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Day 2 in Port-au-Prince: “Young Men with Crowbars”

[The author was in Port-au-Prince with a delegation when the January 12 earthquake struck the city.  Because of limited electricity and internet connection, he was unable to send this report out until he got back to New York the morning of January 18.  For an earlier report, see “Singing and Praying at Night in Port-au-Prince.”]

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Jan. 15 — I finally saw uniformed Haitian police on the street here at about 9 am two days ago, on Wednesday, more than 16 hours after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake destroyed much of the Haitian capital.

I’d gone out with photojournalist Tequila Minsky to survey damaged neighborhoods and the wrecked National Palace, and we’d just gone a few blocks back towards our hotel when Tequila spotted the agents.  Four were sitting on chairs in front of a small building; another seemed to be getting something out of a patrol car.

It wasn’t clear what the building was or what, if anything, the police were doing in front of it.  They seemed to think their main job was to keep Tequila from taking a picture of them doing nothing.  “Don’t photograph us,” they said in Creole, and then, when Tequila tried to slip them into a shot of the building, they said in a more menacing tone: “We told you not to photograph us.”

The idle cops were sitting a block or two away from the elite Collège St. Pierre, where a man was calling for water, in English and Creole, from inside what appeared to be a collapsed wing of the prep school’s main building.  Two students told us four people had already been dug out — two living and two dead.

We’d been taken to the school by a tall man incongruously dressed in a dark suit.  He said he was Paul Fritzner, “Paul the Magician,” a Haitian American who usually performs in the Miami area, and he wanted us to tell people about the situation at the school.  It was good he was there, Tequila told him: Haiti would need magic to recover.

Paul went off to buy some food and water for the man in the ruins.

Textbooks in the Rubble

The only force we saw rescuing survivors that morning was, as a fellow guest at the Hotel Oloffson remarked, “young men with crowbars.”

Every few blocks as we walked downtown from the hotel we found young men carefully clearing rubble from collapsed buildings or trying to remove blocks of cement where they thought there were survivors.  Most were working on what had been technical institutes and other secondary schools the day before.  The Institut Louis Pasteur, a nursing school, had apparently been a fairly modern cement structure; it was completely collapsed.  For the first time I understood the cliché “flattened like a pancake” — the top of the crumpled building was literally spread out in a pancake shape.

We saw one survivor right under the school’s roof.  He seemed to be trapped behind a grill but otherwise unhurt: he was talking to the young men working with crowbars.  It didn’t look good for the others.  The bodies of three young people were lying in front in their nursing uniforms.

A crowd of at least 60 people watched the recovery effort, clearly friends and relatives of the victims.  Some were crying to God: “Bondye, Bondye.”  I felt I should ask them questions, like a real journalist, but I just couldn’t intrude at that moment.  Medical textbooks were scattered in the rubble at our feet, along with notebooks and forms of some kind headed in large letters with the French word “certificat.”  These must have been the diplomas the students were to receive when they had successfully completed a nursing course.

When Tequila passed by the Institut Louis Pasteur again that afternoon, the number of bodies had reached sixty.

“It’s Judgment”

In contrast to the police, most people we saw that morning were already hard at work.  Some were carrying the injured, in wheelbarrows, on planks, on doors, on stretchers made from sheets.  Other people were removing rubble from the middle of the street, or cleaning up around their homes and cars.  Residents had started covering the unclaimed bodies we saw in the streets — at least one or two each block — with sheets, often with rather nice ones, printed with colorful flower designs.

Everywhere we walked we were on the lookout for any sign of looting.  For the record: we didn’t see any.

A few people weren’t working.  Some sat in the street looking dazed.  Some had injuries, ranging from cuts and bruises to broken limbs.  A few were hysterical.  One woman walked through the crowds repeating: “Se jijman, se jijman” — “It’s judgment, it’s judgment.”

I don’t believe it was divine judgment, but I could see that no amount of work by neighborhood residents with handtools would ever be enough to repair the damage from the night before.

Haiti’s physical infrastructure, already weak, is now almost non-existent.  Power lines were down everywhere we walked, and no one seemed to know when they could be repaired and the power turned back on — we heard there was no damage to the main electricity source, a dam in the mountains far off to the northeast.  There was no phone communication, either by cell phone or land line.  We didn’t hear radios, the usual source of information here; we didn’t know whether the radio stations were all damaged or whether it was because people were conserving their batteries.  The most reliable way to communicate — for people with computers and some way to power them — was the internet, and that seemed to be sporadic.

Little streams of water flowed beside the streets in parts of the Carrefour Feuilles neighborhood in southwestern Port-au-Prince, where the Oloffson is located: the water was bubbling out of artificial springs where mains had broken.

We had no idea how many people had died or been killed or injured.  From talking to people as we walked from the hotel to downtown, I guessed that almost everyone had lost a relative, that as many as one out of every ten people had died; the population of the whole Port-au-Prince metropolitan area is probably over two million.  There may have been less destruction in other areas, but we heard that the well-to-do suburb of Pétionville had suffered even greater losses.

Another Judgment

There are apparently plenty of excuses for inaction by the Haitian government and the 9,000-member MINUSTAH (United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti).  The police headquarters was reported destroyed, and many government buildings had collapsed; the UN commanders were said to have died when the Christopher Hotel collapsed.

But it’s hard to see why the MINUSTAH and the national police — a force reconstituted and trained by the United States after the U.S. military intervention in 1994 — wouldn’t have had plans for handling emergencies even in the absence of the top commanders, especially after a close succession of two hurricanes and two tropical storms in 2008 showed both the vulnerabilities of Haiti’s infrastructure and the lack of preparation by the police and the UN for responding to disasters.

And while international relief efforts do take time to organize, how long would it have taken the United States, for example, to fly food, water, and tents from its notorious base at Guantánamo Bay?  A day or two can be a matter of life and death for many of the injured and for the children and the elderly we saw sitting in the streets or in the Champ de Mars park across from the National Palace.

When Tequila and I were coming back to the Oloffson, a man asked me in French if we had information.  What kind of information, I asked.  “What we should do, where we should go, how we can protect ourselves,” he said.

I wondered why there couldn’t at least have been cars with loudspeakers going through the neighborhoods giving this information — which hospitals and clinics were still functioning, where there would be distribution centers when international aid arrived, what simple steps people could take for preventable diseases.  Why were the only cops we saw just sitting on chairs in the street trying to avoid photographers?

A while later we passed a dead woman lying in the middle of a street.  Whoever had covered her with a sheet apparently felt something more was necessary: in a useless but beautiful gesture, they had placed a cushion with a flower design under her head.  How can the “international community” not be helping people who would do something like that?

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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