the 5th anniversary of the earthquake

Robi had so many thoughts and feelings about Monday, which is the fifth anniversary of the earthquake that hit Haiti on January 12th, 2010. Here is the best we could do to get them onto paper:

Five years ago, around 5:30pm on January 12th, 2010, the earth was still shaking. I had managed to find most of my family and herd them into the biggest open space I could think of – Place Fierte, the enormous public square in the middle of Cite Soleil. The ground shook again, and everyone threw themselves down, screaming to Jesus to make everything stop. When a little boy began running towards his parents, people yelled at him ‘pa kouri! W’ap souke tè a!’ – ‘stop running, you’re shaking the ground!’ We didn’t know why the earth was shaking, when it would shake next, so we yelled at the little boy to stop running. We couldn’t sleep that night – the aftershocks kept us awake, off-balance, uncertain.

Five years after the earthquake that flattened a great deal of my country, there will be grand stories and reports and commemorations about the few dozen seconds that the earth shook. These somber reflections will be coming from international reporters, diplomats, and humanitarians, but not from Haitians – because we know that, for us, the earth never stopped shaking.

That may sound strange- but these were not the kinds of tremors that could be recorded by scientific instruments or felt inside walled compounds. These were tremors that only we could feel, things that kept us awake, off-balance, and uncertain.

In Cite Soleil, it wasn’t only the aftershocks that kept us awake, but gangsters who had escaped from the earthquake-damaged national prison and had come back to terrorize the neighborhoods they once ruled. We formed brigades to search for dead bodies, and brigades to make sure the escaped gangsters did not add to the body count. This was our aftershock, and it had a face, and ammunition. Every neighborhood had its own challenges and conflicts before the earthquake, and the disaster did not give us some proverbial clean slate. It made things messy.

However, the earthquake did remind us of something that I remembered old people from the countryside talking about: something they called konbit – an old system of solidarity, reciprocity. In the days after the earthquake, when there was no one to help us but ourselves, this thing inside of us seemed to stir into action. We were sharing our water and our grief, we were searching for and pulling strangers from the rubble, we were sleeping in the streets next to people whose names we didn’t know. People from the slums were helping the wealthy dig out their children from collapsed houses, the wealthy were helping the poor dig out their children from collapsed schools. Our doctors and nurses worked until they were on the verge of collapse, and then the foreign relief workers who came in those first few days did the same. Four people and a door became an ambulance. Hotels became hospitals. Neighbors became family, and strangers became neighbors. For those few days, we managed to hold each other up when everything else was falling down.

Many of us even felt something like hope – maybe this is what it took for our country to change.  But we could never get our bearings, because the disasters kept rolling in – cholera, tropical storms, elections.  The world was trying to build us back better, and we were just trying to stand.

The aid itself kept us off-balance. We didn’t know when the aid would be coming, when it would be going, why it was there, or what it would look like. It felt as arbitrary as the aftershocks, and we often felt just as powerless. We saw so many cars and logos and clipboards, and so little change. And we were at fault as well. That magical sense of solidarity melted into jealousy and competition over the tarps and tents that we knew wouldn’t be enough for everyone. Sometimes, we tore down the very things that people had built to help us, because we didn’t trust it. But when the very ground beneath your feet starts shaking, what can you trust?

Our government kept us uncertain. The UN had been in the country for six years before the earthquake trying to ‘stabilize’ the country. We hadn’t had a stable government in practically two centuries of history, with the exception of a few dictatorships, if you consider that stability.. So how were we supposed to trust that our government could fix our country when it couldn’t even hold itself together? Even President Preval said at the time that the Haitian state was too weak to tell the international community what we needed after the earthquake. If they offered us water, we had to just say thank you for the water.

And then there were the little tremors that happened in everyday life that kept us from regaining our sense of balance. While the international community was planning its great resettlement experiment in Corail, a few kilometers away in a squatter camp, a pregnant woman almost bled to death from a hemorrhage because the local police would not take her to or even tell her where the nearest hospital was. While debates about elections were going on in temporary government buildings, there were community leaders being shot in Cite Soleil.  When the prices of transitional shelters were being debated in the UN logistics base, women were afraid of the rapes happening every night in the tent camps. So to all of the hard-working people who were trying to fix Haiti – sorry if we didn’t seem to be paying attention, but most of us were just trying to survive.

We knew the stakes were high. Former President Bill Clinton claimed that this was Haiti’s best chance to emerge from the dark chapters of its history. Haiti’s Prime Minister at the time, Jean-Max Bellerive, warned that our failure to rebuild would have repercussions for other poor countries throughout the world.  It was now or never, they said. But we have heard this before, and we will hear it again – that Haiti will rise from the ashes, that this time, things will change.

But they haven’t really changed – at least not yet. Yes, we don’t see the rubble anymore. Yes, there are buildings being rebuilt, reinforced, and renovated. Yes, Haiti is no longer a patchwork quilt of tents and tarps. On the surface, the country looks healed. But the majority of my neighbors are still living in the same weak houses that would snap like twigs if another earthquake came through. They should know better, but knowledge doesn’t come with the money to buy more cement and rebar, so they close their doors at night and pray that they wake up tomorrow. The government itself is collapsing: Haiti has over a hundred political parties, and they have fought their way into a political gridlock that is paralyzing the state. The mountains surrounding Port au Prince have fewer trees and more shacks. The camps are gone but new shantytowns are growing. Haiti is a house with a pretty exterior, weak walls, and crumbling foundation – it is simply not ready for the next shock.

And everyone will exclaim in their articles that Haiti has not been “built back better,” and there will be fingers pointing blame every which way. Well, let me save you the time, because the fault is for everyone to share. The state is at fault for not standing up strong enough, the humanitarians for not sitting down to listen.  Foreign governments are at fault for promising aid that they never gave, as are donors who threw money at things that would make themselves happy. Also at fault are the Haitians in the camps for fighting over aid, and the Haitians working for international NGOs who only cared about their paychecks. I’m tired of the blame game; everyone needs to just sit down, shut up, and move on.

And most of you will move on – the media will go elsewhere, because the sixth anniversary of the earthquake will be so anticlimactic after the fifth. The NGOs will begin to leave, because they have little to show for these five years. The government will transition to another government, which can claim that they’re not to blame for how broken the country is – they just inherited it that way.  The donors will turn elsewhere, because what sane person wants to spend his life throwing rocks into the sea?

But the rest of us can’t move on. We still feel the tremors, every day. We don’t know when the next aftershock will come, or how long it will last. So we move slowly, stand cautiously, and hold on for dear life.  We cannot leave, so we have no choice but try to salvage what we can.

So five years on, most of me is bitter – only a small part of my soul still remembers that feeling of hope from the night of the January 12th, 2010, when I saw what we were capable of as a people. That small part of me wishes this: that we learn to help each other survive the small earthquakes that we live through every day, and that we don’t wait for another disaster to remember that this country’s fate is in our hands.

Robi 12

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3 comments

  1. INSIGHTFUL!!! Poignant, one can feel the disillusion that the people still suffering the “aftershocks” are experiencing. We all hoped that something “better” would come out of such tragedy, but alas once the adrenaline level returned to normal, greed reared its ugly head. For some it was survival for another day, for others an opportunity to get rich…I agree with Robi, for most the earth never stop shaking. Great post. Well written.

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  2. So what are your expectations of us foreigners? I come and work yearly at a foundation in Jacmel to help young people to become self-sustaining adults. Should I stay home? Should I send my monies elsewhere? For those of us outsiders, what are your expectations of us?

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    1. Connie,
      This is a really essential question that we have been struggling with for a long time, and one that we don’t yet have answers for. However, just staying home and not sending money is the easy way out. When faced with the deep and shifting complexities of what it means to do good in the midst of centuries of inequality, power, and conflict, the easy thing to do is just throw up our hands and withdraw. But that won’t solve these problems either. What we are looking for is for people to make serious commitments – to not look for the projects that give quick but flimsy results, and instead commit to the deep, unsure, and thankless task of laying the foundations of real change. That means looking at the deep wounds of Haiti without flinching. That means stepping back, asking ourselves hard questions, and understanding our own power and our privilege. That means being patient, staying to see the consequences of our actions, and, when they fail, being humble enough to learn. That is what this article was about – it was about pointing out the unrealistic expectations that the world had of fixing Haiti in a span of 5 years. There were failures all around, but of course there were failures, because Haiti cannot be ‘fixed’ in a flood of funds and good intentions. And now the world has burnt out on Haiti, and they are moving on when the work has just started, labeling things successes or failures with bright red pens but not taking the time to stop, listen, and learn. That is what we’re trying to say here. It is too easy to say that everyone should just stay at home and mind their own business. That’s not the answer. Our message is that people need to come here ready to fail, ready to learn, and ready to listen. Come ready to dig in your heels, because it is a long, hard, and messy struggle. If you are up for that, then welcome –

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