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Three Months Later, Haiti’s New Normal

Three Months Later, Haiti’s New Normal
Published: April 11, 2010

Three writers look at life in Haiti as the slow recovery from January’s earthquake continues.

The Graffiti Prophet of Bois Verna

Published: April 11, 2010
Port-au-Prince, Haiti

THE image came to Jerry Rosembert as he and his father wandered the dust-clouded streets downtown, where they lived, toward the Champs de Mars.

In the hours after the earthquake struck on Jan. 12, thousands of his shocked countrymen had congregated in the giant plaza, weeping and crying out for Jesus. Jerry, a 25-year-old graffiti artist, knew what to do: with a can of spray paint, he turned a map of Haiti into a person who cried and held his hands skyward in prayer. Jerry didn’t sleep that night, and after dawn broke the next day, he sprayed five more crying Haitis in a neighborhood called Bois Verna. Soon after, the symbols appeared all over town.

For more than a year before the quake, Jerry had been spray-painting the city with strange, sharp images. His paintings stood out; until then, most Port-au-Prince graffiti shilled for politicians hardly anyone cared about. But Jerry believed that graffiti shouldn’t exist for writing “down with” or “vote for.”

On Avenue John Brown last year, he showed me a man turned upside down on a stone wall. “It’s called Tèt Anba,” Jerry told me, referring to a Creole idiom that means, literally, “head below.” It connotes something that’s topsy-turvy or absurdly mixed up. “Just like Haiti,” Jerry said. He laughed, but he wasn’t kidding.

On Avenue Christophe, he had depicted two men with raised forks who fought over a roast chicken and, a little farther down the street, a long line of patients who languished in front of an imperious receptionist, busy with her nails. One man spoke into his hand and bit a cement block, as though he had a cellphone and something to eat.

Near a corner where prostitutes plied their trade, Jerry painted a woman torn between a john and her child. A goggle-eyed man slipped a rope around his neck. All over town, faces of beautiful young women and old men simply wept.

Much of Jerry’s pre-quake work has survived, and these days it has an awful poignancy. In the camps, the homeless are indeed scrumming over food. In the hospitals, patients wait days to be seen. Young women are forced to trade sex for food or shelter. With no visible end to the crisis, some Haitians have surrendered their last asset: faith in the future.

The other day, a Haitian friend told Jerry that he was a prophet, that he must have sensed the hell that would befall his country. “Maybe I did,” Jerry said to me later. “But really, those things I painted — the suffering, the poverty, the misery — that all existed before the earthquake. Now things are just worse.”

Since that first painting of Haiti’s tears and prayers, he’s sprayed about 20 of them all over Port-au-Prince — the most recent a few nights ago — and the image has become iconic. Jerry admits that it’s not as witty or sophisticated as his pre-earthquake work, but perhaps that’s as it should be, he says. It might be too soon for cleverness.

Pooja Bhatia is a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.


Home Is Where the Epicenter Is

Published: April 11, 2010
Carrefour, Haiti

ON the corner of Mon Repos 46 and Rue Concorde in this seaside hamlet, the epicenter of the earthquake that killed more than 200,000 people and left 1.3 million homeless, sits the only house I own.

Low-slung and lavishly shaded by giant almond trees, it is the house my father built and lived in for more than 40 years. He never got around to finishing the second floor, which was useful when I was a boy playing hide-and-seek with my pals. We escaped one another by hopping from our roof to other roofs or to the high branches of the almond trees, and scampering on to nearby mango trees.

My father, widely admired for the affable way he wore single-fatherhood, lorded over the block from a perch at our red wrought-iron gate, observing all. The foot traffic at our intersection featured, in the mornings, parades of women with giant bundles or buckets on their heads and, at night, rah-rahs — Haiti’s roving, carnivalesque bands.

I didn’t expect any festivities when I finally visited my house the other day. I hadn’t seen it myself in 24 years. The drive from Port-au-Prince was a painful bumper-car ride over mangled roads. The buildings I passed looked like cakes crushed by a giant’s boots. Haitians hurriedly jay-walked, daring drivers to hit them, slowing traffic to a crawl. Small signs of normal life stood out: girls riding bikes; a man holding the small of his girlfriend’s back as they crossed the street; hairy black pigs grazing on the side of the roads; the fiery noon sun.

Still, Haitians are not yet on terra firma. If the first month was one of unalloyed grief and the second a post-traumatic daze, now twitchy has become the new normal. “People either have nothing to do or they work to exhaustion,” a 25-year-old colleague told me. “All we know is that life is short. Everything can end in 35 seconds.”

The good thing is that people are less sad, she said: “Sometimes they smile. Sometimes they even laugh.”

At my house, a stranger greeted me. He looked far younger than I, but is probably 10 years older. “I live here,” he said.

“I live here too,” I said.

“Dimitry, is that you?”

We hugged. It was the guy who took care of the house and my father before he died in 2004. Inside, the house was, shockingly, as I last saw it. A photo of two of my nieces as toddlers hung over the dining room table. My bedroom walls were still sky-blue. My desk was in its corner.

Then I saw the large crack running across the living room walls and snaking up the stairwell. The house was not safe. The reunion with my childhood chums would have to be outside.

Still, part of me was happy; the house, like the country, was damaged but still standing. That counts for something.

Dimitry Elias Léger, a former staff writer for Fortune magazine, is a consultant to the United Nations in Haiti.


From Disaster, Emerging Life

Published: April 11, 2010
Delmas, Haiti

At 8 o’clock on Easter morning, the preacher at the Reformed Baptist church near my house was back to exhorting the young people not to have sex before marriage. He no longer brandishes the earthquake as proof that some malevolent God is angry with Haiti for its sins.
On Monday morning, school was supposed to have started again. But it was a very timid reopening. After all, most schools are still covered with debris. And most parents are afraid to let their children go inside.

Three months after the earthquake, some of the customary cadence of life has returned. People still argue and laugh, they still fight and kiss under the trees. Babies still cry in the middle of the night. But the neighborhood has changed. We fervently wish that the precarious tents and other reminders of the catastrophe would disappear, yet we remain aware that to go forward we must rebuild with that infamous Tuesday in mind.

Since Jan. 12, I have had the opportunity to go to the seashore. Standing barefoot on the sand, I let the gentle waves remind me of life’s magnificence, trying not to visualize the destroyed places and lives behind me. I hold on to the sheer majesty of the sea. I hold on to my hopes.
Sometimes, it is not easy.

The international donors’ conference for Haiti has just ended; the sponsors have pledged billions of dollars. But some basic facts remind us to be cautious. Not all pledges will materialize into donations, some of the money will be paid to the firms and personnel in the donor countries, and the money that does make it here may not reach the people who need it. We stand at the beginning of a very long road.

We are already looking ahead. A principal whose private school has collapsed is working two days a week with some youngsters from the neighborhood, and I sometimes hear their little voices chatting and repeating children’s songs in Creole.

A friend is finally well enough to return to her house. She can now say her brother’s name without tears. He did not come out alive from the rubble.
The teenage girl who was sent to Florida for surgery on her badly injured face has had the last of her operations, and her jaw is back in place. “She looks like herself again now,” says her mother. The woman, so young to have a 15-year-old child, holds her 4-month-old on her hip. Her emaciated features shift beautifully as she speaks, and I smile with her.

We welcome tidbits of good news one day at a time, one life at a time. They are flashes of light in a landscape that reminds us of life’s brevity. They help us realize that this is not a nightmare, and we have no choice but to wake up and face the day.

Évelyne Trouillot is a novelist whose short stories have appeared in the collection “Words Without Borders.”