It started with a text.
Hey there was just a bad earthquake in Haiti, is Mami Marie OK?
I was in the car that afternoon, waiting for my downstairs neighbor to come out of the appointment I’d driven her to. One of my initiate daughters, ti-Marie, pinged me with the text. Immediately I phoned my Vodou mother, Mambo Marie; I knew that she had returned from her trip to see the family in Port-au-Prince only a few hours before. I managed to catch her.
“I’ll call,” she said. “I’ll call you back.”
I turned on the car, and the radio news.
None of the news was good. A massive, shallow earthquake had hit near Leogane, right before dinnertime. The only thing the reporters seemed to know was that the airport was “damaged” and that there were reports that the cathedral – and the palace – The Palace? – had fallen down.
That was when the panic set in. The family lakou is in a neighborhood very close to the Palace. And if that big, fancy, well-built thing had fallen down…
My neighbor came out of the building. I drove home, went upstairs to the apartment I had two floors above hers, grabbed both my phones, and started making calls.
Hours turned into days. Days turned into weeks. I wish I was exaggerating. My papa kanzo, François, was one of the few people in Port-au-Prince that we knew who had a satellite phone. He was able to get calls out immediately, when few people could.
After I’d mentioned on Twitter that I’d heard from family in Port-au-Prince, I started getting Tweets, then Facebook and email messages, from friends and even from strangers. Dozens of people were begging me to ask François if he could find out if this person was alive, or this house was still standing, or if there was anything left of such-and-such neighborhood, or anything else that could be known. I became a mouth and a pair of hands in a huge circle of people reaching out, just trying to find out what was going on, when there was no power and no phone service and no way to know what was really happening down there.
Between myself and some of my initiatory siblings and Mami Marie, we were phoning Haiti, relaying messages, then passing return messages or news along. It was a slow, but reliable process. Sometimes the news was good. More often, it wasn’t. Sometimes I got videos. There were nights when I got into bed and closed my eyes and all I could see were images of body parts sticking out of concrete, or children covered in blood and bruises, or lifeless loved ones being carried away.
The time for rescue passed, and we realized just how many people were going to be buried for much longer, or lost for good. I can only imagine how much more terrible it was for the people taking the video and sending it to me, and for my own family, as the women found trucks to take the children out of Port-au-Prince while the men and teenage boys slept in a park across the street from the lakou, determined to finish digging the family out and stabilizing the buildings that had fallen, while dodging aftershock damage and dealing with their own injuries and emotions.
The knowledge that at least three members of my own family were buried under rubble, and would not be recovered for days, ate at me. Every call from Mami Marie, who sounded so very, very tired, for days, began with: “they can’t find them. They’re trying, but they can’t find them….” or “They know where they are but they can’t get to them….” or some variation. Some calls we just cried, or talked about Daille and Marie-Michele and Hans-Cadou, or about other family members who’d been injured, and how they were faring.
This is horrible enough to hear 20 minutes after an earthquake. Several days later, when you realize nobody will get to them in time, but not for lack of trying? It becomes a thing that you cannot even put into words. (It’s been four years. This is the first year I’m even trying to talk about this in any detail, and I’m having a hard time.)
And none of this even happened to me directly. I was only a voice on the other end of a telephone.
I don’t remember much of January 2010 clearly. I’ve read through emails and Tweets I sent during that time (including apparently helping live-Tweet a relief telethon with some other Haitians and friends?), and I don’t remember most of it.
This is what happens when you don’t sleep, when you’re running on adrenaline and nightmares and frenzied hopes for miracles that never come. You get angry and write furious rants about your government, and a particular senator who managed to make sure we never sent a dime of the money we promised to help (as well as his flimsy attempt to explain that he wasn’t really blocking it, he was just saying it shouldn’t go until it was paid for with other budget cuts). You go completely off the rails when a famous preacher – a man of God supposedly! – tries to blame the earthquake on Vodou, and then people actually start attacking Vodouisants, as if they were the reason the earth rose.
You try to update your blog so people know what’s going on, and accidentally erase it (which is why I can’t link to any of those posts now, unfortunately). You finally hit the day when they manage to remove enough of the broken concrete and rebar to recover the bodies of a godmother, a sister, and her infant, and you lose it, even though you already thought you couldn’t cry any more.
Life goes on, somehow, like it always does, and suddenly it’s been four years. In the country I live in, most of the scars left by such an event would be tended to in some manner. The dead would be found and buried; ruined buildings would be demolished, and many great speeches about how everything would be rebuilt to be better than before would happen, and then everybody would get to work and right the wrong and fix things. Happy ending to a tragedy, proof of the true grit of the poor people who went through a sad time, right?
No, it doesn’t get a happy ending, not yet, and maybe not ever. The palace ruins were finally taken down after two years (Can you imagine if Congress sat in ruins for two years?), but the cathedral ruins haven’t moved. Many people, including some of our family, left Port-au-Prince for the most part or entirely, and may not return. Promised aid trickles in, or it never arrived, or it was eaten up by corruption and mismanagement. MINUSTAH (the UN sanctioned “peacekeeping” force remaining in Haiti, despite the fact that Haiti isn’t at war) brought “help” after the earthquake in the form of an irresponsible platoon of soldiers who dumped sewage into a river and started a major cholera epidemic. Four years later, we can’t even get the UN to admit responsibility.
There are still so many things that need to be done. How many more years will it take? I don’t know. I hate that I have no answer.
I hate it as much as I did four years ago today.