Port-au-Prince, city of survivors: Voices from Haiti, after the devastating 2010 earthquake

On January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti. This oral history project collected stories from survivors

Published January 12, 2020 10:00AM (EST)

On the outskirts of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, the municipality of Canaan extends. This was created after the earthquake on 12 January 2010, which killed more than 220 000 people in the poor Caribbean state. Today around 300,000 people live there.  (Nick Kaiser/picture alliance via Getty Images)
On the outskirts of the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, the municipality of Canaan extends. This was created after the earthquake on 12 January 2010, which killed more than 220 000 people in the poor Caribbean state. Today around 300,000 people live there. (Nick Kaiser/picture alliance via Getty Images)

These narratives are excerpted from the Voice of Witness oral history book, “Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-au-Prince,” edited by Peter Orner and Evan Lyon and published by Verso Books (2017). Voice of Witness is a human rights nonprofit that amplifies the voices of people impacted by injustice. Reprinted with permission from Verso Books.

It is the morning of the feast of Corpus Christi, fête Dieu, in Port-au-Prince. The sun rises early and fast, along with a chorus of voices singing hymns. Altar boys in flowing white robes and girls in long, spotless communion dresses weave rosary beads through their gloved fingers, or adjust crowns of white flowers on their heads. The parents walk at their children’s side, their beaming faces glowing in the hot sun. “He must be present in my life every day,” they sing. Fòk li prezan chak jou nan vi mwen.

Corpus Christi processions are meant to commemorate Christ’s body, in pain, but Haitians have plenty of their own pain. The procession circles a makeshift displacement camp where mothers are bathing their children in buckets of cloudy water in front of the layers of frayed faded tarp they call home. Before entering the crowd with her grandmother, my six-year-old U.S.-born daughter, who is returning to Port-au-Prince for the first time since the January 12, 2010 earthquake, repeats something she’s told us many times since we landed in the city. “I thought everything was broken.”

Built for 200,000 people yet home to more than 2 million, Port-au-Prince is a city that constantly reminds you of the obvious, as though you were a six-year-old. No, everything is not broken. And no, not all the people are dead. Every person in that procession, and every person living in the city, bears that communal testimony, and Port-au-Prince is a testimonial city. It is a city that everything— fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, political upheaval — has conspired to destroy, yet still it carries on, in part due to the resoluteness of its people, a few of whose stories you will read about here.

The republic of Port-au-Prince, as it is often called, is a city of survivors. Even those who would like to see the country decentralized or have the capital moved elsewhere talk about creating another Port-au-Prince, a different one for sure, but an improved version of the old one. Still, Port-au-Prince is also a heartbreaking city. It is a city where a restaurant that charges over twenty American dollars for a steak might stand inches from some place where others are starving. It is a city where the dead can lie in a morgue for weeks as the family clamors for money to pay for the burial.

It is also a city where paintings line avenue walls, where street graffiti curses or praises politicians, depending on who has paid for them. It is a city of so much traffic that it has become a city of back roads, short cuts that rattle your body through hills, and knolls that at first don’t seem passable. It’s a city of motto taxis, which are better fitted for such roads. It is also a city of cell phones, where conversations often end abruptly because someone’s prepaid cards have run out of minutes. It is a city, as one of Haiti’s most famous novelists, Gary Victor, has written, where people who might run toward bullets will flee the rain, because the rain can reconfigure roads in an instant and can take more lives in a few minutes than a gun. It is also a city of commerce, a city of entrepreneurs, a city of markets where the vendors are as numerous as the products being sold, a city where I once saw a woman walking through the streets with a cluster of grapes, like many people have in their refrigerators, that she was selling by five or ten. Must I even say that it is a city of dreamers?

It is a city of music, from the vendors who sing the values of their wares, to the konpa blasting from the colorfully painted tap tap camions and lotto stands, to the lyrical laments rising from open-air Protestant revivals to the drums throbbing from the Vodou temples. It is a city of street pharmacists whose giant cones of pills look like mosaic art. It is a city of canal-clogging used clothes — pèpè — foam food boxes, and un-recyclable plastic. It is a city of smoke and haze, of trash being burnt, of dust-covered trees.

It is now also a city of tremors, tremors that are sometimes felt based on your level of experience with previous tremors, where you might be sitting with someone and that person feels the earth shake and you don’t feel a thing. It is a city where sometimes you both feel the tremors and panic equally, especially when others have dashed outside or leaped out of windows in fear. Traumas are sometimes as visible as amputated limbs in Port-au-Prince and sometimes they linger deep beneath the surface, like phantom limbs. Port-au-Prince is a city of seen and unseen scars.

The book "Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-au-Prince" is filled with narratives of seen and unseen scars. It is a book about choosing to live and not to die in Port-au-Prince, to fight, to survive, to thrive. You will read in it about residents of Port-au-Prince who though they share a city, a nationality, live very different realities, based on their level of access, their age and schooling, their neighborhoods, and the amount of time they’ve spent in that city. There are testimonials from street merchants, teachers, doctors, professors, activists, young people, old people. There are also testimonials from people like me, people who were born in or used to live in Port-au-Prince, but who now make their home elsewhere.

The gatherers of these stories are wise to (aside from the act of translation) allow the voices here to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories. Here are two such voices.

* * *

Lamothe Lormier, water expert/driver/law student/translator

Lamothe Lormier is an expert on Haiti’s clean water crisis. He one of the many Port-au-Prince citizens dedicated to rebuilding his city and nation.

I ended up working as an interpreter with medical teams and that’s when I became involved in water. Because while I was working with all those medical teams, the issues that they were addressing, to me, were like putting on Band-Aids. They were trying to provide people with medicine for gastrointestinal diseases and other health problems related to bad water. I thought, What a waste of time and money, when the real problem is water.

Everything is a challenge here. I don’t blame anybody who lives here and dreams about leaving. Many Haitians feel that in order to have a better life, they have to leave, to be outside Haiti. No, you can’t blame them. And it’s true that I could have stayed in the U.S. Many times I’ve thought about this. But I came back to Haiti. I felt that I could make a difference. I have the education. This chaos must be addressed, and if someone with my knowledge doesn’t address it, who is going to? So, it’s in my blood now. If I could unlearn what I’ve learned, or unknow what I know now, that would be different.

It kind of reminds me of the movie “The Matrix.” I took the red pills, and I can’t go back again. I can’t just be silent. If I were silent now, I would carry so much guilt inside of me. There are so many battles to fight. You find one. I chose water. I saw people that are sick, and 80 percent of the diseases were the result of lack of clean water. That’s how I got involved. I’ve been in charge of the Gift of Water program for over fifteen years now. I teach people about the importance of clean water, and demonstrate methods of purification. I also advocate for cleaning up our rivers, ravines, and water sources. The job is endless.

In a normal city there should be running water in every faucet. That’s the bottom line. There’s an area north of Port-au-Prince where there’s a water source, underground wells. There’s an eight-inch pipe tapping out water. Tanker trucks drive by, fill up, go, fill up, go. And then they take the water into the city and drive by people’s homes and sell it. I’m talking about people with homes with water systems. They pipe it into the water system and it comes out of the faucet. But it’s not drinkable. The well water is contaminated. There’s a lot of E. coli in the water. The water is only for domestic use, like showers and washing, but you can’t—or you shouldn’t—drink it.

Our drinking water comes from the same aquifer north of the city, but it’s treated through reverse osmosis. It goes to the UN and is converted. It makes safe drinking water. This began after the cholera. Before, people would just get the water from everywhere and drink it. They got sick sometimes, but it was a very slow process. When you get sick from cholera, that’s a different ball game. If you don’t get rehydrated right away, you are gone. You’re dead. Seven thousand people got sick in the cholera epidemic.

So, now, on every corner you are seeing these stands selling small plastic bags of water. That is the primary source of drinking water for the majority of people in this city. It’s very heavy on their budgets. Every day they pay for water. It adds up. People here, as poor as they are, they pay so much for water. But let me tell you this—I won’t drink the water from the bag. The BPA—bisphenol A—level in bags is too high.

And there’s another problem that is even worse. They’ve been pumping water out of the aquifer for forty, fifty years now. At one point, the water they will get will be too salty to convert. I don’t know how soon that will happen. I haven’t seen any studies yet. But it is just a matter of time. It isn’t an “if”; it’s a “when.” You can use pasteurization for salty water. For that, though, you need heat—and money. It might be possible to use solar energy to get the water from the ocean. But for how much? And it means that the money that you need for health care, for education, you must invest it in water. How can we take this option?

I often feel like a prophet with bad news. I’m trying to work to provide clean water, but if nothing is done, soon there won’t be enough water at all. Haiti is 98.5 percent deforested. All the trees have been cut and used for timber. It creates drought. For years, we’ve been living in drought. Without trees, all the rainwater flows into the ocean instead of remaining in the soil. So, I’m addressing clean water, but there’s also a lack of water. These are two different things.

Whenever I do my trainings, I always give the bad news. The next conflict between Haiti and the Dominican Republic won’t be over immigration. It will be over water, unfortunately. We’re going to run out. So we’ll have to go there—the Dominican Republic—and find it. So that will be the conflict, like India and Pakistan, Palestine and Israel. I won’t be around to see that, but this is where we are moving. I wish I were wrong. — Lamothe Lormier

* * *

Juslene Marie Innocent, laundress and housekeeper

Juslene Marie Innocent moved to Port-au-Prince as a child for educational opportunities but was instead forced to work as a restavek – an unpaid servant. She maintains unwavering hope despite the loss of her family when the city was destroyed.

I met this gentleman years ago and we started dating. His name was Lidye.

About two months into the relationship, I became pregnant. I told Lidye. He said he would rent an apartment for us so we could stay together with the baby. I was still so ashamed that I had to leave my job. I didn’t want to tell the kind family I was working for that I was pregnant. They had two daughters. I didn’t want to be a bad example for them. So I left and moved in with Lidye. Lidye was a mason. It wasn’t easy for him to find jobs, but he did his best to put food on the table. I went back to work as a housekeeper to help out with the bills. I was twenty-five years old when my first child, Mildred, was born.

After a few years, we got married. We didn’t have much money, but we invited both families to the event. My husband had nothing but praises to say about me. He was so proud of me. My aunt that I lived with as a child didn’t come to the wedding. She sent her children. Even though my aunt mistreated me, I forgive her. My mother didn’t come to my wedding, either. And after the wedding she sent me a letter to apologize for sending me away all those years before. One of my siblings wrote the letter, since my mother doesn’t know how to read or write. She called me “my dear.” I was so touched, I cried as I read the letter. My mother was finally acknowledging me. She’s my mother. She carried me for nine months. I owe her my life. Now I go back to Jérémie to see her when she’s sick.

I was with Lidye for seven years. We had four children. Our youngest was still in my belly when the earthquake hit. He’s in school now. When he started talking, the first word he said was “father.” At about one year old, he asked me for his dad. I told him that my brother was his dad. As he grew up, he figured out that I had lied, and I told him that his father had died during the 2010 earthquake. He cried and wouldn’t eat. The neighbors found a way to comfort him by telling him that all the men in the neighborhood were his dads.

Even though he never knew his father, he misses him. I haven’t told him about the three siblings he lost in the earthquake. He’s too young for it all.

I ended up here in Ti Place Cazeau. I have a new daughter, Néhémie. She is eight months old. She says “mommy” and “daddy.” The father is a married man. He lied to me about being married.

I think about my husband a lot. Every day. I’m sure we’d be better off if he’d lived. Right now, I do laundry for people. I set the price and the customers give me a barrel of water, soap, and Clorox. I wash from morning until late in the afternoon. Sometimes the skin comes off my hands. Still, the money isn’t enough. Many times when the children are hungry, I say to myself, if Lidye was alive, my children wouldn’t be hungry. He always worked hard. Anyway, I am not going to question why my husband had to die. God is all knowing.

My son and I are close. He always receives “Very Good” as a grade in school and shares with me what he’s learned—the songs and poems. I always show my joy and kiss him to congratulate him. He is a very attentive and a sweet child. He gives me strength to keep fighting for him. I think he is a gift from God.

My children will not suffer the same fate as I. Never. Even if I have to beg in the street. I know what it feels like to suffer as a child. I would never inflict such pain on anyone. Sometimes I am impatient with God, but when I remember what He pulled me through, I regain strength.

The other day, we were going to church. As we were walking, he saw the pastor’s car, and he said to me, “Mom, one day I will have a car like this one.” I asked him how. My son replied that he will be working one day. Then he will buy his car and drive me and Néhémie around in it. That put a smile on my face. My son has dreams. — Juslene Marie Innocent

* * *

These narratives are excerpted from the Voice of Witness oral history book, “Lavil: Life, Love, and Death in Port-au-Prince,” edited by Peter Orner and Evan Lyon and published by Verso Books (2017). Voice of Witness is a human rights nonprofit that amplifies the voices of people impacted by injustice. Reprinted with permission from Verso Books.

By Edwidge Danticat

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