Haiti: A survivor's story

I came to Haiti to research. Six months later, I lay under the rubble of a house, my friend crushed to death nearby

Published February 2, 2010 2:02AM (EST)

I was sitting barefoot on my bed, catching up on ethnographic field notes, when the earthquake hit. As a child of the San Francisco area, I was underwhelmed at first. “An earthquake. This is unexpected," I thought. But then the shaking grew stronger. I had never felt such a loss of control, not only of my body but also of my surroundings, as though the world that contained me were being crumpled.

I braced myself in a doorway between the hallway and the kitchen, trying to hold on to the frame, and then a cloud of darkness and cement dust swallowed everything as the house collapsed. I was surprised to die in this way, but not afraid. And then I was surprised not to be dead after all. I was trapped, neither lying down nor sitting, with my left arm crushed between the planks of the shattered doorway and my legs pinned under the collapsed roof. Somewhere, outside, I heard people screaming, praying and singing. It was reassuring. It meant the world hadn’t ended.

I want you to know that, before the earthquake, things in Haiti were normal. Outside Haiti, people only hear the worst -- tales that are cherry-picked, tales that are exaggerated, tales that are lies. I want you to understand that there was poverty and oppression and injustice in Port-au-Prince, but there was also banality. There were teenage girls who sang along hilariously with the love ballads of Marco Antonio Solís, despite not speaking Spanish. There were men who searched in vain for odd jobs by day and told never-ending Bouki and Ti Malis stories and riddles as the sun went down and rain began to fall on the banana leaves. There were young women who painted their toenails rose for church every Sunday, and stern middle-aged women who wouldn’t let me leave the house without admonishing me to iron my skirt and comb my hair. There were young students who washed their uniforms and white socks every evening by hand, rhythmically working the detergent into a noisy foam. There were great water trucks that passed through the streets several times a day, inexplicably playing a squealing, mechanical version of the theme from "Titanic," which we all learned to ignore the same way we tuned out the overzealous and confused roosters that crowed at 3 a.m. There were families who finished each day no further ahead than they had begun it and then, at night, sat on the floor and intently followed the Mexican telenovelas dubbed into French. Their eyes trained on fantastic visions of alternate worlds in which roles become reversed and the righteous are rewarded, dreaming ahead into a future that might, against all odds, hold promise.

I need to tell you these things, not just so that you know, but also so I don’t forget.

I think I was under the rubble for about two hours. Buried somewhere in what had been the kitchen, a mobile phone had been left to charge, and now it kept ringing. The ringtone was sentimental, the chorus of a pop love song. There was something sticky and warm on my shirt. I thought it was sòs pwa, a Haitian bean soup eaten over rice, which we’d had for lunch. I thought it was funny, that sòs pwa was leaking out of the overturned refrigerator and all over me. I thought, “When I get out, I will have to tell Melise about this.” Melise was the woman who lived and worked in the house. I spent a large part of every day with her and her family -- gossiping and joking, polishing the furniture with vegetable oil, cooking over charcoal and eating pounded breadfruit with our hands. She said my hands were soft. Her palms were so hard and calloused from a lifetime of household work that she could lift a hot pot with her bare hands. She called me her third daughter. I thought Melise would laugh to see me drenched in her sòs pwa from the bottom hem of my shirt up through my bra. It took me some time to figure out that what I thought was sòs pwa was actually my blood. I wrung it out of my shirt with my free right hand. I couldn’t tell where it was coming from.

Melise did not make it out of the house. She died, we assume, at the moment of collapse. According to others, who told me later, she cried out, "Letènel, oh letènel!" and that was all. (The word is Creole for the French "l'Eternal," a cry out to God.) "She had been folding laundry on the second floor -- the floor that crumbled onto the first floor, where I was pinned, thinking wildly of sòs pwa. Melise worked and lived in that house for 15 years. She dreamed of one day having her own home and being free. She talked about it all the time. She died in the wreckage of a place she did not consider her home.

I want to write everything down – those mundane remembrances of how life was before -- because as time passes I am afraid that people will become fossilized, that their lives and identities will begin to be knowable only through the facts of their deaths. My field notes are buried in that collapsed house. Those notes are an artifact, a record of a lost time, stories about people when they were just people -- living, ordinary people who told dirty jokes, talked one-on-one to God, blamed a fart on the cat, and made their way through a life that was grinding but not without joy or humor, or normality. I don’t want my friends to be canonized.


I had been in Port-au-Prince for a total of six months, conducting research on household workers and human rights. As a young American woman not affiliated with any of the large organizations that dominate the Haitian landscape, I was overwhelmed every day by the fierce generosity of Haitians. People who had little were eager to share their food, their homes, their time, their lives. Now I’m cobbling together this narrative -- these nonconsecutive remembrances -- in surreal and far-removed settings: first a hospital bed in South Miami, then a Cinnabon-scented airport terminal, now a large public university during basketball season. I can’t do anything for those same people who gave of themselves so naturally and unflinchingly. My friends, who for months insisted on sharing whatever food they had made, even if I had already eaten, promising me "just a little rice" but invariably giving more. My friends, who walked me to the taptap stop nearly every day.

Now that the first journalistic burst has ended, now that the celebrity telethons have wrapped, the stories you hear are of “looters” and “criminals” set loose on a post-apocalyptic wasteland. This is the same story that has always been told about Haiti, for more than 200 years, since the slaves had the temerity to not want to be slaves anymore. This is the same trope of savagery that has been used to strip Haiti and Haitians of legitimacy since the Revolution. But at the moment of the quake, even as the city and, for all we knew, the government collapsed, Haitian society did not fall into Hobbesian anarchy. This stands in contradiction both to what is being shown on the news right now, and everything we assume about societies in moments of breakdown.

In the aftermath of the earthquake, there was great personal kindness and sacrifice, grace and humanity in the midst of natural and institutional chaos and rupture. My friend Frenel, who worked cleaning and maintaining the house, appeared within minutes to look for survivors. He created a passage through the still-falling debris using only a flashlight and a small hammer -- the kind you would use to nail a picture to a wall. Completely trapped, the nerves in my left arm damaged, I could not help him save me. He told me, calmly, “Pray, Lolo, you must pray,” as he broke up the cement and pulled it out, piece by piece, to free me. Once I was out, he gave me the sandals off his own feet. As I write this, I am still wearing them. At the United Nations compound, where Frenel ultimately guided and left me, everyone sat together on the cracked asphalt, bleeding and dazed, holding hands and praying as the aftershocks came. A little boy who had arrived alone trembled on my lap. Another family huddled under the same metallic emergency blanket with us. Their child looked at me, warily -- a foreigner, covered in blood and dusted white with cement powder. His grandmother told him, “Ou mèt chita. Li malad, menm jan avek nou.” You can sit. She’s sick, too, just like us.

Social scientists who study catastrophes say there are no natural disasters. In every calamity, it is inevitably the poor who suffer more, die more, and will continue to suffer and die after the cameras turn their gaze elsewhere. Do not be deceived by claims that everyone was affected equally -- fault lines are social as well as geological. After all, I am here, with my white skin and my U.S. citizenship, listening to birds outside the window in the gray-brown of a North Carolina winter, while the people who welcomed me into their lives are still in Port-au-Prince, within the wreckage, several of them still not accounted for.

As I sat waiting to be flown out, trying to convince myself that I was just another injured person using up scant food and resources, a non-Haitian man whom I presumed worked for the U.N. approached me.

“Can you do me a favor?” he asked. “Could you write something down?”

I nodded, and he handed me a pen and paper.

“Tear the paper in half, and on the first half write 'unidentified local female' in block letters. Then on the second piece of paper write the same thing.”

I looked up. There were bodies loaded into the back of a pickup truck. The woman’s floral print dress was showing and her feet were hanging out. There were not enough sheets and blankets for the living patients, never mind enough to adequately wrap the dead. The U.N. guy looked at me and sort of smiled as I numbly tore the paper and wrote.

“After all, you need something to do. All the bars are closed," he said.

I stared at the bodies on the truck, and I hated him. I did not know which, if any, of my friends had survived. I imagined the people I love -- Marlène, one of my best friends, or Damilove, the mother of my goddaughter – wrapped up in some scrap of cloth with their feet hanging out and some asshole tagging them with a half-piece of scrap paper that says they are anonymous, without history, unknown.

I am telling you two things that seem contradictory: that people in Haiti are suffering horribly, and that Haitians are not sufferers in some preordained way. What I mean is that suffering is not some intrinsic aspect of Haitian existence, it is not something to get used to. The dead were once human beings with complex lives, and those in agony were not always victims.

In Haiti I was treated with incredible warmth and generosity by people who have been criminalized, condemned, dehumanized and abstractly pitied. They helped me in small, significant ways for the six months I was there, and in extraordinary ways in the hours after the quake. Now I cannot help them. I cannot do anything useful for them from here, except to employ the only strategy that was available to us all when we were buried in collapsed houses, listening to the frantic stirrings of life aboveground: to shout and shout until someone responds.

Laura Wagner is a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, who was living and conducting research in Port-au-Prince.

By Laura Wagner

Laura Wagner is a PhD candidate in anthropology at UNC Chapel Hill who was living and conducting research in Port-au-Prince

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