People were still crying, people still thought it was the return of God, punishment for all their sins. People knelt down and asked for mercy. There were a lot of tears."
Roger: "After the Katastwòf, there was no food, no water, the worst situation. The government did nothing, the international community promised aid but up to now has done nothing. After 15 days the government hasn't done anything. Either you find food for yourself, or you die."
To be continued.
If you like this article, subscribe, donate to and sustain Revolution newspaper.