Hearing Haiti's cries

September 26, 2004|By Marjorie Valbrun

GONAIVES IS calling me home.

It's been so long since I visited that Haitian city. I keep trying to remember the streets, the modest little restaurants run by local women, the wooden houses painted in pastel greens and blues. I want to recall it before the storm and the flooding, before the deaths. But I can't. All I can see now are the images of the battered landscape.

Until last week, my connection to Gonaives had grown tenuous. It was a distant blip on my emotional radar, but certainly not a part of my everyday thoughts.

Then Tropical Storm Jeanne hit the once-vibrant port city, and everything changed.

The affection I feel for this tiny piece of the world, the pride I take from knowing that's where my ancestry began - feelings I stored in some deep crevice of my mind - have come back to me, this time accompanied by sadness and worry.

Gonaives, the historic political heartland of a desperately poor and deeply troubled island nation, where student protests sparked a citizens' revolt that eventually ended a 30-year dictatorial dynasty in 1986; where slaves first launched a rebellion against Napoleon's army that sent French colonialist masters packing; where proud forefathers declared their independence and founded the first free black republic in 1804 - is swimming in death and misery.

Home to some 200,000 Haitians, the birthplace of my father, and his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather, Gonaives is in deep trouble.

More than 1,100 bodies have been counted so far and some 1,000 more people still are missing, believed swept out to sea by the merciless 10-foot waves that pounded the city last weekend.

Now I can't stop thinking of all those lost souls and their last terrifying moments. I call relatives here and ask if they have heard anything about relatives there. Could various cousins have escaped the storm by fleeing to other relatives' homes deep in the countryside? Did they have enough warning? I ask, knowing full well that it will be many long days before anyone has an answer.

At the Florida elementary school where my sister, Michaelle, is the principal, Gonaives is all that the children and parents talk about. The school has 520 students, and more than 90 percent are Haitian immigrant children. It is in a poor Haitian neighborhood in Fort Lauderdale. One parent still has no word on a daughter back home who lived in the flood zone.

"The kids are watching the reaction of the adults, and they're feeling stressed by it," Michaelle said.

The school is collecting donated clothing and canned foods, baby formula, bleach, alcohol, towels, blankets and medical and pharmaceutical supplies to send back to Gonaives.

"We're trying to give them hope and help them understand that people are trying to help," Michaelle said.

The worst reality about the high death toll is that it's common in Haiti, a place riven with natural disasters and political upheavals that come in cycles more regular than the current spate of hurricanes, tornadoes and angry storms that have been ravaging the Caribbean and the United States.

With every crisis in Haiti, one can always, always, count on the same results: a lot of unnecessary death and suffering. Decaying bodies, hundreds of children among them, are piled high at the Gonaives' three morgues, which lost electric power after the storm. The stench of death looms in the stifling heat.

To stave off an impending health crisis, the bodies will be burned, an option traditional-minded Haitians frown on. In a culture where funerals - even among the very poor - are formal events that say as much about the departed as those sending them off, a family will often go into debt to pay for a "respectable" funeral rather than risk the shame of burying a loved one in an undignified manner.

Even if there were time for decent funerals and proper good-byes, where could they be held in a city submerged in water?

Perhaps if this were not Haiti, where eight months after the country's first democratically elected president was unceremoniously forced from power, with the assistance of the United States, it is still unclear who is in charge, something might have been done to prevent so many deaths. Despite the presence of a U.N. peacekeeping force in Haiti and the ever-present shadow of U.S. might, civil institutions are barely functioning.

I am struck by a profound sense that the calamity in Gonaives is a reflection of a larger one already at play in Haiti. It is not only a physical island but also a political and economic island, isolated from the United States, despite being nearly in its backyard. A victim of on-again, off-again diplomatic engagement, past U.S. interventions and constant meddling, Haiti is being allowed to languish without any real sustained, dedicated effort to get it on its feet and keep it there.

Haitians should be celebrating their country's bicentennial this year, but instead they're reeling from one tragedy to another.

Marjorie Valbrun is a Haitian-American journalist who lives in Washington.

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