Remembering Haiti 10 years after the earthquake

A slave colony that won its freedom only to face colonial debt, dictators and a US-backed coup, the world let Haiti down when it most needed help. A photojournalist recounts what he saw in 2010.

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It’s been 10 years since the Earth’s crust shifted, causing the earthquake that struck Haiti and wiped out hundreds of thousands of people. The quake was a catastrophe for the already struggling nation.

The official death toll is contested. It fluctuates between 300 000 at the highest and 100 000 at the most conservative. To put this in context, the Soccer City stadium was getting just over 80 000 fans a game during the Fifa World Cup in South Africa in 2010 – the same year as the earthquake.

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At the time I was working for The Sunday Times newspaper. They sent me there to report on what I saw. I remember the horror and grief.

When I arrived, the capital Port-au-Prince was a post-apocalyptic city strewn with corpses rotting in the sweltering heat. The Haitian social services were ill equipped to deal with a disaster of that intensity. The smell of death was everywhere. Most buildings had collapsed from the top down “like concertinas”, crushing the people inside between the floors. I met two young women who said they had been on top of a building when it happened. That’s why they survived. Their story was one of the very few with a happy ending that I heard.

There were survivors. Several people were pulled from the rubble alive. I wish I had seen them. I don’t recall witnessing much joy or scenes of hope. The scale of the suffering seemed limitless.

19 January 2010: A man runs through smouldering rubble in downtown Port-Au-Prince in the aftermath of the earthquake.

As the sun set, men would build pyres on the street corners where wooden pallets and bodies would be burned, sending pillars of black smoke up into the dusk. But every morning new bodies of people taken by the quake appeared on the pavements.

Trucks dumped scores of the dead in shallow trenches outside the city. The vast amount of corpses could not be cremated and were posing a health risk, so the authorities had made a decision to bury people in mass graves. There was no record of who lay in those graves. No markers, no names, no dates. Not a sign to say so-and-so was born on that day and died on 12 January 2010 and is remembered fondly by their family.

25 January 2010: A woman cries on returning to find her shelter in Port-au-Prince burned and her belongings stolen.

Survival instinct

Sporadic violence erupted as living conditions became increasingly desperate. International aid had begun to arrive but was piling up at the airport. There was some sort of bureaucratic bottleneck delaying the distribution. People were becoming increasingly impatient and angry because they couldn’t feed their families. An alternate economy was born.

In the absence of work and with the failure of aid, people began to take goods from damaged warehouses and shops. They would sell or barter what they took. Sometimes there were fights. One man was stabbed to death in a fight over a box of toothbrushes. He lay in the mud breathing his last as men, women and children walked past. Some stepped over him before he died.

Every day, crowds moved from area to area collecting whatever they could to survive. Small bands of police officers would appear and shoot their guns in the air to disperse the crowds. Sometimes they would fire into the crowds and kill someone.

17 January 2010: A woman washing clothes in the street in central Port-Au-Prince.

Fabienne Cherisma (sometimes referred to in other media as Fabienne Geismar) was 15 when a bullet fired by a Haitian police officer struck her in the head, killing her instantly. She was crossing over the damaged roof of a collapsed building. She carried two ornamental frames containing plastic flowers that she had just bought, along with some money, presumably the change. The glass of one of the frames had smashed when she fell down. The pink, plastic flowers matched her dress. The roof on which she had fallen sloped quite steeply, causing the blood from the wound in her temple to form a long stream downwards.

One man laughed as he grabbed the money from her lifeless hand. Another searched her pockets and ran away. More and more photographers arrived forming a semicircle around her body like a gang of vultures. I was one of them. A noisy crowd gathered to watch the events unfold, making what was already an ugly scene even more hideous.

22 January 2010: Thousands of Haitians slept outside in the streets of the capital after the earthquake. Many people’s homes were destroyed and others were too scared to sleep indoors for fear of another quake.

No escape

Fabienne’s father Osam arrived with her brother Jeff – someone had sent word to them that something bad had happened. I think her father was in disbelief. He thought she was still alive, perhaps only injured. He looked startled when he lifted her head up and looked at her, then he just dropped her head again and it thudded into the concrete. Together with his son, they carried her down from the building and put her on to a wooden cart to be taken home.

I saw Osam and his son walking in the street a few days later and asked how they were doing. Osam produced a knife from his pocket and made to cut his own throat with it. The son quickly snatched the knife away from him, bent it and threw it on to a nearby pile of rubble.

One day, a young boy of about 11 was thrown from the fourth storey of a building. Haitian translator Johnny Destin, who had been helping me navigate the city, made sense of what was going on. According to reports from witnesses, the boy had been caught by the owners of the building, who accused him of being a thief and just threw him from the balcony. The boy lay writhing around, face down on the pavement. I took pictures. He tried to sit up and talk but couldn’t. Through his tears, he tried to recognise people around him but didn’t seem able to. Anguished, he tried to cry out. No help came.

I picked the boy up – he was very light – and wedged him between myself and my motorbike driver. We took him to the hospital where a group of doctors took him away. I went back the next day to see how he was, but couldn’t find him. I like to believe that he was airlifted to the big hospital ship docked in the harbour.

23 January 2010: Women crying during a prayer service in Port-au-Prince after the earthquake.

In another grim twist, the walls of the prison had fallen down in the quake and all of the convicts had escaped. It was known that some people had begun hunting them down and, when they found them, they would tie them up and beat them to death.

The corpse of a man who had – according to people in the neighbourhood – suffered that fate lay naked in the street, his hands and legs still bound by rope. He was on his back. It was near the city centre. People walked past, some with children. Nobody covered him up. Each day that I saw him, his body became more swollen and more covered in flies. He was there for many days until, mercifully, he wasn’t.

19 January 2010: A coffin being transported through downtown Port-Au-Prince.

Searching for solace

The population was reeling. It was literally hell on earth. In the absence of any real organs of the state – save the roaming bands of trigger-happy police – the shocked, traumatised inhabitants of Port-au-Prince were desperately searching for solace. Many found it in the church. Street preachers could be seen on busy corners, Bible in hand, shouting words of comfort until their voices were hoarse.

One Sunday, a mass service was held. Thousands of Haitians turned up. It seemed that this gave many a chance, perhaps their first, to pause in the intense survival race they had been locked into since the quake and reflect on the catastrophe that had hit them. Together they held moments of silence. They prayed and they cried.

Every person in that city had been touched by death and everyone bore the wounds. When the quake had hit, families had been separated. Missing mothers, fathers, babies were never seen again. Their remains were often never recovered. These ceremonies were painful, but beautiful and necessary.

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As the days went on, things began to get a little better. Or at least people began to accept what had happened and start to adapt to their grim new reality. In a small corner of Cité Soleil (Sun City), one of the poorest neighbourhoods, on the edge of Port-au-Prince, the water had come back on for the first time.

A massive torrent of clean water sprayed happily out of a broken pipe. People cheerfully crowded around trying to fill up their buckets and got drenched in the process. Children frolicked and laughed in the cool water. It was a rare happy scene that for one brief moment dampened some of their pain.

27 January 2010: Many turned to the church for comfort, attending services such as this one in the capital.

Aid arrives

Elsewhere in Cité Soleil, we came upon a large gathering of people, hundreds, hurriedly gathering around a truck. It was a rare aid distribution point. We stopped and I began taking pictures. Johnny pointed to one of the men talking through a megaphone and handing out food parcels. He whispered, “It’s Wyclef.”

It really was the Grammy award-winning musician Wyclef Jean from the Fugees. He later ran for president but abandoned his bid. It seemed that at last aid was being rolled out more regularly.

Thousands of displaced people had moved off of the streets and built makeshift shelters using plastic sheets and blankets at first. These were later replaced by shelters bearing the insignia of international aid organisations. Months later, these settlements would be hit by a cholera epidemic resulting in more than 1 000 deaths. Deaths that could have been prevented.

I saw another musician in Port-au-Prince. His name was Olince Calixte. He was seated on the pavement near a destroyed cathedral playing his guitar. His tune was quite jovial, in stark contrast to the devastation that surrounded him. Judging by the Coke-bottle lenses of his glasses, he was partially sighted.

He sang in Haitian Creole. I recorded his song. Calixte sang of the earthquake and the destruction it caused. He listed the important buildings destroyed: “The National Palace is broken. The Palace of Justice is broken. Haitians are dying,” he sang. Then the chorus line: “Haiti kriye, Haiti en deuil (Haiti is crying, Haiti is mourning).”

18 January 2010: The manicured hand of a woman protrudes from the wreckage of her car, in which she was crushed during the earthquake.

Editor’s note

James Oatway’s first-hand account of the immediate aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010 illuminates a particularly devastating moment in a long crisis. From the moment that Christopher Columbus arrived on the island in 1492, it was subject to rapacious colonial domination. Spain ceded the island to France in 1697 and its plantations made it one of the richest French colonies. Unspeakably brutality in the Caribbean produced incredible wealth in France, wealth that enabled the French bourgeoisie to revolt against the aristocracy in 1789.

Toussaint L’Ouverture led a slave rebellion against the French in 1793 but was later betrayed before Haiti finally achieved liberation on New Year’s Day 1804. From 1915, the United States has been the island’s effective power broker, running the country via a military occupation until 1945, and thereafter shoring up successive authoritarian regimes. The worst of those were the brutal rules of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier (1957-1971) and his son, Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier (1971-1986).

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When, after a long struggle waged at great cost, the Haitian people democratically elected a progressive leader in Jean-Bertrand Aristide, he was twice removed from office by undemocratic means, the last time by a US-backed coup in 2004. After the earthquake in 2010, the country effectively came to be ruled by non-governmental organisations.

Oatway’s account of his experience of photographing the aftermath of the earthquake reminds us that Haiti was almost powerless to deal with a cataclysmic natural disaster precisely because it had been stripped systematically of sovereignty, resources and hope by centuries of colonial exploitation and abuse – a phenomenon that continues into the present.

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