Five years ago tomorrow at 4.53pm, I was sitting in my office in Petionville, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, working on year-end accounts. As most of the staff had already left for the day, I was listening to my favourite collection of Haitian konpa and idly wondering about whether to bring wine or a watermelon for dinner with a friend living in downtown Port-au-Prince that evening. Then suddenly, the office started shaking. And shaking. And shaking. At first I thought it was one of those heavy water trucks passing by or, for a ridiculous moment, an underground train. Then I started hearing the screaming in the streets, and the guards and drivers still in the office compound crying out for Jesus to save them with voices hoarse on desperation. The shaking just got stronger and more violent, and went on and on and on. I froze in absolute terror for what seemed like aeons – staring at the swaying ceiling fans and collapsing filing cabinets around me. And then, just as suddenly, it stopped.
Even while I was living them, the days and weeks that followed had a surreal nightmarish quality, of being trapped in a terrible dream that you cannot wake from – a dream that absolutely cannot, should not, be real. I remember walking around, functioning and working but numbed and dazed – not being able to process both the uncountable personal tragedies that had happened and the fact that the “Ayiti Cherie” that I’d come to know and love had ceased to exist in a few short seconds. Even five years later, I’m still there: still unable and unwilling to confront the full magnitude of what happened, of the implications of those ruined bodies and buildings on the streets, of the pervasive and constant smell of rotting meat, of the woman sitting alone in the rubble staring at me with dead eyes.
I had worked in disaster and complex emergencies before – in places such as Darfur, eastern DRC, Liberia and Lebanon, so it was not the first time I had been confronted with the infinite variety of human misery and pain. What made Haiti so different for me was that I had lived in the country for two years before this catastrophe – long enough to have built a life there and long enough to have come to love the country with all its frustrations and contradictions. This was a country that definitely had a huge number of problems, but also a huge amount of vitality and life – where the vast majority of people live in desperate poverty but still manage to somehow be a hotbed of artistic creativity, be it in music (ah, the music…), painting, metal work, soap stone sculpture, papier mache, bead work. Where their phrases and sayings are the perfect mixture of wisdom, wry humour and cheerful cynicism; and where rum is seen as medicinal, love as life, and where dancing is distilled in the blood.
Mixed in with the grief, exhaustion and adrenaline of those days, I remember a certain purposeful blindness or perhaps madness – a conviction that finally THIS is what would change things in Haiti, that the structural strangleholds that kept the country where it has been practically since its creation would be laid out in rubble alongside the Presidential Palace. This time, we in the “international community” would not make the same mistakes that we do in Every Single Emergency Response. We would do things right. We had to. In the parlance of the times, we would “build back better”, with our bare hands and through sheer force of will, if nothing else. Unfortunately, reality is indifferent to human pain and human needs. Just because we have a desperate craving for meaning or any kind of rhyme or reason that we can attach to broken worlds, does not make it so. Worlds stay broken for a long long time, and then certain parts break again into smaller and smaller pieces. It then becomes so difficult to see anything but those tiny broken pieces after a while, and so easy to stop trying.
After five years, I am in a better position to understand the aftermath of the earthquake – both the amazing good that was achieved and the utter soul-destroying bad – and make my peace with the reasons for both. What Haiti has taught me though is what hope really is: it is not a glib throwaway remark fit for a meme or greeting card, nor is it a desperate blindness to reality born from teetering on the edge of despair. Hope is a choice. It is often a heartbreaking impossibly demanding BITCH of a choice, but a choice nonetheless. And when it comes to Haiti, I choose to hope.
Kenbe fem, Ayiti Cherie. Jou yon fèy tonbe nan dio, se pas jou a li pouri.