Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Haiti I love is still there

The Haiti I love is still there

Returning to my sometimes-home, I discovered devastation and friends who died, but the country's heart is beating

By Michael Deibert

Jan. 23, 2010


(Read the original article here)

One night, only days after an earthquake had leveled huge swaths of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed an estimated 200,000 people there and in its environs, I found myself cruising thorough the city on the back of a moto-taxi.

A crowded, dirty but also irrepressibly vibrant city during normal times, Port-au-Prince that night presented a landscape that could fairly be described as nightmarish.

Visible through the darkness, the ruined shells of buildings destroyed in the 7.0 quake looked over the fragile forms of hundreds of thousands of people reduced to sleeping in the streets, while in the air mingled the corrosive smell of burning garbage and the vomitous, cloyingly sweet stench of human decay.

A city I have sporadically called home since I first visited Haiti in 1997, and whose personality had become deeply ingrained in my soul, Port-au-Prince had never seemed more desperate or defeated.

Then something happened. Despite the terrible suffering that had been visited on this poor nation of 9 million people, it began to dawn on me that, along the streets that I knew so well, life was going on after this terrible trauma.

Next to the shell of Haiti's Palais National, the hypnotizingly white grand dame of the city's architectural jewels that successive Haitian politicians have fought to control even as their country grew ever-more impoverished and ruined, market women were still frying up marinade and fritay in old steel pots. In the Petionville market, despite the late hour and lack of electricity, goods and fried chicken were still being sold by the orange glow of kerosene lamps. By the following day, dozens of young Haitians had begun sweeping with brooms in front of the ruined Cathédrale Nationale, in preparation for the Saturday funeral on its grounds of Archbishop Serge Miot, who perished within its walls.

"I've worked with this moto for my entire youth," the driver, a young man named Emmanuel, told me that night as we headed up Avenue Pan American, passed the ruins of the United Nations compound where scores of United Nations workers, including mission chief Hédi Annabi, and his deputy, Luiz Carlos da Costa, lost their lives.

"Tout moun jwenn," Emmanuel told me as we conversed in Haiti's native Kreyol language. "Kounye-a, y'ap domi ak Jesu."

Everyone was hit. Now they sleep with Jesus.

Far from being the looting mobs that some media have portrayed them as, hardly anyone who has witnessed the response of the Haitians to this great catastrophe has not been moved by their incredible resilience and solidarity and their intact sense of humor in the face of an unimaginable tragedy.

As all the pillars of the Haitian state -- a state that has often seemed only able to rouse itself to parasitically victimize its own people when it did make its presence felt -- collapsed around them, the Haitians helped one another, dug through rubble, prayed, sang and showed everyone who has watched them what the meaning of true perseverance in the face of adversity looks like, even though the losses have been tremendous and irreplaceable.

Micha Gaillard, a university professor and son of one of Haiti's eminent historians, was one of the first political leaders I met while traveling to Haiti, and I recall him greeting me in his modest home in the Turgeau neighborhood as his charming wife, Katy, prepared us coffee. Katy passed away far too early a few years ago, and Micha died after the Palais de Justice collapsed on him, dying in what must have been agony after having been trapped for many hours. Three of the country's foremost feminist thinkers -- Myriam Merlet, Magalie Marcelin and Anne Marie Coriolan -- also died that day. The damage to the country's artistic heritage, from the almost-total collapse of the Episcopal Cathédrale Sainte Trinité, which boasted stunning indigenous murals by such eminent Haitian painters as Wilson Bigaud and Philome Obin, to the loss of much of the Nader art collection, probably the best private collection of Haitian art in the world, is incalculable.

Sometimes since I have returned to Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, I have felt as if I would be overcome by despair. Looking at block after block of ruins throughout the capital's downtown, or seeing the terrible death and destruction caused by the collapse of the Université de Port-au-Prince, ringed by weeping, desperate relatives of those lost, one almost wants to turn away.

But the Haitians, always the Haitians, keep one going, and seeing their dignity in this moment has made me love them and their battered country as never before.

"Life goes on," a friend of mine who lost his wife in the earthquake told me yesterday, bringing to mind the famous Haitian proverb, deye mon gen mon. Beyond the mountains there are more mountains.

There is time to mourn a loss, and to bury the dead. More aid is needed, and more transparency and coordination to get it out to people, not just now but over the long term. But step by step, I believe that Haiti, a country of personal goodwill and stunning artistic accomplishment as much as it is a place of dysfunctional politics and venal politicians, will indeed rebuild. Perhaps differently than before, but a people who have suffered and endured so much seem, in my conversations with them on street corners under the blazing sun, in tent cities that have sprung up along the roadside, and in grievously affected provincial villages, to be able to withstand even this latest grievous shock and come back swinging.

I hope that we foreigners, who have been so moved by the place, treated so kindly and educated so patiently by its people, will be there to help. Haiti needs its friends now more than ever.

Michael Deibert is the author of "Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti." He writes at

A History of Troubles Is Helping Haitians to Endure

  • JANUARY 22, 2010, 7:40 P.M. ET

A History of Troubles Is Helping Haitians to Endure


The Wall Street Journal

(Read the original article here)

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti—On a street corner amid a pile of rubble in Haiti's ravaged capital, life goes on. A man calmly polishes his shoes. Children run around dirty from the debris and half dressed but playing and laughing. A group of residents march by carrying mattresses on their heads, followed by another toting plywood.

As many as 200,000 people have died here, according to the government, and roughly one million have been made homeless. The roads from the capital are snarled with tens of thousands more fleeing the city. But many Haitians remain entrenched in the capital, and many are beginning to go about their daily routines, showing a resilience that some attribute to the nation's history of living from one disaster to the next.

"There are no other people besides Haitians who could come back this way," says Nadine Stremy, coming out of a supermarket carrying a bag of groceries. "They have learned through decades to survive."

A group of Haitians gathered around a car radio Wednesday night to listen to President René Préval's first speech since the earthquake that came eight days before. He said telephones were working again, the government is working, and called for courage and solidarity. "Solidarity!" someone shouted, smiling.

The next day, on Thursday, in the Canape Vert neighborhood, the local branch of Uni Bank opened its doors. Thousands of people waited outside, but the bank allowed only a few dozen business customers with whom it had relationships, according to an employee.

Nearby, at a Western Union, vast numbers waited in line to get in, many saying they were hoping for remittances from relatives in the United States.

"It's a terrible thing, but it is also life, so what else can I do but continue?" said Michelet Saint-Preux, who was on the third floor of the Université de Port-au-Prince when the four-story building collapsed, killing students, many of whom were attending after-work classes.

Mr. Saint-Preux's arm was bandaged and he had a deep gash in his chin. The structure still lay in ruins, with students' papers and notebooks scattered under concrete and jagged metal bars. The air reeked of the body that still lay pinned underneath a flattened Suzuki 4x4 jeep.

Near the collapsed palace, a group of men sat on the side of the road with an array of electric generators they were selling. Another man sold shoes and sneakers. In various spots around the city, hoses were set up with nonpotable water. Women with buckets washed their clothes on the side of the road, and children bathed. A ramshackle funeral parlor was open for business, and two hearses were being loaded.

Many Haitians say their resilience is rooted in Haiti's tortured history. Haiti overthrew French domination in 1804 to become the second independent republic in the Americas after the U.S. (Haiti's military victory inspired Napoleon to sell Louisiana to the United States). It later served as a base for South American leader Simón Bolívar, providing material and logistical support in the southern city of Jacmel for his campaign to liberate the Southern Hemisphere from Spanish rule.

But through the ensuing decades, they faced long periods of military juntas, dictatorship, and arbitrary justice. During the 29-year rule of the Duvalier family, Haitians quaked in fear at the bloody work of the dictatorship's paramilitary enforcers, the Tontons Macoutes.

During the more recent era of priest-turned-president Jean Bernard Aristide, the stuff of Haitian nightmares were the "chimere," named after a mythical fire-breathing dragon and comprising desperately poor, heavily armed gangs of young men who did Mr. Aristide's bidding.

"We have gotten through so much as a country," says Ms. Stremy. "This is why we consider each other brothers and sisters. We are survivors."

Just over a week after the quake, roadside markets where many people buy all their produce began to reappear for the first time. Along the capital's Avenue Pan American, an artist strung a fishing line between two trees and hung his wood carvings, against a backdrop of tumbled boulders. Near Champ de Mars square abutting Haiti's ruined National Palace, wood-carved furniture was being sold next to a dead body covered with a purple flowered sheet.

A pharmacy that had opened was mobbed—and robbed. So some stores opened for just a few hours and had security guards keep customers outside, letting just a few in at a time.

All over the city, signs have sprouted up in English, French and Creole. "Help us," says one. "We need food and water," reads another. Some carry phone numbers.

Michele Pierre-Louis, a former prime minister in the government of Haitian President Préval, said that despite incidents of violence, most people "peacefully pray, sing and help each other the best they can."

At a waterfront park on Wednesday, hundreds of Haitians lined up facing the water through a large iron gate. They were watching a Red Cross ship make its way to shore with supplies. On the other side facing them were military guards holding their rifles.

On the grounds of the capital's elite Petionville Club, several thousand Haitians waited patiently behind a rope barrier for food and water packets being distributed by the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division. In the capital's Canape Vert plaza, members of the Haitian National Police supervised the distribution of food donated by private individuals in the Dominican Republic.

"We are waiting to get some food and water," says Lesly Jeudy, who says that almost every structure in his Christ Roi neighborhood has collapsed. "We haven't had any food or water for two days."

Friday, January 22, 2010

Haiti: Tearing Down History

Tearing Down History

By Michael Deibert

Posted Friday, Jan. 22, 2010, at 1:33 PM ET

(Read the original article here)

PETIT-GOÂVE, Haiti—They work all day under the blazing sun, hammers and saws in hand, pulling down the last remnants of a structure that had served as the crowning jewel for this once-picturesque town set along the glittering Caribbean Sea.

Numbering about two dozen, the men are tearing down what little remains of the town's storied Église Notre Dame, which once loomed over the city in gleaming blue-and-white relief. Now, only its foundation and the altar remain.

Along with the capital, Petit-Goâve, some 45 miles southwest of Port-au-Prince, was perhaps the most thoroughly devastated municipality in the country after the Jan. 12 earthquake.

As well as the church, the state telephone company building, the mayor's office, a hotel, and scores of houses—all with people still inside—were leveled by the tremor. Dangerous, yawning fissures opened up along the road into town

"This church was here for a long time, for 208 years," said 67-year-old Nathan Leger, pausing as hammers echoed in the background and men milled about wearing surgical masks to protect them from particles of dust and human decay. "It's a catastrophe. We will not have something like this again."

The church collapsed within seconds, burying market women, passers-by, and people who had paused to rest in its shade. Residents estimate that at least 350 died in the town, which was playing host to three large meetings on the day of the quake.

Once, it was known for its particularly fine collection of Haitian "gingerbread" wooden architecture, as well as for its sweet tricolored candy, douce marcosse. Now, Petit-Goâve presents a face of utter destruction, its streets choked with the debris of collapsed buildings. The town was further traumatized by a 6.1 aftershock Wednesday morning, which caused even more damage

"We were injured, we were hit hard, and now we are sleeping in the street," says Andre Zanmi, a white-haired woman camped out in the middle of Rue Faustin with a dozen members of her family, some of whom bear deep cuts and gashes that have yet to receive medical attention.

Sitting in front of a house with half its roof collapsed, the family has strung a blanket between two trees to provide some cover.

Like most people in town, Zanmi said that other than patrols by a Sri Lankan contingent of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Haiti—which itself lost its top command when the organization' s Port-au-Prince headquarters was destroyed—they have yet to receive any outside help.

By late in the week, though, help appeared to be on its way. In a clearing in the town of Carrefour Dufort, near Petit-Goâve, members of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, based in Camp Lejeune, N.C., were distributing food aid by helicopter.

"It's just good to be able to be here to help," Sgt. Claude Barthold, who was born in the Haitian capital, told me. "But it's overwhelming what you see here."

On Thursday, the Red Cross also announced that it had opened two first-aid posts in Petit-Goâve, staffed by Haitian Red Cross volunteers.

The earthquake has been a brutal blow for this historically significant community, which was the birthplace of one of Haiti's most important leaders, Faustin Soulouque. The son of African-born slaves, Soulouque climbed through the ranks of the post-independence military before being elected president by a Senate vote in 1847. Building up an irregular network of armed partisans called zinglins, Soulouque's modus operandi served as a precursor to the creation of the feared Tonton Macoutes paramilitary force of Haitian dictator Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier a century later, as well as that of the chimères, the armed youth groups with which President Jean-Bertrand Aristide sought, unsuccessfully, to cling to power.

After two unsuccessful invasions of neighboring Dominican Republic in search of loot he could use to pay the onerous 150 million franc "debt" that former colonial power France demanded in exchange for Haiti's hard-won independence, Soulouque was overthrown in 1859 and died in exile, the melancholy fate of so many of Haiti's leaders.

In more recent years, Petit-Goâve was the site of one of the first major demonstrations against the Aristide government in December 2001, when the funeral of a local journalist, Brignol Lindor, murdered by Aristide partisans, was fired on by police and flared into a major disturbance.

Now, though, residents are literally picking up the pieces of a shattered way of life.

"Only God knows why this happened," Robert Henry Etienne told me as he walked the dusty streets with a notebook in hand, carefully cataloging every ruined and damaged structure in meticulous handwriting in the hope that they might one day be rebuilt. "But we need the international community to help the Haitian people, who are sleeping on the streets. We need help, from whatever country in the world."

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Michael Deibert interviewed on WNYC's The Takeaway

My interview yesterday on WNYC's The Takeaway can be heard here.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

One Week in, Haitians Are Still Hungry

One Week in, Haitians Are Still Hungry

By Michael Deibert

Posted Tuesday, Jan. 19, 2010, at 11:34 AM ET


(Read the original article here)

LEOGANE, Haiti—When Elvis Cineus rushed to his home in the town of Leogane, 18 miles west of Port-au-Prince, in the aftermath of Haiti's devastating earthquake, he was not prepared for what awaited him.

Under the remains of his home, smashed flat as if pummeled by a giant fist, lay the bodies of his wife, his nephew, his cousin, and a friend, all dead. His 1-year-old son was dangling from the building's jagged facade, injured but alive.

"It was a miracle," he says of the infant's survival. "But I think there are still survivors in the fallen schools, because we still hear them screaming."

This coastal town, once one of the most pleasant in Haiti, was largely decimated by the quake. The International Federation of Red Cross estimates that as much as 90 percent of the town has been destroyed.

Along Leogane's Grand Rue, once-stately concrete buildings lie in rubble, with only a few structures built in Haiti's distinctive wooden gingerbread style remaining. The putrid smell of death wafts through the lanes, helped along by an ocean breeze.

At a ruined dental clinic, a woman cries when she tells how a neighbor died after her leg was severed by falling debris and how the neighbor's child, a little girl, took off screaming down the street.

"It's beyond chaos, beyond catastrophe," says Michael Moscoso, a local businessman. "The losses cannot be numbered."

One week after the earthquake flattened large swaths of central Port-au-Prince, people beyond the capital and closer to the epicenter have grown ever more desperate as much-promised aid has been slow to trickle in or has failed to materialize altogether.

In the Médecins Sans Frontières hospital in the capital's southern Carrefour neighborhood, several hundred people lay on makeshift surgical tables, on benches, or sprawled on the floor. Half a dozen people groaned with severe suppurating burn wounds caused when a gas cylinder exploded during the great tremor. Nine-year-old Michel St. Franc lay with blood caking his face, his leg in a primitive cast and tears in his eyes.

"This is the worst situation I've ever seen," says Julien Mattar, project coordinator for the hospital. "We have huge needs in terms of human resources, medical supplies, and materials."

Mattar tells me that a supply plane that was unable to land in Port-au-Prince was instead rerouted to the Dominican Republic. From there, the supplies made the seven-hour overland journey to Haiti.

The injured who were able to reach the hospital were the lucky ones. Farther down the road, both the living and the dead waited for respite in the form of assistance from the international community or from the government of Haitian President René Préval, who has faced withering criticism at home for his perceived lax and disorganized response to the disaster.

Along the Route des Rails, almost every home seemed to have been destroyed, and, again, the intense smell of decay intensified under a glaring Caribbean sun. Residents say they feel abandoned.

"No one has ever been here," Vilaire Elise, a 38-year-old Protestant minister, said as he led a visitor and fellow residents to survey homes where his neighbors had died. "We have no water to drink, nor food to eat. We are suffering here."

Though nearly 105,000 food rations and 20,000 tents had been distributed by humanitarian groups on Monday, the effort seemed unable to come to grips with the scale of the disaster. The U.N. World Food Program has said it will need 100 million prepared meals over the next 30 days.

The growing foreign military presence in Haiti, which has played host to a U.N. peacekeeping mission since 2004 and will now house at least 2,000 U.S. troops, also seemed overwhelmed.

Late on Monday, with the sun setting outside Leogane, in a scene reminiscent of others played out in severely war-torn countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, at least 1,500 townsfolk rendered homeless by the quake took over a flat patch of grassy land and constructed fragile shelters from logs, twigs, bed sheets, and leaves.

"Since the disaster, everyone here has had nothing," said Innocent Wilson, a 31-year-old who acts as one of the impromptu camp's spokesmen. "No one is here to help us, so we are organizing ourselves."

Michael Deibert is the author of Notes From the Last Testament: The Struggle for Haiti.

Note from Port-au-Prince

The scale of the disaster here in Haiti is beyond anything I have ever seen. Not just Port-au-Prince, but Leogane and, I hear, Petit Goave and Jacmel, as well. Please keep this place and these people in your prayers and help any way you can. Article following soon.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Haiti Earthquake

To my dear friends in Haiti,

I stayed up until 2am last night before going to bed hoping for the best, but it seems like some of our worst fears may have been realized.

You are all in my thoughts and I wish that I was with you in this time of crisis. I hope that you are all ok.

In strength,


Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Michael Deibert interviewed on KDVS radio

Shortly before the end of 2009, I chatted with KDVS radio host France Kassing on a variety of subjects ranging from Guatemala to Haiti to the Democratic Republic of Congo. The full show can be listened to here.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

A note on the passing of Daniel Simidor

Daniel Simidor, a Haitian patriot, one of the most eloquent voices of the genuine Haitian left and a man that I hope I will not be overstating to say I considered a friend and a fellow advocate for the kind of just and humane governance in Haiti that its people deserve, passed away this morning in New York City.

Daniel (born Andre Elizee) was the kind of man that Haiti needs more of, someone intimately connected with the struggle of his people from the ground up and yet able to move with ease in the intellectual and political circles of places such as New York, the city that had been his home for many years. Far from being a simple polemicist or, worse yet, a dilettante, Daniel was a man who cared passionately about the state of his native country and its people, a passion that never slackened in the many years I corresponded with him or the few times I met him. With his political activism, Daniel did a great deal to bring the story of what was happening to Haitians both in their own country, in the neighboring Dominican Republic and in the United States to a far wider audience than would have otherwise known about it, and for many years played a very constructive role in the international dialogue on many issues relating to Haiti.

When my grandfather, Jospeh H. Deibert, passed away late last year, I encountered an African-American Lutheran minister from Illinois who had come all the way to Pennsylvania to pay his respects, and said simply that "You've got to give honor to those who deserve it." I wanted to take this moment to give honor not just to Daniel's memory, but to his advocacy while alive. Daniel Simidor taught me a great deal about Haiti in the brief time and tangential way that I knew him, and his is certainly a voice that will be missed in the ongoing debate about the country's future.

Onè, respè, Daniel. Rest in peace.

Bonjour, 2010, from Aït Benhaddou