Haiti: A long survival story

PARIS, France — It is more than heartbreaking to watch the images that are pouring out of earthquake-stricken Haiti.

In the time it took for the cameraperson to capture the scene one, 10 or dozens of people still trapped beneath the concrete nearby were likely breathing their last breaths. Now, multiply those images from the last few days by a number that yields 200,000, the latest death toll estimate. Will we ever even know the final tally?

Haiti the nation began when African slaves led a successful revolt for freedom from French colonial rule. Now it bears the scarlet letter of poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Here is a partial list of what has gone awry in Haiti since its 1804 independence: corruption, greed, neglect, brutality, coup d’etat, instability, natural catastrophe upon natural catastrophe, abject poverty, insurmountable debt, and lack of infrastructure, sustainability and leadership.

Or, if you ask the evangelist Pat Robertson, the country made a pact with the devil to help it gain freedom from France — a proposition so ludicrous that it warranted the wry response it received from the Haitian ambassador to the United States: that the Haitian revolt made it possible for the U.S. to buy the Louisiana territory from France at a bargain-basement price.

“That’s 13 states west of the Mississippi that the Haitian slaves’ revolt in Haiti provided America,” Ambassador Raymond Joseph told Rachel Maddow in a television interview. “What[ever] pact the Haitians made with the devil has helped the United States become what it is.”

Indeed, after heartbreak comes anger and tears — and not just about unbelievable comments by people with a pulpit.

It made me angry to watch people dig into rubble with their bare hands in the blazing sun as trapped relatives and neighbors screamed for help. The vast majority were not prepared nor expected this to happen but to not have one visible piece of heavy machinery or earth-moving equipment available in the first crucial hours in a country experienced with disaster infuriates me.

When it mattered most, the reassuring words, “I want to speak directly to the people of Haiti,” did not come from Haiti’s President, Rene Preval — at least not that I heard — but came instead from U.S. President Barack Obama.

“You will not be forsaken, you will not be forgotten,” Obama said, the way a leader is supposed to. “In this, your hour of greatest need, America stands with you.”

I listened to a breathless woman in an online radio broadcast from Haiti say she had witnessed the collapse of a multistory-building with people inside, with children inside, and she came to the station to appeal for help because she didn’t know where else to go. And that made me angry. Where is the leadership on the ground?

Port-au-Prince was the nerve center of the shoestring operation that helped keep Haiti functioning. What happens now?

I weep for the dead, the displaced, the homeless and those who are still waiting to hear from friends and relatives. The stories are not going to go away soon, not even when the cameras are turned off or move on to other big stories. What happens then?

What will happen to a father and daughter, friends of one of my relatives? This doting father had been providing money every month so his daughter might go to school while he prepared a life for both in the United States. Now the father has a stark choice: He could travel to Haiti with his meager to non-existent resources and risk losing his provisional immigration status as well as any chance for a better life in the U.S. for both he and his daughter. Or, he could stay put while knowing that his daughter is stranded and homeless in Haiti.

And this happened just when some hope was starting to dawn. With Bill Clinton as the special envoy to Haiti and some cruise ship tourism dollars starting to trickle in, it was a time of hope for Haiti — then, this crippling blow.

But after anger and tears, there is still hope. 

A 13-year-old girl was pulled safely from the rubble after hours of digging, as was an aid worker who was reunited with her husband. The international community is answering the call for help as quickly as it can despite the logistical nightmare rescuers face on the ground. 

This tiny country, which inhabits one-third of an island, has more than withstood its share of catastrophe and suffering. And it is still here. Battered, bruised and maybe even a little broken — but still here. And although a 7.0-magnitude earthquake threatened to rob Haiti of the one resource it had in abundance — our resilience, the will to survive — we are still here. 

“We” because Haiti is where I was born even though it is not a country I can claim to know since I grew up in the United States and now live in France. I don’t know a single krik-krak joke or the music of a single Haitian band. I couldn’t say for sure if Delmas, Carrefour and Croix-des-Bouquets were suburbs or residential streets without looking them up or asking my parents. But the names sounded familiar to me when I heard them repeated on Tuesday. They are places to which I have been even though I have no real memories of them. 

I like rice and beans and fried plantains, even if I don’t know how to cook them — and I speak the language of my ancestors, even if my Creole vocabulary is peppered with French and English. 

And I am still here. We are still here.