January 24, 2011

REGISTER PHOTO | MICHAEL SWAN

Construction workers begin to build a dwelling four for religious, a glimmer of hope amongst the rampant destruction.

MICHAEL SWAN
THE CATHOLIC REGISTER

From inside a brown, battered SUV, with the doors locked and the windows up, and in the company of a seasoned Haitian driver, the Petionville Market after dark is as frightening as any place I've ever been.

I have in my time been pushed around and spat on in a back alley in Xian, China. I wandered after dark through Harlem, Times Square, South Bronx and the Bowery in my student days. I've crawled over piles of garbage and explored the unlit streets of Nairobi's slums.

I've tried photographing the slums of Rio, while the taxi driver yelled at me to get back in the cab. I've walked by guards with machetes and automatic rifles to interview people in El Salvador. I've questioned people inside homeless shelters and prisons. I've been threatened by Toronto drug dealers who didn't like the presence of a camera on their street.

I've had good and sensible reasons to be scared in my career.

BONE-CHILLING FEAR

But I've never been any place where the level of threat was as pervasive and constant as it is in Haiti. I've never been in a place that could make me feel afraid while sitting with three other people inside a locked car as it crawled along the street, with a crush of ghostly bodies slipping by our windows in the darkness.

No doubt, pre-earthquake Haiti was a dicey sort of place for outsiders. In 1994 Haitian gang members scared off the U.S. Marines with machetes and stones before America's elite soldiers had even landed on Haitian soil. The earthquake, I believe, has raised it all up a notch or two.

There's nothing like the uncertainty of chaos to make us afraid. The piles of rubble, the half-collapsed buildings, the razor wire stretched along sections of cracked and crumbling walls give no indication of order in Haiti's capital.

The market outside Our Lady of the Assumption Cathedral in Port-au-Prince looks like a tidy, predictable, suburban shopping mall compared to the Petionville Market at night, but still every little pile of goods from used auto parts, to cigarettes, to batteries, to discarded office furniture, shoes and on and on looks like contested territory. And every merchant is accompanied by a scowling, oversized partner sizing up each customer who approaches and every non-customer who passes by.

I did not go to Haiti to hear another recap of the shock and distress of Jan. 12, 2010. Of course I spoke to people who lost their children, their grandfathers, their wives and their husbands. I spoke to a young woman who spent five hours trapped in the rubble.

I also spoke to peasant farmers as they were recovering from torrential rain brought by Hurricane Tomas - hours and hours huddled under a sheet of tin where their house used to be, as rain threatened to wash away everything. Then they reached back 10 months and told me about the terror of seeing their houses collapse and walking to Port-au-Prince to search for their families.

WALK AROUNG THE DEAD

"While we were walking to Port-au-Prince we had to walk around cadavers," said Fritz Ner-Sérénium.

With 230,000 dead, more than half of Port-au-Prince still in ruins, over a million people still living under tarpaulins or in tents, there are far too many of those stories to even begin. And repetition adds little in the way of insight.

The Catholic Register wanted to know, what now? After a year, what has happened and what direction is Haiti taking?

If there were a simple, definite answer the question wouldn't be worth asking. Journalists ask questions that have more than one answer because multiple, even conflicting answers are closer to the truth of a complex world.

But some truths are unambiguous. One of them is that 10 months living in a tent is hard.

Redemptorist Father Adonai Jean-Juste sat with me on a bench in the midst of what used to be his home staring straight ahead, hardly able to gather the energy to answer questions.

"Living in the tent is not easy. I want to get out of the tents. It's too much for me now, living in the tents," he said.

NO MORE TENTS

A construction crew of five men was busy on the other side of the line of tents where four Redemptorists live, mixing cement, piling up rebar, getting ready to start rebuilding the walls that will house the four religious - two men studying for priesthood, a brother and their superior Jean-Juste.

"I see the presence of God in the earthquake. Many people died. Many, many people died. We didn't have the means to bury them," he said. "But everyone was living in the open air and it didn't rain. That was a surprise.

"I think God was with other people who died. I think maybe it was his will. It was their time."

Haitians are the world champions of the brave face. They make British stiff upper lips look wobbly as Jello.

The Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Conception are all business - entirely consumed by their mission to educate the girls and rebuild the school. Meanwhile, the nine sisters are living in four tiny classrooms, their possessions piled up in an old box car, praying the Morning Office in a crowded little corner next to the one sink they all share.

They spend all day outside under the cruel gaze of the Caribbean sun or under the UNICEF tarpaulins where they teach 40 girls at a time.

They will only talk about the school, the girls, the community. The closest they come to talking about themselves is when Sister Josette Drouinard lets slip her dream that one day the students will have a chapel and auditorium - some beauty in their lives and not just dust and desks and sun. She doesn't say that she and her sisters could use a refuge for prayer.

Downtown St. Antoine's School principal Sister Saint Anne Jean-Baptiste answered my questions with that same distant stare and weariness as Jean-Just. Except that in the sister's case no cement is being mixed, no plans are being spread on a wobbly table under another patch of tarp, no promises have been made that the Sisters of St. Anne will have their own school again.

We tried to hide from the sun in the only bare sliver of shade available, while the students in their pink dresses dart around us and line up for lunch.

Jean-Baptiste allows it is a "difficult situation."

NO, NO, NO

My notes are full of sentences that begin with "no."

"No office."

"No space to work with students."

"No land to build a new school."

"Not getting enough school hours." (Students that is, whom she fears for the first time in St. Antoine's history may not pass the state exam that qualifies them to go on to Grade 7.)

"We have so many needs, it's overwhelming," she said.

But each and every Haitian has a memory from the earthquake that doesn't fill them with horror or overwhelming sadness.

After the earthquake Haitians stood together atop the rubble and dug. They moved hunks of concrete together, passing the pieces of their former city from hand to hand. Haitians were together. They cared for one another.

SOLIDARITY

"It brought people together. There was solidarity," said Yolette Jeanty.

That concrete memory of post-earthquake Haiti stripped down to its core, when Haitians had nothing but each other, is not a memory of violence or greed or humiliations or vengeance.

For lack of any better word, it is a memory of love - true love, not sentimentality. It was the love that binds us together and makes society possible. It is the love that makes God present and promises a future.