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WEB EXCLUSIVE: Haitian Journal: Beneath the Ruins, The Indypendent’s Nicholas Powers Finds the Hopes, Fears, Dreams, Confusion, Regrets, Anger and Generosity of the People of Port-au-Prince

Nicholas Powers Feb 18, 2010

Photographs by Michael J. Mullady.

4:53:09 PM Tuesday January 12th was the last moment of Old Haiti. The nearly 200,000 people who were going to die in the next few minutes did not know it and the survivors did not know they’d carry the burden of saying goodbye. In Port au Prince an American raised Haitian named Lesley but called Big Zoe by his friends, sat at his desk reading a paper. Across town Ilonese Julot was at home arranging pots to cook food and sell it by the road. In the town of Carrefour, Margaret Jean-Louise was tired and going to sleep but a strange unease kept her awake and she went to the porch to sit.

4:53:09 PM life was still forgettable, it was a man turning a page at his desk, rice sloshing inside a pot, a woman rubbing her feet in the sun. Miles beneath them, deep in the earth two continents of rock were grinding and after nearly a century of pressure they slipped in a long ragged stroke. The shockwaves zigzagging up to the surface would cause a 7.0 earthquake and when it hit those forgettable gestures would be cast in the after-light of catastrophe.

4:53:10 PM Margaret felt sand fall on her face. The ground jumped and swayed. She ran into the street where people yelled for help, wrapped arms around each other to shield from the falling chunks of stone. In downtown Port au Prince, Big Zoe felt the desk rattle, heard an avalanche and through his window saw the building next door crashing toward him and thought, “I’m going to die.” Seconds later he stumbled through the dust following the screams of his friends. Across town, Ilonese felt her legs sway under her as pots rolled away. Her daughter helped her to the park where people reached for the sky screaming, some holding their heads in numb shock, some dusted white as blood dripped down their faces. Evening fell and neighbors frantically dug through rubble by candle-light, bodies half-crushed were pulled out and a great wail of pain rang through the night as they cried, “Jesus save us! Jesus save us!”

Five days later, on January 17th my friend Willie Davis, a news photographer and I arrived at Santo Domingo airport. It was eerily quiet. I only saw one truck loaded with aid supplies. A friend picked us up and drove us to the hotel. Leaning out the window, I expected huge rumbling lines of trucks and buses but the highway was empty. We checked in, collapsed on the beds and watched CNN reports of Haiti. It looked bad. Children pulled out of wreckage. Helicopters throwing food as crowds swirled below. The anchors were amazed there was no violence and I thought there was a tone of guilt in their amazement.

I paced the room, the halls, feeling trapped in the hotel. A driver offered to take us to Port au Prince but for 500 dollars. I handed him photos of a ten year old girl, an elderly man and young woman, “I have a Haitian friend, in New York these her family. She’s worried about them and I’m trying to find them. I can’t pay you that much because they need that money. Everyone in Haiti needs that money more than you or I do.” He studied the photos and his shoulders sank, as if feeling the weight of crisis but shook his head no. Walking back to the room, I looked at the photos. They felt heavier then when I first got them.

Francesca

A friend had given them to me a few days ago. I was still in Brooklyn, news of the earthquake was just reaching us. My neighbor Tony was smoking on the steps. We knocked fists, said what’s up but he had a faraway look. “You know that sister on the third floor.” I nodded. “Heard her crying. I think she lost people in the earthquake.” My throat tightened. It was Francesca a small, deep brown woman, always had a new hair-style, always modeling and taking photos with a busy ambitious energy. I went upstairs, passed her door, to my room and read a the reports, saw pictures but was only willing to give long-distance sympathy when one photo showed a young girl standing on rubble looking into the camera, not with hope or anger or sadness, just resignation as if not expecting help.

Within two days, my friends filled a duffle bag and suit-case with toys, gauze, medicine and power-bars. I had tickets to go to Santo Domingo and would figure out the rest on the ground. The night before I left, I knocked on Francesca’s door, she opened, new braids swayed around her almond-shaped eyes like a curtain of beads. I told her I was going and if she had family, I’d deliver a message. She touched her chest, thanked me, gave photos of her niece, sister and grandfather and a letter with 200 dollars. I put it in my backpack and flew out the next morning.

I sat on the bed and studied the photos wondering how we’d find them in the chaos. Maybe they had to leave? Maybe I would not be able to find them? Maybe I was too scared to do anything useful?

From Santo Domingo to Port-au-Prince

We woke early, packed and waited in the lobby for a driver to take us downtown where public buses traveled to Port au Prince each day. It would be hot, crowded and I had luggage filled with supplies that might not make it. Before the driver came, I saw a bus parked by the curb. A slender man was directing the work. I told him who we were, he said the bus was charted by the Swiss embassy and we could ride with him to Port au Prince.

We drove out of Santo Domingo and the city shrank from tall buildings to small homes to a country-side of palm trees, leaf-thatched roofs and people playing cards in the shade. We drove around large hills, into the loud din at the border where vans, buses, cars, military vehicles, bull-dozers nudged around each other, spewing dark smoke, heaving through mud holes. No guards were standing at the border and we drove through and passed into Haiti.

The border was a line not just between nations but wealth and poverty. I saw half-crumbled homes and children in rags and when we reached Port au Prince, thirsty crowds watched us roll by as jugs of water jostled in the window. People with scraped faces hobbled on broken limbs. The driver parked in front of the Swiss embassy and workers quickly emptied the bus. Willie and I got out, stacked our bags and a tall Frenchman named Christian, who like Satre had one eye askew, began telling us of the dangers of Haiti. Don’t go out alone or at night or with money. It was the Night of the Living Dead story-line, as if he was extending the border between nations into our minds.

I wandered through the gate with guard waved his shotgun, outside into the street. An invisible circle surrounded the bus and young men stood at the edge watching us. One tapped me on the shoulder and motioned for food but I held up empty palms. I walked out and they followed me. Standing outside the embassy, vulnerable in the street I felt that fear of being exposed to people’s hunger, worrying they might cross the line from asking to taking but I stretched out my arms like antenna, soaking my body in their world and after a few breathes the blur of people on the street became focused; I saw a mother with a bag balancing on her head as children bumped around her legs, a man carrying an elderly woman, families huddled by a fire, a baby being rocked in a man’s lap and the invisible rebuilding of Haiti in the way people looked at each other as if each gaze was a girder to support the wavering spirit. Seeing this dignity, I shook my head that was filling with rage, they were people, just people who for generations were forced to survive the stupidity, hate, greed and fear of the wealthy world. My own fear seemed so real a few seconds ago. “Fear” I said aloud and knew it was the ink the comfortable used to draw the line between nations, races and classes and sadly too, that the oppressed used to draw distinctions among themselves. I turned and saw the men who were following me. They must have thought me strange, standing there with my arms outstretched. I waved and went back into the embassy where Willie was waiting by our bags.

Christian had a driver drop us at the airport. Young men quickly circled us, clamoring to drive us anywhere, translate anything. “Mister! We need work! We have families! Give us a job!” I stopped and stood in the center, feeling the weight of desperation in their stares. They were young, like my students at college. “I’m not looking for help tonight,” I said. “But if I see you tomorrow.” We looked at each other and they nodded, still asking but letting go. We walked in, showed our passports to the guard, and lugged the bags through corridor that was cracked from the earthquake. We walked out on the tarmac, where huge planes shook the air and left our ears ringing, out to the field where green army tents looked like giant caterpillars. We pitched the tent and slept.

The Boundary Line of Power

In the morning, we woke and ate, talked to photographers, a scruffy San Franciscan named Michael and a tall lanky Czech. We left the airport, hired men who drove us to a cemetery where nameless bodies were dumped in a mass grave to downtown Port au Prince where police were killing kids who sifted the rubble for clothing and shoes. Everywhere I saw this border-line of power; it separated the airport from the city, the aid from the needy, the media that wanted images of the disaster from the history that caused it, the needs of people from the resources of the wealthy and I was camped on one side while on the other was a family who were waiting for Francesca’s letter.

The next morning Michael called Big Zoe, a Haitian-American deportee who taught English in Port au Prince and now worked as a “fixer.” We saw him in the throng outside the airport. He was tall with an ex-boxer’s grace and a jack o’ lantern grin. His friend Nat was behind the wheel of a battered truck while one of his students James Junot crammed with us in the back.

As we drove I saw the wind-shield was smashed, it looked like a crystal spider-web.

“Nat, what happened to your window?”

“A building fell on it…” Everyone laughed. “Are you serious,” I asked. He nodded, “Man my building fell on my truck. I’m homeless. I sleep in the back, take showers in the back.” I twisted around, saw big jugs of water. “Everyone got turned out,” he said and as he drove the smashed window sparkled in the sun.

“The way you guys talk I feel like I’m in New York,” I said.

“You from New York?”

“Brooklyn, Nostrand Avenue, off Quincy Street.”

“Yo I grew up on Lexington,” Nat said. “I got family there.” Nat said he did time in prison, they found out he was born in Haiti and deported him. Big Zoe said the same. His parents are Haitian, he was born in the Bahamas, they moved to the U.S. He grew up in Miami got in trouble in New York, did prison-time. When his birth was traced, he was deported. “What’s it like to be a deportee,” I asked.

“You’re the lowest of the low,” Big Zoe said. “Haitians assume every deportee is Hannibal Lector.” Nat laughed bitterly in agreement. “They think America is paradise and you were stupid for getting kicked out. When I got here, the girls were lined up to be with me. They thought I was going to take them back, after a few years, they saw I was still here and they were like ‘Oh you just Haitian’,” he and Nat laughed again but it was a rough laughter like a scab over a wound.

I asked what New Haiti they want to rise from the rubble. “I got married, my wife and I have a daughter. I want her to grow up where there are lights at night,” Big Zoe said. “To be able to go out at night without danger. I want schools, universities, movie theaters, nice shiny stores.” Nat chimed in, “Haiti is real young, a lot of kids. They should have parks.” James shook his head, “I’d like that instead of this…” We looked up at the ruin as the images of this New Haiti hung in our minds like a stain-glass window.

Blaming Vodou

“James?”

“Ranks,” he said. “My friends call me Ranks and we’re friends.” I asked him where he lived. He said “My mother is outside with everyone.” I asked him if I could interview her. He said yes and Nat drove to Champs de Mars, a park turned into a sprawling tent city. Ranks guided me through the bustle of people to a make-shift tent of beds-sheets tied to poles. He introduced me to his mother Ilonese Julot; she kissed him, held my hand. We squatted. I asked her where her family came from and what she did. Ranks interpreted, “We lived at Avenue Poupelard. It’s gone now. Everything’s gone. Before James was born, I lived in the countryside, raising corn, millet, coconut with brothers and uncles. It was too difficult. We were hungry. I moved here to survive. I used to sell food by the road.” I asked her about the earthquake. Ranks moved near her as if to protect her from the memory. “We thought it was the end of the world. I was preparing to cook when the walls began shaking. We screamed for Jesus to save us. I saw a boy hit on the head by a rock. He bled all over the street. His uncle carried him away.”

Her eyes filled with memory and she blinked fast as if to wipe it away. Ranks leaned in to steady her but she stiffened up. I asked her how often the aid comes. “Haven’t seen it,” she said. “I don’t eat so others can.” I saw a baby crawling nearby and understood. “A brick fell on my back and I feel pain there,” she touched her side. “We have been through a lot of bad things. God is getting mad at Haitians.” I asked why. “For killing babies for Vodou sacrifices. We need to get down on our knees and ask God for forgiveness,” she said and I winced because it sounded like Christian fundamentalist Pat Robertson who said on his show the 700 Club that God punished Haitians for making a pact with the devil. Liberals slammed him but what could I say to her, what question could I ask except quietly to myself. Five years ago, I heard the same from a reverend who I met in New Orleans during the flood. We waded through the black water and he announced “God was punishing us.” Was this the last way for a powerless people to control chaos, blame themselves for letting it loose and thereby create the illusion it was in their power to stop it?

Her daughter Gladina came in and sat down. A pensive steady-eyed woman, she told me when the earthquake hit that “everyone was losing control” and circled her hands around her head. “I put my feelings aside to help others.” She offered me water, I thanked her, gulped and asked what happened after. “Dead people in the street,” she looked down then away. “I can’t say anything about that.” I asked her what change must come out of this disaster.  “I want the government to enforce a construction code,” she grinded the words. I prodded, “How long has the government been a problem?” She laughed, “I’m not old enough to see that far.”

As we rose, people came over to me. Ranks interpreted. A red-eyed woman asked for Neosporin for an oozing gash on her leg. Others told me that yesterday, a local group pulled up with a truck filled with food and tents. Everyone was asking for help. The police came in and beat people back and left with the truck. Now the food and tents were being sold in the market. I asked around and everyone who had a tent said they did not buy it but got it from a friend in the government.

A crowd of people followed us to the Minestre de Culture, a gated building where an aid truck came to deliver food. “How often do they come,” I asked and watched Big Zoe interpret for me his voice rising and falling, hands spinning in the air. Haggard faces, broken noses, eyes boiling with hunger and rage all yelled out, “Once a day!” I asked how many people get food and how much is it. A scarred-man waved his arm, “One third gets to eat and everyone else hungry.” He pointed at a boy who stared wide-eyed at us yelling, our voice shooting like lighting above him. “This boy gets one meal a day! ONE MEAL,” he shouted. They surged forward holding cupped palms. “This is how much we eat a day.” I saw their hands filled with nothing jabbing the air and I wanted to pour the wealth of the world into them. I closed my notebook, “I’m not speaking as a journalist now. Don’t let them steal from you.” Ranks and Nat were nearby watching. “They’ve been stealing from you for decades. The French stole from you. America stole from you. Papa Doc stole from you. Baby Doc stole from you and that’s why the city fell and your families are dead in the rubble.” I was hollering, the rage at seeing their helplessness was an open flame in my mouth. Big Zoe’s voice rose and fell with mine. “We’re going to follow this story about police theft but a story won’t solve the problem. Only you can. Do want your ancestors did. Revolt. Take the country back. There has to be a New Haiti.”

They were still and began to nod. “A New Haiti,” the words floated around like pollen. “A New Haiti.” I asked where the tents were being sold and they said Petionville. We turned to climb in the truck when I saw Big Zoe talking to a young man. “He’s scared,” Big Zoe said. “He’s saying that the police will kill us if we try anything.” He had his hand on the young man’s shoulder like a father; the boy’s face brimmed with fear. “We can’t keep living like this,” Big Zoe said. “We need a New Haiti.” We climbed into the truck, drove up the hills to the middle-class neighborhood of Petionville. One blue tent stood in the street. We asked how they got it and the well-dressed woman said it came from a “friend” in the government.

As we drove back to the airport, I studied the U.S. military on the road and thought the Haitians are in more danger of us than we are of them. I remembered the CNN reports and the guilt-laced wonder of reporters at Haitian self-control. All it takes is one dead soldier, one dead aid-worker, one dead reporter and Western sympathy will dry up and racist fear will raise these M-16’s up and the Haiti will become a police-state.

Sharing a Joint

We left and on the way to the airport, I told them about Francesca’s family in Carrefour and passed around the photos. They said it would be almost impossible to find them but next morning we’d try. Evening fell quick. Motorcycles revved and zipped through the streets. The single headlights looked like runaways stars roaring by us. Nat parked, ordered some by-the-road food and Prestige beer. As we ate, he lit up a joint and I took it, sucked in a lungful, held until my head felt like it was floating away and exhaled. Nat laughed. I passed it to him, he passed it to the others but they waved it away.

We sat in the front seats of his truck, the orange glow of a joint bobbing between us. He told me of growing up in Brooklyn as he talked, I felt his voice uncoil. “I was in jail twelve years Nick. Stuck people with knives, shot them, I was doin’ all kinds of dirty but when they deported me here. The police held me for a few days and said to me, ‘Do what you got to do to survive just don’t make us kill you’ and as soon as I got out niggas was offering me gun-work,” he turned to me, his eyes spilling apologies. “I don’t want to do that anymore. It did nothing for me except kill my heart.”

“Everything can grow back, a heart,” I pointed to the city around us. “A nation. You know they should take the rubble and build statues of Queen Anacaona and Toussaint L’Ouverture, tall statues that the people can gather under. Just so Haitians can see their own freedom.”

“Man you puttin’ images in my head,” he passed the joint. “Today man, you was out there with the people. In the middle of it and you weren’t scared.”

“People are people,” I said. “Don’t love them for what they’re not. Don’t hate them for what they’re not. Just defend their freedom to choose and they’ll surprise you, look how beautiful everyone’s being, no riots, no murdering, I mean a few knuckle-heads of course but in the tent cities folks helping each other out.”

“No doubt,” he said. “The people are beautiful.” The others squeezed back in and we drove to the airport. I told them of my luggage filled with supplies and for them to take it back to the Champs de Mars.

“Ranks come in with me,” I said. “Time to level up.”

They dropped us off at the UN gate. I held my Prestige beer, fumbled out my passport, stumbled in as they looked at me with scrunched eyes. They were guarding a line I didn’t need. I said Ranks was my translator and he followed through the gates to the tent. I laid out the sweater, stacked Neosporin, sanitary napkins, alcohol swabs. Ranks nodded, then fingered the sweater, “What about this?” I told him to keep it. “To wrap the baby in,” he said.

Finding Francesca’s Family

The next morning we drove through Carrefour, halting, holding out the photos of Francesca’s family. We were pointed in one direction, then another and then back to the same one. The sun was rising and the day was boiling. “I don’t know about this Nick,” Big Zoe said. “They may be gone. They’re neighbors may be gone.” We stopped an older man and he pointed at a door we’d passed by two times. We got out. I knocked. A young man with bouncy nervous energy appeared and led us in. I showed him the photos and as he looked at them the gate opened and an elderly white-haired man with almond-shaped eyes came in. It was her grandfather. Behind him, a small girl, as if she’d walked out of the photo. Ranks, Big Zoe and I rocked each other’s shoulders and whooped as the family looked at us strangely.

I told them through Ranks that Francesca lived in my building and handed them her letter and money. Her mother Margaret, her uncle Louis and sister came in and the family circled it. They held the letter as gently as they would her hand. They showed us their home, the crater-sized hole in the living room wall and Margaret told me about the funny feeling she had before the earthquake. She was tired and going to lay down inside but a quiet nervousness kept her up. Instead, she sat on the chair and as she closed her eyes felt sand fall on her face. Bolting up, she saw the world shaking itself apart.

I handed them a video-camera and told them Francesca would be able to see and hear them. The grandfather was short and stoic. The sister looked into it and said, “I’m scared.” She talked like a river flowing into a small door. The mother comforted. The uncle assured and the little niece playfully waved. They handed it back to me and we said goodbye.

An Angry Crowd

On the drive back, we saw an angry crowd in front of the school Bon Samaritan. We parked, got out, instantly the people surrounded us and asked for help. Ranks held his hands like stop signs. He translated for me. “How long have you been out here,” I asked. “Six hours! Six hours and no aid, only water, they keep the food and sell it in the market.” They were sweat soaked, eyes sizzled with anger. They pleaded for help. “The police are taking the food and selling it,” a woman yelled and pointed at the cops who stood inside, grim, hands on their guns. A police officer walked to his car with a mattress on his shoulder and a crate of food swinging from his hand. I watched him open his car, stack his goods inside, close it and turned and saw me writing it down. His face went slack and he just stood there staring blankly and then drove away. I wrote down his license plate: AA-52850.

A truck rumbled in through the gates, on it a sign saying “Vendre” was taped to the side. “What does that sign say,” I asked. Ranks held his hand over his eyes to block the glare, “For Sale.” Inside the gate, men loaded it with food, water and drove it away even as people pulled on the sides, it rolled on tearing loose from their hands.

As we drove away, Ranks said, “Do you see it?”
“See what,” I asked.

“Everywhere the same,” he grimaced. “Skinny kids, fat cops.” I looked out the window and he was right. Cops had plump faces, guts over bellies. When we were stuck in traffic, skull-faced children tapped on our window for food. “If I didn’t know English,” Ranks said. “That would be me.”

Last Day    

The last day we were downtown again. The photographers were taking pictures as Big Zoe and I strolled and talked. “It’s your birthday tomorrow,” I asked. “Thirty-two years old,” his jack o’ lantern grin flashed then faded. “Wish we could get you back in the U.S.,” I said. He said yeah and his voice was heavy like syrup. “How long were you here before you picked up Creole?” He looked up for a second, “Three years.” I asked if felt like he was in exile. “I feel resentment you know, I’m as American as apple pie but they used a technicality to kick me out. My parents are Haitian, I was born in the Bahamas but raised in America. I want to go back home. I have a wife and a daughter here. If I can get my papers straight, I can bring them back. I don’t want her growing up…” he waved his hands at the ruins.

We stopped to rest in the shade of building. I leaned on a wooden crate until an old woman tapped my shoulder. I stood up and as she hauled it away looked at Big Zoe with a question in my eyes. “Fire wood,” he said. Shots rang out. We ducked. The people scattered and we backed up. A dust covered man stumbled out of the dust, his face slack, eyes glazed as blood trickled from a bullet wound in his chest. Men hovered around him, catching him as he began to fall. “We got to get him to the hospital,” Big Zoe said and we called two men on motorcycles. They rolled up, I helped the wounded man on, sat behind him to keep him from fainting and falling off and the driver shot us through the streets. We rode over fallen cables, zipped between buses as I held the man who moaned in pain, his blood leaking over my hands. We turned into the hospital where an American soldier stiffened up. I shouted in dollar crisp English, “Gunshot wound.” The soldier wheeled around, pushed open the gates and we sped in, stopped and a team of paramedics laid the man down and began to cut off his shirt. Big Zoe and Michael pulled up in a motorcycle. We got off and started walking back downtown. “Jesus Christ,” Big Zoe said and tugged me off the sidewalk. I looked back and saw half a burned corpse on the ground.

Returning Home with a Gift

We walked further up the street. I pointed out a small leather ball. “You play soccer,” I teased Michael and Big Zoe. A little closer we saw it had clothes on, closer and we saw it was a baby’s corpse. We circled, numb with disbelief. “I’m going to go home now,” I said. Big Zoe got us a bus to the airport and I pulled out the last of my dollars. He said “You don’t have to pay me.” I told him as long as I don’t need money to leave I don’t need to leave with money. When we got to the airport the line was there again, guarded by bureaucrats and soldiers. We got Big Zoe in through a side gate and soon he was standing by our tent looking at the planes taking off. “You’re a short ride away from home,” I said as he stared at the planes taking off. I brought him to the medical tents, so he could translate between the American doctors and Haitian patients and maybe find a way onto a flight. I left to get on a military evacuation line and the last image I have of Big Zoe is a man staring at planes flying home.

When I returned to my apartment in Brooklyn, I went downstairs and gave Francesca the video camera. She cradled it, thumbed play and saw her family, their home, the hole in the wall, the rubble strewn living room. “Take your time with it,” I said. Later a knock on the door, I opened it. Francesca stood with wet eyes, “Thank you so much. I didn’t know when I would see them again.”