When the World Fell Apart: Haiti, Six Years After the Quake

When I told one of my nephews that I was going to Haiti for two weeks, he paused and said, “Be careful you don’t get hit by an earthquake.”

I’ve been messaging home just a few the thousands of pictures I’ve taken of this fascinating, frustrating, beautiful, embattled place.   Occasionally, I get a reply from a friend asking: “Oh and is that rubble and rock from the earthquake?”

There are an awful lot of piles of rubble, rock, and cinderblock in Haiti.  It is a land of uncompleted projects, of broken down infrastructure, and edifices that are falling apart.

Six years later, some of these tumbled walls are remnants of the earthquake and some are not.  Most where I’ve been staying–on the Central Plateau–they are not.

Nonetheless, in the American mind, Haiti has become synonymous with the earthquake of 2010, and for good reason.  Six years ago today, on January 12, 2010, the earth shook in Haiti and for millions, their worlds fell apart.

The official figure of those killed by what is now called by Haitians *Goudou Goudou* is 250,000, though it’s widely considered an underestimate.  So many could not be found.  So many deaths could not be confirmed.  So many perished and were interred alongside those who might have come to look for them.

Indeed, the impact of the 2010 earthquake on Haiti, and particularly the South and East of the country, around Port Au Prince (the epicenter was in Leogane, where the ground itself opened up, the roads were ripped apart) was so devastating largely because Haiti’s infrastructure was already hanging by a thread, whittled and weathered and gnawed away by the imperialist intervention and a capitalist elite undermining the state and the local economy as well.

To get a sense of the social nature of the natural disaster, we need only recall that just shortly after Haiti’s quake, one of similar magnitude hit Chile, but with only a tiny fraction of the casualties.  Here it was an apocalypse.  Haitians were caught upon not just a geological faultline but a historical and social one as well.  Those faultlines remain.

The concrete boxes in which so many Haitians live collapsed when the earth shook.  I spoke personally with several people whose houses fell down on them, others whose church collapsed as they prayed, others who told me of a pregnant friend who died when the hospital she went to for help with her labor pancaked from top to bottom.  These concrete structures had no inch to give, and so gave way.  A police captain tells me of seeing a woman,  a nanny, walking the streets of Port Au Prince after the earthquake, carrying a tray that bore the limbs of the dead children in her care.  In her traumatized state, she insisted on showing those nearby hat the kids were still ok.  Millions of Haitians carry stories and traumas like these.  Things seen that one should never see.  Loved one lost alongside limbs.

The older wood structures you occasionally see here and there in the city seem to have faired better than the concrete ones.  It concerned me l see that much of the rebuilding going on still appears to be using the old materials, concrete walls rising where the old ones fell.  Come another quake, they might as well be graves.

I was reluctant during this trip to go hunting for horror stories of Goudou Goudou.  I am told that everyone has such a story.  Most everyone knows someone who for lack of employment in the countryside, moved into the Port Au Prince area.  There is so much more to this beautiful and sacred country than horror.  This place of mountains and valleys that break your heart, this place of the richest and heartiest food.  This place sanctified by the blood of rebel slaves who defeated the armies of Napoleon and thus gave the modern world the notion that freedom should not be the exclusive property of white men.

Almost two centuries before Jean Paul Aristide and the Lavalas movement would popularize the phrase “Tout moun se moun”–all people are people–Haitians fought and died to show the world that black lives mattered.  Sixty years before the U.S. legally ended chattel slavery, let alone Jim Crow.

For this great feat, for defying white supremacy and colonialism and latter day imperialism, the people of Haiti have been again and again punished: their county invaded and occupied, their legitimate government, dissolved, toppled, undermined.

Millions of Haiti’s people had been pressed to the edge of social suffocation, long before he earthquake, by ruling class powers and policies that have imposed and enforced odious debts, undercut its ability to feed itself, created a vast sea of suffering and vulnerable humanity that was already struggling just to survive–when the earth shook and walls fell.  Those that  seek only earthquake horrors and focus on the piles of rubble miss the heroic efforts that most Haitians make each and every day just to survive.

No doubt, the earthquake has compounded that struggle, even years after the wails of immediate mourning had passed.  But people continue to live and love and struggle on.  Life made all the more precious we it’s shown so at precarious.

Above the plains of Corrail on the hot dry plains just outside Port Au Prince, you can see shantytowns that date from the Goudou Goudou.  Makeshift shacks of tens of thousands climb up mountains that used to be occupied only by goats.  (The goats on these mountains are gone. Local farmers say that they were taken by MINUSTAH soldiers for roasting, just like US Marines did during their occupation.)

Haiti has just this week officially designated January 12th as a national holiday–a day of mourning and reflection.

While we were touring Corrail, we come across a monument to the victims of the earthquake.  It’s still under construction.  A man in sunglasses combat boots, and holding an M-16 tells us no photos.  He is wearing a chain with an image of Che Guevara on it.  They don’t want outside world seeing this site until it is finished.  Around him workers are busy in the midday heat, arrayed inside wall enclosed yard.  At the head of it is a structure–a giant black cube block–that reminds me of the Vietnam War memorial in Washington D.C.  Dark but reflective at the same time.  Around the yard ornate plants are being set in stone circles plots.  A modern looking metal structure, a kind of abstract art to inspire reflection skyward.  All around men are mortaring and digging  and pushing wheel barrows.

The memorial marks the spot of a mass grave.  Thousands, tens of thousands of people are buried here.  Their bodies, pulled from rubble, never identified, never claimed, were piled in massive dump trucks driven out here and poured into the ground under gravel and sand.  This memorial is in effect a massive grave stone.  Though unlike the Vietnam Memorial the names of the fallen are missing.

Beyond the wall that encloses the memorial, there are more graves still. You can tell by the way the gravel is laid.  Under here are God knows how many.  There are sprigs of grass and flowers growing up through the gravel.

Just down a dirt path and across the road is another sort of unmarked Corrail mass grave.  These are fields where the death squads of Duvalier and anti-Lavalas coup makers once dumped the bodies of progressive activists, after kidnapping and executing them in the middle of the night.  Murderous forces working with US support, shooting people dead with American guns and bullets.

Let us never forget that the first mass grave is in part the product of the second.  I know of no memorial planned for the victims of US sponsored death squads in Corrail, but there should be.


I write and send this hastily from the airplane.  The traffic heading in to Port Au Prince airport was light today or I may have missed my flight.  It is light because of the holiday.  Haitians continue to live and to struggle, but today they mourn.  Let us mourn too.

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Joseph G. Ramsey is an activist and writer living in Boston. He is a contributing editor at Red Wedge, a co-editor at Cultural Logic: an electronic journal of Marxist theory and practice, and a contributing board member at Socialism and Democracy.

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