Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2010
At 4:53 p.m., Haiti, my country, changed forever. The earthquake lasted 90 seconds. My world, and that of my countrymen and women, became a massive horror story played out on the world stage.
I was in Haiti on home leave from my job in New York with the United Nations. When the earthquake struck, I was gardening, having decided at the last moment to forsake the beach. The earth screamed; a sound of thunder that came from its belly as it violently shook the plants, the car, the walls, the pavement that I stood on. I called out to everyone to walk out of the house quickly. It seemed like a long, long time. Then silence. Then screams from some of the residents of the rural neighborhood. From my yard, high on a mountainside above Port-au-Prince, I looked down at the city below and saw a cloud of dust rise as whole neighborhoods fell like popcorn.
I called my best friend, Florence, to find out if she was safe. I could hear screams in the background as she told me of the massive panic. People were running in all directions and cars were abandoned in the middle of the streets of Pétion-Ville, a suburb in the hills above Port-au-Prince but below my location. I asked her to call me when she got home.. I tried to make another call, but the phone had gone dead.
I ran to the house to get my transistor radio and heard Radio France International (RFI) confirm that there had been an earthquake in Haiti. The big news was that it was 7.0 in magnitude and that the national palace, most public buildings, as well as commercial and industrial buildings, were likely destroyed and hundreds were feared dead.
As people walked past my front gate that night, I greeted each one and asked how they were doing and whether they had suffered damage. One woman answered with the vivid imagery that often characterizes Haitian Creole. “God is the most powerful bull. Every once in a while, he commands in a manner designed to show man how small he is.” After several aftershocks, finally at around 10 p.m., I went into the house to inspect the damage. Three wine glasses were broken. The gardener reported that all the walls were standing with no fissures. Standing in the cool tropical night, I could not help but ask, “Why was my house spared? Why was I spared?” I gave thanks. I didn’t know then that there was an apocalypse taking place below.
At 6.30 a.m., the dead phone rang miraculously, and I heard my daughter, Aissatou, in Miami say, “Mommy … thank God you are alive.” My daughter, my mother and sister asked me how I was and told me what they knew from the media, which was covering the event on 24-hour mode. We cried tears of joy and sadness. They promised to call Karim-Daniel, my son in Paris, who was all alone wondering if I was dead as he watched the news on French TV. My sister then asked me when I was coming back, and I said that I would go to the office to see if I could help. The phone went dead again.
Only one radio station was broadcasting: RFI. As the news came through every half-hour on the tiny transistor radio, the tears streamed down my cheeks as the names of some of the dead were called out. Then I heard the name of a childhood friend, who is the godfather of my son. My scream silenced the radio and brought the house staff to me. It was too much to bear.
I felt alone and too isolated, so I caught a ride down to Pétion-Ville with a neighbor. My friend Florence’s house was standing, but her sister’s had fallen into small pieces. All of us packed in my car to find friends and family. The horror became real. I saw the first bodies strewn here and there in the streets, some covered with a plastic bag, others with just a piece of clothing or a sheet. Buildings were lying on the ground in piles of fallen construction blocks, cars were crushed by concrete, and men and women were pulling away the debris trying to free people trapped underneath. I could see feet sticking out of the rubble.
The roads were blocked further down. We went to another road and found the same scene—more bodies, more concrete. Some survivors were walking in the street, covered in dust in a trance-like march to nowhere. The phones were still dead.. On the way home, I stopped to see a friend whose house was split in two. Miraculously both sides stayed up arrogantly, defying the earth. With her BlackBerry, I was able to send a message to the office that I was alive. When I got home, the neighborhood was eerily quiet. I felt useless. Why am I alive, I kept wondering?
On Thursday morning, I found a Haitian radio station. Yves-Marie, a journalist whom I’ve known for years, announced the deaths of Myriam Merlet, Anne Marie Coriolan and Magali Marcelin. I fell to my knees screaming in pain. Myriam, Anne Marie and Magali were my sisters in the struggle for gender rights in Haiti. No military dictatorship or any gang managed to silence, to block or even to interrupt their street demonstrations on the road to empowerment of Haitian women, toward the realization of their rights to health, to education and to equal pay. And now they were silenced by the earthquake.
I had lunch with Myriam on Monday! I was to do the same with Anne Marie on Friday. With their deaths, their children Anayiz, Yamil and Maile immediately became orphans. I have a pressing need to hug each one of them and to tell them that I am also their mother if they are willing to adopt me.
I have run out of water, too, but the stores are still closed; I have run out of money, and the banks are closed. I have two cans of soup left. I inquire about evacuation, feeling wretched guilt at the luxurious option that I have and that so many others do not. I feel so privileged and yet so ashamed. I register at the United Nations office for a Saturday flight out of Haiti. Florence registers for Canadian evacuation with her 95-year-old mother. My godson and the driver can see our shame, but we must hurry to look for gasoline. The gas stations are also closed.
It’s been three days now. Why is it that the people in the tent city in this Pétion-Ville park have not been moved to another area, even across the street to the high-school yard where they could have access to bathrooms and running water? Children, men, women, young people, they are stripped of all dignity in this open space. They have no water, no food, no electricity, no security They huddle together quietly, perhaps to protect themselves from hunger, from thirst, from desolation or even from life. But they are together, and it is that solidarity that characterizes the Haitian people and the moment.
This morning the radio announced that the city of Léogane was destroyed and that 80 percent of its citizens had no shelter. Petit-Gôave was also destroyed. Yesterday, the news was that the seaside city of Jacmel, where I had spent the previous weekend, was severely affected, and the road that connected it with Port-au-Prince was severed.
I travel today, but to get to the airport I need gasoline. On the way to the gas station, I see a body in the middle of the street. Are the neighbors scared of the man—or was it a woman, I could not tell—who had been transformed in death into a big, black balloon?
Then more bodies, groups of eight, groups of 10, stiff huge balls of flesh, uncovered. We are all wearing masks; the car windows are closed, but the stench of death knows no boundaries. In the car, we are all crying. The driver is rushing through this neighborhood where evidently no car has ventured since the earthquake. Bodies, more bodies, even more bodies … it is a hecatomb.
In Haiti, when we bury our dead, we say that they go to Guinea, the metaphor for the African ancestral land. This way, we appease the gods for the slave voyage from Africa to Haiti. This earthquake not only shatters this important cultural ritual, but it also destroys all of our political symbols—our National Palace, our Parliament and our government ministries—reducing the government to a side office on the peripheral airport road.
As I leave Port-au-Prince on the UN plane to Santo Domingo, I look down at this devastated city that gave me birth and wonder how it came to this. Why am I alive? Why is my house standing? I wonder. Why? My sobs do not provide any answers nor comfort. I arrive in Santo Domingo in a daze.
I am in a fog. People speak to me in what I perceive to be abstractions. Monday morning, as I get into the elevator, my neighbor asks me casually how I am, and I respond spontaneously: I am lucky to be alive.
I have started to answer the question: Why? I have realized that I must dedicate my life to something higher, better, more meaningful. Nothing will ever be the same. The 90 seconds that shook my country, my people, my world, to pieces showed all of us working together to rescue, to help, to comfort, to feed the affected and afflicted, that life is so precious. I must use my time to serve others in a meaningful way.
The dignity, the resilience, the solidarity demonstrated by my people during this unspeakable tragedy is what should propel us to build a great nation out of this tabula rasa. We must turn this disaster into an opportunity and give Haiti a completely new face for the future
Monique Clesca, an employee of the United Nations Population Fund, was at home in her native Haiti at the time of the earthquake.
Her entire narrative will appear in the April 2010 issue of Black Renaissance Noir, a quarterly edited by Quincy Troupe for the Department of African-American Affairs at New York University.