Five years ago, on January 12th, 2010, a massive earthquake struck Haiti at 4:53 pm. Robi was coming back from downtown Port au Prince, and was in a TapTap when the world went white with dust and began trembling. After realizing it was an earthquake, he managed to gather up most of his family and bring them to the most open space in Cite Soleil – Place Fierte, the enormous public square in the heart of the city. It turns out, that’s where everyone else had brought their families, and for a period of a few days, the normally fragmented Cite Soleil lived as one. People from rival neighborhoods slept next to each other, shared water and food, and helped search for family members. The normally rigid lines between blocks and zones and baz faded away. For the first time, Robi – and many other Soleyans – saw that these divisions could actually be overcome. It was this moment of revelation that many think was the motivation behind Konbit Soley Leve – to somehow reclaim that feeling of unity. So every year on January 12th, Soley Leve makes a big effort to bring people in Cite Soleil together to commemorate the death and destruction, and to celebrate the unity that was forged to face it. This year was the fifth anniversary, and even though the country was facing a paralyzing political crisis, everyone was committed to going ahead.
At 8am, around 150 people from all blocks of Cite Soleil – and a few from another marginalized area called Belair – gathered in front of Cite Soleil’s police station. They had on white and black t-shirts with this message: “kisa n’ap tann pou’n chanje?” What are we waiting for to change? They were carrying small white crosses in their hands and small black crosses around their necks, made in the workshop of Haiti Communitere by a local professional named Beneche. There was one enormous white cross, and several wreaths of flowers. As the bus loaded up, people all corners of Cite Soleil – Bois Neuf, Projet Droullard, Ti Ayiti, Brooklyn, Whaf, Boston, Cite Lumiere, La Plaine – crammed themselves into a bus, shoulder to shoulder. As per the tradition, the bus was heading to Titanyen – the site of the mass grave that held tens of thousands of earthquake victims that had been dumped there by the truck-full.
We always went in the morning, because the afternoon was when the President always came to do the government’s official ceremony, and Soley Leve always avoids being mixed up in politics. However, because of the current political crisis, it seems the President had switched his plans and organized a morning ceremony as well, and by the time we arrived it was underway. With over a hundred people marching with crosses, we were stopped at the entrance to the memorial site at St Cristophe by police. The entire site was off-limits, they said, as long as the president was inside. We then watched as a LandCruiser filled with foreigners breezed past the security entrance – it seems that only a few specially invited people were being given permission to grieve during these specific hours. There were people in our group who had family members lying in that earth, and they felt outrage that a political ceremony could keep them from paying their respects.
On the sidelines, people in white t-shirts with pink lettering – Martelly’s signature color – were trying to push t-shirts and leaflets with the president’s face on our group. The t-shirts weren’t even about the earthquake – they had political messages like “eleksyon – tet dwat!” on the back. As we regrouped out of the reach of the political t-shirt pushers, Robi recounted his failed negotiations with the police officers. He had told them that we didn’t want to go into the walled-off area where the ceremony was being held, but rather a dry hill behind it, where we have gone for the past few years to plant a cross. Someone shouted out that his family lived nearby, and that he knew an alternate road to get to that hill. A spontaneous plan was developed, and we walked off single file into the brush. We arrived at the base of the hill after a hot and dusty walk, and scrambled up the back side, thorns and brambles tearing at clothes and feet. Finally, when we arrived at the top of the hill, we were greeted by two heavily-armed police officers – it seems they had been stationed there as lookouts and were not expecting to see a crowd of people scrambling up this desolate hillside. Their immediate reaction was to scream at us to get down the mountain and they aimed their guns at the people in the front of the group – one of whom was Robi. Those at the front heard the click as the safety went off. But Robi knows how to handle these situations. He took the gigantic white cross from the person next to him and steadily advanced, step by step, all the while saying in a loud, clear voice who we were and where we were here. He knew this was a fragile situation – we’d been in situations like this before. If anyone balked, screamed, or ran, it would spook the officers and they could shoot. But the people behind Robi stood strong and stayed calm – every step forward he took, they took one step forward as well, holding up their hands in a gesture that were reminiscent of the Ferguson protests in America. All the while, the guns were trained on Robi and the people at his side. But finally, he reached the top of the hill, turned his back on the police officers, and motioned for someone to bring the pickaxe we had brought with us. Someone began swinging the pickaxe to make a hole, and Robi planted the enormous white cross in the ground. By the time he turned back around, the guns were pointed at the ground. Robi invited Manno and Bill Gates, two musicians from Bois Neuf, to come to the front and sing the music they’d written about the earthquake called “anba dekonb” – under the rubble. Everyone knew the words. As the song faded, Robi asked for 35 seconds of silence to remember the 35 seconds that their country shook, and we were silent. Then someone came through the crowd and handed out scraps of paper and pens – it was a member of Cle D’or, an organization from the neighborhood of Boston that was a strong part of Soley Leve. They asked everyone to write down the names of the people they lost in the earthquake, and after about ten minutes of passing around pens and pencils, people held their pieces of paper to the sky. Then the organizer told everyone to hold onto the memory of that person, and then let go of their pieces of paper. The wind whipped the papers into the sky, and we watched them disappear. Someone called for a group picture, but to do that we needed to get to the hill where the police were still standing. An older Scout leader with graying hair made the first tentative step towards the police officers, explaining that he was just trying to get in a good position to take a picture. The police bristled and began to raise their guns. It was an odd image, this older man in a khaki Boy Scouts uniform that seemed to unnerve these two heavily armed men in their blue camouflage. But then, we heard the sirens of the presidential cortege and saw a series of black vehicles speeding out of the memorial site onto route 1. The officers must have gotten their order, because within a matter of seconds they were gone bounding down the mountain. We took our pictures and headed down the mountain and back into the big yellow bus. A few of us, Alashkar, Gama, Sabina, and Robi’s daughter Dayana assembled in the Cite Soleil High School as Robi went to get the gigantic tank of helium that we’d arranged to have brought in from the Dominican Republic. We spent the rest of the afternoon blowing up balloons in a classroom in the high school, as more and more people from the morning’s activities came in to help us. The conversation turned to where everyone was exactly five years ago when the earthquake hit. As usual, the stories were filled with the dark humor of those that had survived, and the storytelling went on, punctuated by the occasional bang of a balloon popping. By 4:00, the classroom’s ceiling was filled with hundreds of balloons, and the yard of the high school was filling with people. People from the morning’s pilgrimage came to the high school – which was a serious risk for some of them because the high school is in Lower Cite Soleil and many of them were from Upper Cite Soleil. One of the guys from Cite Lumiere greeted everyone with a nervous laugh, saying, “I was scared out of my mind to come, but I came.” 50 children from SAKALA and other youth clubs came in. A collection of foreign volunteers and a journalist from Haiti Communitere showed up, as did Louis Henri Mars of Lakou Lape, Philippe Armand of CAH, and someone from the American Embassy. Everyone grabbed a handful of balloons, and the motley assortment of 150 people from all corners of Port au Prince spilled out of the high school’s gates and onto the streets. Every other year, we had always gathered at Place Fierte to re-create the coming together of everyone in the aftermath of the earthquake. But Place Fierte was under construction, so we decided to arrange ourselves in a different symbolic place: Carrefour Brooklyn, the intersection between Upper and Lower Cite Soleil, the line that was currently dividing the neighborhoods. We had written the police to help us block off the intersection, and we formed a large circle, shutting down traffic. We had been unable to find a megaphone, so Robi shouted out a speech about why we were here, and the unity we were attempting to recover. Then Manno and Bill Gates sang their song, which was amplified by the countless people in the crowd who knew all the words and sang “anba dekonb” at the right moments. At 4:50, a trumpet sounded out a funeral song as we stood in silence, and at 4:53 precisely, Robi called out to everyone to let their balloons go. All of a sudden, hundreds of balloons lifted into the air, symbolizing the hundreds of thousands of souls that were lost in that exact minute five years ago. The balloons disappeared into the beginnings of the sunset, and we all went home. That night, Haiti’s parliament dissolved. The message of unity that the day should have brought seems to have fallen on deaf ears . It seems it will take more than an earthquake for Haiti to change.