Friday, August 6, 2010

Days 5 and 6 in Port-au-Prince: Escape From Katrina

By David L. Wilson
August 6, 2010

[This is the second of two reports I wrote after returning to New York from Port-au-Prince on January 18; I didn’t get a chance to edit them until July. For the other report, see "Day 4 in Port-au-Prince: On the Veranda." ]

Founded in 1994 by the Liberation Theology priest Joseph Philippe and a number of local organizations, Fonkoze is Haiti’s main microcredit bank, making small, short-term loans to tens of thousands of ti machann—the street vendors, mostly women, who provide much of the activity in the country’s informal economy.

Like everything else in Port-au-Prince, Fonkoze was devastated by the January 12 earthquake. Many branch offices were destroyed, and structural damage had made the main office unsafe to use. No one died there, but an administrator had to be evacuated to the United States for medical care. The director, Anne Hastings, was calling for volunteers to come by on Saturday morning, January 16, to help retrieve important records from the building.

By Saturday, three of us—New Yorkers who’d come to Haiti the week before to visit a peasant movement in the Central Plateau—had decided that the best way to get back home was to take the Santo Domingo bus from a terminal in the northeastern suburb of Tabarre. This sounded easier and more reliable than the evacuation flights the U.S. government was promoting. We were told the terminal was right by the embassy: if we couldn’t get a bus, we could still throw ourselves on the mercies of the Colossus of the North.

So we made arrangements with Milfort Bruno, the proprietor of an art shop across the street from the Hotel Oloffson, where we were staying. He promised to get us a vehicle and a driver for just $40—a major accomplishment in a city where the corporate reporters seemed to have hired every car that still ran—and to pick us up early on Sunday.

This left us free on Saturday to make ourselves at least a little bit useful at Fonkoze.

Rue La Mort
We started late. We’d had some last-minute clarifications to make with Milfort, and I also think a certain lethargy was setting in now, in the fifth day since the quake.

The Fonkoze office was on Avenue Christophe, which comes right up to the Oloffson, but several people told us the best way to get there was to take Rue Capois north to the downtown area and then go east on Avenue John Brown, which intersects Christophe.

So we started off down the hill toward the National Palace. There were four of us now; another guest at the hotel had joined us.

We saw some signs of improvement in the residential areas. Neighborhood people had cleared most of the rubble out of the streets and had fashioned it into barricades so that cars wouldn’t run into the little street encampments—everyone was still sleeping outdoors because of the continuing aftershocks, and those without yards had nowhere to go but the street. The dead bodies were gone; apparently the authorities had gotten organized enough to hire people and trucks to remove the corpses. But this was the only evidence I ever saw of government action, just as the Belgian rescue mission we’d run into on Thursday was the only evidence I’d seen of international assistance. We knew the big U.S. transport planes were regularly lumbering into the airport, but what were they bringing? No aid had come down here to Carrefour Feuilles.

The scene grew grimmer as we moved downtown. Shopkeepers were trying to clean up and get back in business, but there was only so much they could do for the ruined stores without help from outside. Here too the bodies had been removed, but new ones had sprung up in their place. It seemed that people were bringing corpses to the main streets, where the government workers were more likely to see them and haul them off to the mass graves outside the city.

There seemed to be less respect for the dead now; instead of covering the bodies with sheets, as they had done in the first days, people were satisfied with throwing a rag or piece of plastic over the face.

It was around 11 am, and the sun had gotten bright and hot. I understood something I’d read about: the special look of horrors in the tropics. The bright sunlight brings out every detail, infuses everything with gorgeous, exaggerated colors, like the colors in the idealized country scenes of Haitian folk art. The sharp visual reality of a corpse lying in the street becomes too great; you don’t quite believe it.

Like the rest of us, the dead people were in their fifth day since the earthquake. Most Haitians were wearing scarves over their faces as they walked down the street; if they didn’t have scarves, they’d put a line of toothpaste under their noses to offset the smell.

The bright colors of the tropics extended to the clothes. A remarkable number of the people we passed wore clothes that were as bright and colorful as the day itself, and the clothes and the people were clean. How had they done it, living in yards or the street or encampments in places like the Champ de Mars across from the National Palace? I’d given up any idea of washing my clothes, and for days now my personal hygiene had been limited to sponge baths using a big plastic bucket of stale, chlorinated water from the Oloffson’s swimming pool.

We continued down Rue Capois, named for a revolutionary general so fearless that he was nicknamed “Lanmò”—Death. We turned right on Avenue John Brown, named for a man whose body lies a-moldering in the grave, and then right again on Avenue Christophe, named for a megalomaniac king. By now we knew our directions had been wrong; we’d made a long detour through downtown, and we were going to be very late.

I started to sense that like the smell, the mood in the streets had gotten worse. People remained polite, but I noticed how often they told us not to photograph them. I understood of course why you wouldn’t want to have your suffering end up in a tourist’s slideshow—but we weren’t carrying cameras or waving cell phones around; there was no reason to think we wanted to take pictures. I suspected they’d come to think of blan yo, the foreigners, as people who took pictures and never helped. The Haitians had to resent this; I certainly did.

As we were walking up Avenue Christophe, I noticed something about our own deteriorating morale. Two of us were talking as we approached a corpse on the sidewalk. With a slight nod to each other, we broke off our conversation and separated to walk around the body, giving it a wide berth. Then we came together again and resumed our conversation where we’d left off. I realized we’d done similar things several times during our journey.

We’d gotten used to dead people.

Haitian Know-How
The volunteers had already finished when we finally got to Fonkoze. Along with the rest of the international community, our little group from the Oloffson had turned out to be completely useless.

The Fonkoze offices were set back from the street in a large yard; this seemed to be a residential neighborhood. You could see at least one large crack in the building. It must have been hard work, not to say dangerous work, to go in there in the heat to pull out financial records. The volunteers were resting and drinking water under a sheet they’d strung up between trees as a sort of canopy. Most seemed to be Fonkoze staff, and like so many of the people on the street, they’d somehow contrived to be clean and neatly dressed.

Even while resting they stayed busy, sorting files and asking the director questions. Anne Hastings had been a management consultant in Washington, DC before she was recruited to head Fonkoze, and her answers were brief and businesslike. She spoke fluent Creole, but with a wonderfully all-American accent, like Jean Seberg’s French in "Breathless."

The one little bit of encouragement I got that day was watching Anne and the Fonkoze staff working together—the bank’s full name is Fondasyon Kole Zepòl, “Shoulder-to-Shoulder Foundation.” I’d been thinking the day before about how the myth of “American know-how” had been shown up by our government’s incompetence during Katrina. Now I realized that we can be competent after all, especially when we recognize and respect the competence of other people.

On the way back to the Oloffson I noticed a little white cloth bundle on the sidewalk beside Avenue Christophe. It was wrapped tight, like a tiny Egyptian mummy. I took a deep breath, but I didn’t point the bundle out to the others. As always, I felt the cosmic injustice in a grey-haired stranger like me coming out of the disaster without a scratch while this small Haitian was lying in the street waiting to be taken to the mass burial pits outside the city. There are some dead people you can’t get used to.

“The Ghosts of Beauty”
I didn’t sleep well my last night in Port-au-Prince, and I spent a lot of time wandering around beneath the tall palms of the Oloffson’s grounds.

It was a little spooky to walk there, thinking of the hundreds of people who had died in the blocks around the hotel. The first few nights I’d been cheered up by people singing hymns in the intersection in front, but now there were only a few singers, and they sounded like diehard evangelicals moved more by doctrine than by community spirit. They were loud, and one was flagrantly out of tune. The photographer Daniel Morel told me that people had been leaving to stay with relatives in the country, reversing the historic tendency for too many people to crowd together in the capital. That might be, but it was lonely without the hundreds of singers I heard the first nights.

The power was still out and the city was dark. You could see the winter stars in the sky, and that, at least, was lovely. I even caught a glimpse of a shooting star through the trees.

I began to think of all the people who had wandered in these grounds in the past or in fiction—Malcolm Lowry, John Barrymore, and, for comic relief, Charles Addams. Here was the swimming pool where the social welfare minister killed himself in the Graham Greene book. And I thought back to the earlier times before electricity, the 1890s, when the neighborhood had belonged to well-to-do mixed-race families with elegant manners and flawless Parisian accents.

A line from Pope came to mind:

Still round and round the Ghosts of Beauty glide….

Lack of sleep and maybe the stress of the past few days made me a little giddy, and I began fantasizing about the spirits of the old Haitian elite. How did they feel when they found the place crowded with so many fresh, plebeian ghosts—the schoolgirl crushed when the retaining wall fell on her in front of the hotel, the families buried under the houses in the block below the intersection, the sixty students lost in the St. Gérard school up the hill?

At around four in the morning I heard what had to be automatic weapons, three brief bursts off in the distance. This was the first time I’d heard gunfire in Port-au-Prince, despite rumors of escaped prisoners, of looters, and of the U.S.-trained police executing supposed looters.

I climbed up some cement steps to a point where I could look out over the darkened city. I’d thought the sound came from around the Delmas area, to my right, and as I stood at the top of the stairs, there was a fourth round of shots. This wasn’t a fantasy about old ghosts; it was real and it was happening right now. My God, I thought, weren’t there already enough dead people?

Our Fellow Americans?
Milfort came for us around 6:30 am with his driver and what may once have been a pickup truck. The way to the bus terminal went north toward the airport and then east to Tabarre. We bumped through downtown, past the crumpled National Palace, and then through impoverished Bel Air, where people were still trying to sleep and looked at us resentfully from inside the barricaded encampments. As we approached the airport, I noticed a big new sign. Someone had painted a large white square on a wall, and then, in large, professionally formed letters: “WE NEED HELP.” The plea was placed so that no one coming in from the airport could miss it.

The bus terminal turned out to be a small building in what seemed to be the U.S. embassy’s parking lot. Two U.S. soldiers in camouflage greeted us cheerfully as we got our bags out of the truck. “You’re not taking the evacuation?” one asked in a southern drawl. No, we thought going through Santo Domingo would be easier. “Well, you might just be right about that,” he said.

The bus company employees directed us to “standby,” a row of wooden benches in the shade in front of the little building. The waiting passengers were mostly middle-class Haitians and Haitian Americans, with a few Dominicans mixed in. Conversation was a mélange of Creole, English, French, and Spanish; the English was frequently in New York and Florida accents. It was a typically Haitian scene—an apparent chaos in which everything still got sorted out. Three hours later our turn came, and we boarded a large, air-conditioned bus.

As we started on our long but embarrassingly comfortable ride to the Dominican Republic, the bus passed in front of the embassy. A sympathetic murmur came from the other passengers. “Gade, gade!” the woman across the aisle told her companion. “Look!”

There was a long line by the street outside the embassy. It was close to 11 am now, and a hot sun was beating down on the people as they waited in all the different postures of weariness and dejection. Who were they? Were they our “fellow Americans” waiting to get approval to take the evacuation flights? Or were they Haitian citizens who still believed blan yo would somehow help them? I couldn’t pick out a single white face in the long, wilting line. I wondered if everybody else thought what I was thinking: Katrina.

[David L. Wilson is co-author, with Jane Guskin, of The Politics of Immigration: Questions and Answers (Monthly Review Press, 2007), and co-editor of Weekly News Update on the Americas.]

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