Old men with creased faces watch us enter the cemetery. A solemn air blows through the arch as the four of us walk in, cameras aimed, pen angled and stop at a woman’s body being nibbled by flies. Over the face, someone lifted her shirt as a makeshift veil.
She is what death has become in Port au Prince, meat rotting in the street that leaves a sickly sweet smell that forces us to cover our noses. Death cannot be wrapped in prayer or made into memory but quickly dumped or burned. If not the festering will kill the living. As the photographers kneel and shoot, I ask the cemetery chief, a weary calculating man what will happen to the corpse.
“Someone will take it soon.”
“Do you know who she was?”
“No no no. They leave many bodies here. I don’t know her.”
“Did you lose anyone in the earthquake?”
“My daughter was killed.”
I go quiet. As we walk the photographers trail behind us, leaning over a skull in the street or the ashy black soot left of a quick sidewalk cremation and cut the image from time with a click. Loud yells erupt behind us. We turn and see four men lift the corpse on to a gurney, haul it up and carry it quickly through the tombstones.
We follow them as they turn, leap and jump down the mausoleums while keeping the gurney balanced. The cemetery chief yells and points directions and we watch them angle her above a crack and slip her in. They leave. Panting hard, we lower our pads and pens and cameras.
We ask him to show us the pit where the poor people are dumped. The cemetery chief says yes but asks for a donation. “Maybe you can help me out?” We are hot and tired. The tall older photographer yells “We aren’t paying for that this is a public place.” We stare at the cemetery chief who shrugs and says, “You must leave now. We have work. If you want to see the bodies, pay me $10 for the time away from work.”
We sulk back, sweaty and ignoring him. I pull him to the side, “Look we’re not aid workers. We don’t have resources. We are journalists. We write the stories so that others can see what’s happening here and keep helping.”
He smiles a bit, “Okay pay me $5.”
I hold it between us. “It’s what I got.”
He takes it and whistles to the others who trot back. We follow him through the tombstones, stepping and jumping, slipping between narrow wedges to the edge of a large ditch. The smell of rotting bodies is sweet. It alerts you to go numb, to pull your feelings inside. Inside the ditch are six entangled bodies. One has an arm broken and bent like a stick of wood snapped in play. Some are nude. Flies crawl over the anus. One has a black swollen face like a baby’s pout. Stiff and still they grip each other.
We angle around them, writing and photographing. I wonder what more images of death will do. I wonder how they will be read back home. I want to know who they were, what they believed, how they doubted, how they loved and hated. Until then we can say that they and all the corpses here in Haiti will be defined by the spectacular rarity of their death. I worry about this because until the invisible poor are loved not as symbols but as people they will not be protected from the disaster of history.
The cemetery chief looks at me, “Would you like me to sing?”
I scrunch my eyes, not understanding.
“Sing a song for the dead?”
“Maybe a small donation.”
I shake my head and soon we follow him out of the cemetery. Outside people mill around aimlessly. Some stare at the rescue team. Some stare at us. Faces crisscross, talking on cell phones, begging for money, yelling angrily, offering services, looking at people digging up rubble. The feeling in the air is like gasoline jelly, thick and flammable. Sparks fly out of everyone’s eyes. We get in the car and leave for downtown.
The talk in the car turns to the cemetery chief and how everyone raises the prices of everything. We know why. Even so, it annoys us that words are wobbly. Nothing said will stay firm. But what promises were made to Haitians? What promises were made to the people, from the Haitian Revolution to the election of Aristide, one atop the other until the earth shook and the centuries of lies collapsed on them.
Later in the evening, we hunch over laptops typing and arranging pictures. My friend calls me over to see a photo of the dead woman we first saw. “Look at the tag on her toe.” It reads “Roseline Dey.” Studying the picture is the first time I stopped moving today and just breathed. When I do the smell of her death fills my nose, I point my nose around and follow it down to my hands.
Nick Powers is an Indypendent reporter currently on the ground in Port au Prince, Haiti. For more of his articles, see: “Fear, the Real Aftershock in Haiti,” Jan. 19, 2010