Revolution #195, March 14, 2010
Reporter's Journal on the Earthquake
KATASTWÒF—Voices from Haiti
Part 2: Life and Death on the Streets of Port-au-Prince
On January 12, 2010 an extremely powerful earthquake struck Haiti—devastating the capital of Port-au-Prince. This Katastwòf, as it is called in Kreyol, killed over 200,000 people. In the week after the earthquake Revolution newspaper ran important articles exposing the whole history of U.S. domination in Haiti, how this created conditions of intense poverty and lack of infrastructure—direct causes of the huge death toll. And we did extensive coverage of the whole way the U.S. was sabotaging aid deliveries and justifying this in the name of "security concerns." (See "The U.S. in Haiti: A Century of Domination and Misery" and "Why So Many People Died in the Earthquake... And Why the U.S. Can Do No Good in Haiti.")
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 we sent a reporter to Haiti 12 days after the earthquake. The following is the second part in a series of pages from his journal. To read the journal entry, part 1, go to "Part 1: 'It Has All Fallen Down.'"
Port-au-Prince is now literally a city of homeless. Even homes not completely destroyed are considered unsafe. People who could not flee the city have set up makeshift shelters in parks, the streets of residential areas, even on the median strip of busy roads. Photo: In the Montrepons section of Carrefour people have marked off portions of the street with cinder blocks to keep from being run over while they sleep. (Revolution photo)
One morning we drive over to the National Palace where 82 people reportedly died. Even before we get there, the smell of dead bodies, human waste, garbage and dust is nearly overwhelming. People are wearing surgical masks if they can find them, but nothing can shut out the grim reality that confronted us.
Even though I had seen photographs of this well-known symbol of Haiti's government, ruined by the earthquake, it was still dramatic to stand in front of it. But more striking was the huge refugee camp directly across from the Palace in what was a grand park, the Champ De Mars. Spread out before us was a scene of terrible squalor and misery—thousands of people in ragged makeshift tents or shanties, trying to get out of the scorching midday sun. There didn't seem to be any toilets or any organized aid. Later I would find out that Champ De Mars is only one of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of camps, big and small, throughout the earthquake zone. It strikes me that Port-au-Prince is now literally a city of homeless people, a city of people living on the street and on the edge. Champ De Mars is from many accounts far from the worst, but it is bad enough.
We stop to talk to the first group we see. I ask people to tell me what it was like when the earthquake hit. A woman who looks to be about 50 begins talking feverishly about what happened to her. She had lived on the third floor of a house that started to shake and then fell all around her. She tells me she grabbed her granddaughter and ran, the stairway falling even as she went down it. At the end she leapt to safety still holding the baby. Her two daughters also got out and were now under the awning with her.
But they were far from safe. She said: "The U.S., the international community, the government, they do nothing for us. Even water—maybe they bring a four-liter supply (a little more than a gallon) every few days. It is not enough. They bring nothing to help the children. Now we are about to run out of money, we can no longer buy what we need. Every day the situation gets worse and worse. The international community says all these words, but they are empty and we receive nothing."
In the crucial day after the earthquake many died because of the lack of medical aid and rescue equipment—a reflection of the poverty and lack of infrastructure in Haiti. In Carrefour, a heavily damaged neighborhood of over 400,000, people relied on the neighborhood dogs to find survivors, and then dug them out with their bare hands. But many more were buried alive. (Revolution photo)
We go up to Kenscoff, a suburb up the mountains that rise above Port-au-Prince. Kenscoff used to be a very nice area—some of the houses were built as second homes for the wealthy to escape to in the summer and on weekends and are really more like mansions. But like everywhere in the Port-au-Prince area, the overwhelming pressure for housing as the city grew had burst through barriers, and now there are more middle class and even poor people living here. We are taking Armand and Cherie, and their young daughter Fatou, back to their former home to collect what they can. I'm in the backseat with Fatou, who is quiet, pensive and seems troubled.
After a half-hour we pull up in a small district of businesses and houses, under a looming rock face of the mountain above. The cliff face is mainly a brownish hue, but directly to our right is a 100-foot-high section that seems gouged out and is almost white. In fact, this is where a chunk of the mountain had broken off... and crashed onto the rear of Cherie and Armand's house. Luckily they had not been at home, but the elderly mother of a close friend had been staying there. When they returned a few days after the quake, they learned she had been crushed to death; neighbors had already removed her body.
We go inside, and while Janot and I sit in the living room in the front part, the family rummages through what is left of the back for things they need. It was a nice little house, nothing fancy, old furniture and not a lot of decoration, but still with the accouterments of a normal life—a family photo, a certificate of honor for Cherie from her work. These things remind me, in a way that the devastation I had already seen did not, that every single destroyed home meant the shattering of individual lives, the crushing of not just things but dreams. And the fact that an older woman had her life taken from her only added to the haunting feeling. It was as physically comfortable as anyplace I had been so far, or would be for the rest of my trip; but I have to admit, I was glad to leave.
In the car on the way back, Fatou plays with her Barbies and is willing to talk a little. She is happier, but hasn't lost her pensive look.
Montrepons, once a thriving and busy neighborhood, has been completely abandoned by the authorities, leaving the people on their own to solve all the most basic problems of survival. Photo: A young boy carries water back to his encampment. (Revolution photo)
We go to the downtown shopping area adjacent to the government buildings, a district centered around the intersection of Rue du Mirak and Boulevard du Jean-Jacques Dessalines. If I thought I had already seen the worst of things, I was profoundly mistaken. This once-crowded and hectic shopping district looked like the bombed-out city of Berlin at the end of World War 2. Fermin and I wind through the area taking pictures of buildings reduced to rubble, buildings pancaked, buildings hollowed out, buildings leaning precariously. The tropical sun beats down on us producing a blinding light which seems to bounce off the fragments of blasted white concrete; it was so bright it was hard to see.
In a different way the area is still hectic. The streets are filled with people trying to scrape together the means of life. Vendors are selling the usual—food, water—but also brightly colored clothes, tools, nuts and bolts, boxes, college textbooks, and even one stand with a nice selection of rum and whiskey, glistening like jewels in the white-yellow light. All this amidst piles of rubble and streets six inches deep in uncollected garbage, with dust thick in the air.
On the tops of some of the collapsed buildings, small groups of men are working, removing stones... but there is not a single piece of machinery to be seen, at most an occasional sledge hammer. I could not begin to imagine how long it would take to clear the area like this, but it seemed people were doing the best they could under the circumstances.
Leaving downtown we take the road to Carrefour, a huge working class and poor area in the southwest part of Port-au-Prince. About 400,000 people lived here before the earthquake and we pass shanties everywhere, including a row of about 50 that were built on the median strip of the main road, cars whizzing by on either side of them. The road winds upwards, not too steeply, but we are out of the flat area surrounding the port and downtown.
Turning down a side road we hit what must have once been a pleasant if not well-off residential area, called Montrepons. It has lots of small two-story concrete houses and some three-story ones, that were once well tended. But now it is a disaster area, with the bulk of houses flattened, badly damaged or knocked from three stories down to two. We pull up at one house like that and sit down in a small courtyard with a little shade to talk.
We meet pastor Maurice, his 19-year-old son Pierre, his wife Evangeline and two of their neighbors, Jean and Destiné. Maurice is the first to tell us about what it was like when the earthquake hit:
"It was 4:50 in the afternoon and the wind blew noisily. It came closer and it sounded like a bulldozer. The earth started shaking, I ran to the middle of the street. The earth was rolling up and down like a wave, and then started the collapse. Dirt covered the whole neighborhood; a lot of people were yelling for help. We started going into the street, shouting 'God have pity on us.' At that moment we realized that some houses had collapsed on top of people.
"When the earth started rolling people lay down in the street. A lot didn't understand exactly what was happening, we had no understanding of earthquakes, we thought it was the end of the world. People cried out to Jesus. Some people who had been in the shower ran out in the streets naked. Others took their shirts off and wrapped them up in them, but they had not even realized they were undressed."
Jean said, "I had just come into my house. My wife was making dinner and called me in to eat. I remember seeing the baby on the bed. I looked at him and then headed to the kitchen. Then I heard the bulldozer: keh-keh-keh-keh-keh. The whole house started to shake, I put my hand up and called out 'Jesus, have pity.' I stepped on the stairway out of the house. Then I saw another house had collapsed onto mine, and when that happened, blocks from my house started to break loose. I couldn't see where to go and I called out to Jesus again. I fell down the stairs. I got up and started back up the stairs to save my wife and baby. I saw her coming down the stairs with the baby and some other people. I got to the stairs at the top of the kitchen and asked for the baby and then told them to get out. They got out and I took the baby but I fell down, rolling over and over, holding the baby on my chest. I injured my hip, it still hurts today. But the baby was okay. He was covered in dirt so I took off my shirt to clean him up. I went to sleep that night with no shirt, because all my other clothes were buried in the house."
Pierre spoke next: "I was inside the house, in my room with my mom, watching TV. Then the electricity went off, the ground was shaking, dust falling. Mom hid in the closet; I pulled her out and we went out of the house. Falling blocks were everywhere. Our way to the street was blocked so we had to pass through a neighbor's house to get out. I stayed up all night long, I didn't know what was going on. At one point crowds of people came running up the hill from below because they heard that a tsunami was coming. We ran too, but then we went back and stayed in front of the house."
We leave the house and one of the neighbors walks us around the area to see all the damage. We pass a few groups of people living under awnings in the street. They have marked off portions of the street with cinder blocks to indicate where people will sleep that night. The neighbor shows us a house where he says that neighborhood dogs helped them find and save five people. I am not much of a dog person, but after that I feel compelled to take pictures of several of the scroungy hero-dogs of Montrepons. We walk a little farther and then I see a mound of dirt rising about a foot out of the street and someone tells me, "Here we buried two children who died in the quake." I am taken aback. So far I have heard many terrible stories of death and I even know that there are still many bodies buried in the buildings I've seen. But this is more visceral. Here is the sad evidence of the end of two young lives right in front of me. I don't respond, I don't know what to say. A little farther on is another site even grimmer where a body had been burned and there are still grizzled remnants, charred ligament twisted up in the center of a burned circle.
To be continued
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