‘Mother Nature has risen up against us’

Haitian linguist and journalist Nicolas André sent this account of the hours and days after the Jan. 12 earthquake to BHR contributor Emmanuel W. Vedrine in Boston. Vedrine has translated his report from French to English.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010 — Waking up with a bitter taste in my mouth, I was far from imagine the horror that I was going to see, refusing to believe at first glance what happened Tuesday night (between 4:00 and 5:00 p.m.) wasn’t a night-marish vision, a simple thing. Feeling the ground trembling under my feet and seeing the back of my house (under construction) pitching like a boat on a stormy sea, I said to myself that was only a slight quake and I thought I was right when, thirty seconds later, I didn’t feel anything. Then... came the information and, little by little as they progressed, I thought it was maybe an exaggeration of the situation.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010— We could not sleep. Who could? Some small aftershocks occurred from time to time as the news made an implicit description of the capital city, Port-au-Prince. Everyone was outside, hanging on the phone with no answer. People were trying to hear from a parent, from a friend or from some acquaintances, for lack... Nothing! Nothing at all! The phone remained inexorably and implacably mute. When, trying to make the best of it by trying to sleep, but instead a sleepless night - when one realized that it’s five o’clock and it’s January 13. Oh, yes, January 13... I’ll get back to it.

Pétion-Ville, Place Boyer. I went away very early without knowing where to go. I wanted to see and mostly, tried to understand. I won the first bet. I saw (things) but without being able to understand (them). I saw a dense crowd gathered together under some makeshift tents. Survivors or refugees, who have slept there, woke up wondering what could have happened to them. One could read grief, sadness, and suffering on their face.
At Place Saint-Pierre, still in Pétion-Ville, the situation wasn’t different. The people were hungry and thirsty. Everything was lacking. Some people tried to offer their help, but derisory could it be, it was noteworthy. Here, some bags of water being offered – there, they were trying to nurse an injured person with the means at one’s disposal.
Farther, I saw smashed cars under crumbling houses. I saw people with swollen faces for they wept with rage or suffer so much. Some have been wounded, some were hobbling or walking by leaning on another person, however one is lucky to escape from the fate of these bodies wrapped with white sheets ... bodies, sheltered by the ground, having a breath, a life not even twelve hours ago... bodies of people who didn’t have time to see death coming.
Across from the Court of Justice of the Peace, not far from the Pétion-Ville market, a man of a certain age, sat down before a corpse, weeping his eyes out. On the side, five other bodies lying on the ground. Walking down rue Panaméricaine, up to the entrance of Morne Lazare, I could count more than a dozen of corpses on both sides of the streets. Many victims were being buried under collapsed buildings.
In front of Centre hospitalier Éliazar Germain (the Éliazar Germain Medical Center), crowded with injured people inside, countless of others were waiting, with not too much hope to be admitted to the hospital’s courtyard. As for receiving medical care... a sick person lying in an all-terrain car with a painful face. The hospital “Our younger brothers and sisters”, from few blocks of (former) houses which their rubbles only exist…
Everywhere, one found some small groups of people fleeing their house, people who no longer have a house, such as this young inconsolable and disconsolate woman in her twenties – sitting alone with her baby in her arms. I sat down near her watching her crying. The baby felt asleep. Her house collapsed with all that she had. She managed to get out of it without a scratch. Sitting on the ground, not far from the Texaco gas station, the young woman, Pamela, has no idea what to do. Without money, without clothing, she had more than one reason to cry; her little Darwin, a few months old baby, could fall asleep after crying of being hungry. Pamela has no news of her mother and brother who live in Carrefour-Feuilles. Oh, Carrefour-Feuilles, I’ll get there.

Thursday, January 14, 2010 — Our journey was a long one. My wife and I have seen a gang of things! She had to go to Carrefour-Feuilles to confirm or invalidate the news about her (male and female) cousins, and the death of a brother-in-law – all of them residents of this Port-au-Prince’s neighborhood. She could confirm.
First, we went through Delmas. Along the Delmas road, one could only see the roofs of more than one story buildings flattened on the ground. Everywhere, there were groups of pedestrians, groups of people at each corner, waiting for some hypothetical aid – everyone or almost everyone in the same state of mind, in the same situation. Further down the corner of Delmas 48, a gas station distributing gas! Oh, miracle! People were hurling (down), jostling each other, having a row with others and even came to blows. Everyone found a jerry can or a can and left momentarily their vehicle – in the middle of the street in certain cases – to catch a little bit of this already precious substance, which has become vital.
At Delmas 3, the local “Dadadou Sportive Center” served as shelter for many families. Tents have been mounted, carpets being stretched out on the ground like in a great community picnic. According to some reflections, the disaster that hit the country brings survivors closer. A feeling of solidarity animated all these overnight brave homeless compatriots or hunted by the fear of going back to their house (for some).
As for downtown, a total scene of distress. Speaking of hecatomb would be (a word used) to remain below the truth. In downtown, one could observe the effects of this cataclysmal seism hitting the country. And we learned that some communes or administrative districts like Carrefour or Léogâne, or a (a big chunk of) geographic division such as Jacmel have been hit at the very least, 75%. Public and legendary buildings have collapsed. The Port-au-Prince Cathedral is doubly decapitated. The national palace as well. The building lodging the Justice Palace is only a souvenir. The Sacred-Heart Church of Turgeau makes one want to cry, if tears still remain after seeing so many dead bodies.
The corpses lying down everywhere, at least those that were seen. In the garage of a private mortuary, at rue Dr Aubry, loads of these cadavers have taken up the space. Running along(side) this street, in proximity to the ruins of Port-au-Prince Cathedral, other corpses, were already in a state of decay along(side) the sidewalks, almost at close intervals.
The “DGI” (Direction Générale des Impots or General Headquarter of Revenues) building lodging the Interior Ministry, among other things, only remains the shadow of what they were. At rue Monseigneur Guilloux, in proximity to the General Hospital, one could observe a great (hustle and) bustle. Probably, people looking for a loved one who disappeared. The building of National School of Nurses will no longer welcome many young women as it would in the past, with the same structure and the same installations.
At the corner of rues Alerte and Mgr Guilloux, young people of the neighborhood used ropes attached to mass of concretes that they wanted to bring down in order to recover some dead bodies giving the impression that they have been hanged. At route des Dalles, the corpses like a house on fire with people who were alive, quickly spread out in the streets in order to stay away from the buildings. Many people perished under the collapsed houses, but some people were still alive under the rubbles. In testimony of a three months old baby they have just pulled out under the rubbles. We could observe that she could poorly breathe, but is well and truly alive and, despite of being found in the dust, she has no scratch. This occurred in proximity of the corner of route des Dalles and avenue Magloire Ambroise.
Being edified and horrified, we took the reverse road to go back to Pétion-Ville. Walking down Martin Luther King Boulevard, we saw corpses that were being packed on both sides (of the street), and began to discharge putrefying smells. This gruesome trip ended up by our return to our departure point and my reflection is the following: “If you are being informed of what happened, you can’t remain insensitive; if you only saw a part of what happened, you’ll no longer be the same person for your life will be changed forever.” This afternoon - Tuesday January 12, 2010 – will remain, forever, a painful and indelible souvenir for us, Haitians, whenever we may be.
Everything has to be done again in a country that’s already been racked by so many calamities. I remember last year. After the hurricanes, and particularly in Gonaïves, a tragedy has severely hit many families in Nerette. Though I was not in the country at the time, I revised, with sadness, all the information that occurred breathtakingly high at the time.
And now, a disaster that I live with horror – one of a greater scope and a more devastating one that hit Haiti. It leads us to wonder if (mother) Nature has risen up against us. Most certainly, this woman would answer – a miraculous survivor of her house – to whom I paid a visit, as well as the group of people I heard commentating on the event that shook us. They try to show that only the Haitian being and his accomplishments or material possessions are the victims of this quake. No tree, they said, has been hit and would be very rare of animals that suffered from it.
But here, it’s only a few particular reflections. It’s up to you to judge whether they have some truth or not. In the meantime, we don’t have other choice then sticking together, to lament (for) our love ones, but mostly to reconstruct together this mother land which has been incessantly ravaged. And it’s about time that we, together, rebuild it!
Nicolas André is a linguist and journalist who lives in Haiti. More on his background and work is available here.
Emmanuel W. Vedrine is a linguist who lives and works in Dorchester, MA. He is a frequent contributor to the Boston Haitian Reporter.