Live From Haiti: The Anniversary

by Jon L. Denby

Jonathan Denby, All Rights Reserved, 2011

Port-au-Prince—On the morning of the anniversary—exactly one year since a 7.0 earthquake devastated Haiti—four other journalists and I waited patiently in the courtyard of the NGO compound we were staying at. However, our initial driver failed to show up at the designated time and so we were forced to get a new one. He drove into the compound around 9:00am in a rickety bus that was painted with vibrant images of plants, people, flowers, and other cultural imagery. It was if some stoner VW minivan from 1968 had traveled through time and was now going to drive us into downtown Port-au-Prince.

We arrived downtown at the National Cathedral about thirty minutes later. The plaza in front of the Cathedral was already filling up with people. Along with Haitians, the worldwide media had also come out in full force with photographers, videographers, reporters, networks, freelancers like myself, and just plain tourists wandering around with their cameras ablaze. This was a media feeding frenzy of the first order with the national commemoration as the dramatic backdrop.  The scene was memorable: women wearing the traditional white Haitian garb with head-scarves wailed in mourning and threw their hands skyward shouting for God’s forgiveness.  Many people were solemn; some looked captivated by the events unfolding around them. Others gathered around small tents listening to the sermons of ministers.

Surprisingly, we were actually able to walk into the ruins of the National Cathedral.  The experience was so insanely dangerous that is worth describing in detail. The entire structure was a skeleton and looked as if it would all collapse any minute. The roof had completely fallen in. Huge mounds of debris and rubble covered the floor. Stone pillars and archways had toppled over, and pieces of concrete hung precariously from the rusting steel rods embedded within. It was like crawling around the wreck of some stone ship where a wrong step or unlucky placement could end in terrible injury or death.

The situation became even more surreal when we discovered an intact staircase that wound its way up the side of the skeleton. We ascended the staircase, which was blocked along the way by pieces of debris and where entire sections of the wall were missing. At the top of the staircase, you had to pull yourself up through a hole in the broken ceiling. One misplaced step or slip and you would simply slide down the debris and out of one of the gaping holes in the wall—and then out into the open air where the plaza awaited you a hundred feet below.

Once through the hole, we ended up in the belfry of the Cathedral. Looking up, I saw the large cast-iron church bells broken from their anchors and suspended above us by little more than wooden beams. If the beams had broken, the bells—probably weighing a couple tons each—would come crashing down and bring the entire floor (and us) with it.  We walked from the belfry and into another room that, at this point, was essentially half a balcony suspended above the floor of the cathedral. We stayed a couple minutes and then descended back to ground level.

Jonathan Denby, All Rights Reserved, 2011We found ourselves in the surrounding streets. After doing some interviews, we heard that former president Bill Clinton was nearby. We raced over and, miraculously, security waved us through with hardly a glance. We walked into a large courtyard lined with Haitian soldiers in crisp white ceremonial uniforms. We joined the press-pool on the side. Clinton was sitting with other figureheads on a stage overlooking the gravel-covered ceremonial grounds. Haitian President Rene Preval, not exactly a popular man nowadays, was next to him, as was Haitian prime minister Jean-Max Bellerive. They sat solemnly as a woman stood at a microphone singing the national anthem. Then they rose and walked down the stage to the grounds below. They collectively placed the first stone at the center of what is to be a memorial park dedicated to the victims of the quake.  It was a quite and serene moment with nobody speaking or cheering.

Jonathan Denby, All Rights Reserved, 2011We had lunch in the afternoon at a hotel located across the street from the Champs de Mars, a large and dirty refugee camp that sits just across from the ruins of the National Palace. It seemed as though the entire foreign press corps in Haiti was staying there. Journalists of all kinds were sipping cocktails and chatting in the outdoor lounge area. Suddenly, lunch was interrupted by a protest outside. I went out and photographed a group of protestors marching down the street. They carried anti-Preval and anti-UN banners. I interviewed a twenty-one year old protester named Mackenzie. He was there because he wanted the United Nations peacekeeping forces out of Haiti. He wanted the PNH (Haitian National Police) to take over again. He also asserted that UN forces were killing people in some of the refugee camps. If their protests went unheard, Mackenzie said, they would act “in a bad way.”

Jonathan Denby, All Rights Reserved, 2011Afterward, we had to get yet another driver, our first driver having abandoned us hours beforehand. We drove a short distance to a voodoo ceremony. It ought to be said that many in the West have a fear of voodoo, believing it posses dark and even evil qualities.  This is an unfounded stereotype propagated by ignorance and even racism. Conversely, the ceremony I attended was a very lively event complete with a band, singing, and dancing. The practitioners—both men and women—were dressed in traditional white garb. A group of men danced around while a number of women were off to the side chanting, lighting special substances that produced white billows of smoke, and sacrificing chickens. It was not disturbing in the least, and had it been taking place in some neighborhood in Brooklyn, say, it would have been viewed as a block-party.

Our driver took us back to the street in front of the National Palace to do some filming and this is where the day’s adventure took a bad turn. Some of the journalists opted to stay in the van, while the others and I disembarked. The people with me were a filmmaking crew that wanted to shoot some footage of the surrounding area and do some interviews. I set down my backpack for a minute and took out my own video camera to do some shooting. My colleagues continued onward without looking back and eventually disappeared around a corner. At that moment our driver suddenly decided to take off in the other direction. I discovered that I was alone in front of the Champs de Mars, not exactly the safest of the refugee camps in the capital.

Jonathan Denby, All Rights Reserved, 2011I took off in the direction of the film crew, but after fifteen minutes of searching they were nowhere to be found. I decided to double back and wait in the area where we had been dropped off in hopes they would come looking for me there. As I waited, I became increasingly nervous as various groups of men watched me from the periphery of the camp, some with interest, others with clear hostility.

All of the sudden I heard my name being shouted from across the street. Some people in a green jeep were calling for me. I could not make out who they were, and it was not until they drove over did I see that it was Lou, the founder of the NGO where we were staying. “Thank God you happened by here,” I said. “I got separated from my group and have been here about forty-five minutes.” “Well, get in,” said Lou, “We are headed to the General Hospital.”

It turned out that the General Hospital is a sprawling compound that sits not too far from the National Palace and Champs de Mars. Members of the NGO were there, mainly medical and logistics people volunteering their time for the day. They were tending to some of the patients and building bookshelves to store medications and supplies. I remained there with them until nightfall and then headed back to their compound.

As darkness fell, I stood on a patio of the three-story compound and gazed out over the lights of Port-au-Prince below. I thought about the day’s events and how this island-nation was still struggling and suffering a year after the earthquake. I thought about the million and a half people still stranded in refugee camps like the Champs de Mars. I thought about the people who were dying of Cholera, an easily preventable and treatable condition. I thought about the international community and all the funds they had promised Haiti, but has since not been delivered.

What can be said of an anniversary of such a terrible disaster? Probably the same thing that can be said of any catastrophe where large numbers of people have perished: mourn those who are gone, help those who are still here, and be thankful you are rete vivan—staying alive.