As dazed and injured Haitians sit on darkened streets pleading for help, and images of a devastated Port-au-Prince, quake-hit Haiti’s capital city, comes hurtling into our living rooms, courtesy Google and television, my mind rewinds to a summer afternoon in 2008. I was among a group of international journalists visiting this staggeringly beautiful Caribbean island — sadly, the poorest country in the Western world. That summer, Port-au-Prince was in the throes of food riots. Stories of people eating mud and random kidnappings flashed in the international media. We had been warned to be extra cautious. Sensing my restlessness at being forced to restrict my movements, one afternoon Jerome Phares, a local journalist, took me and another colleague from Mumbai to the National Museum of History. The museum housed artefacts and relics depicting the struggles of the people of Haiti — the first black republic in the world, where an army of slaves defeated the oppressors for the first time. But as we were about to enter, I realised we had a problem. Being extra-cautious, we had left our wallets in the hotel, and did not have enough money to pay for the entrance tickets. The quick-witted Jerome came to our rescue: we were introduced as an “official Indian delegation”. The man at the gate beamed. Not only did we not have to buy tickets, as visiting “dignitaries” we were escorted inside by an English-speaking, history-loving guide. It was the first time in my life I had been accorded such official status.
I never thought I would see Jerome ever again after leaving Haiti. But a twist of fate brought us back together. Late last year, I got a mail from Jerome telling me he was coming to Delhi to do a short course at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. He arrived in New Delhi early January. Soon after, an earthquake flattened his country. Last weekend, as we sipped coffee and shared memories and anxious moments at a South Delhi cafe, the images of that Haitian summer came rushing back.
Just 24 hours ago, he had given up all hope, Jerome told me. The international TV channels were focusing on devastated downtown Port-au-Prince and areas where the rich lived. His newspaper office was destroyed. The National Palace in the centre of Port-au-Prince’s historic quarter was severely damaged. Hotel Montana, in Petionville, where the Haitian elite and the international crowd stayed, had collapsed, but there had been no news about Martissant, a depressed neighbourhood in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where his home stood. Thousands of miles away from his family, and not knowing if his parents and brothers and sisters were alive, Jerome almost cracked up. He could not eat, he could not talk, he could not focus on anything. He cried constantly one whole day. Out of sheer despair, when he was thinking of packing his bags and leaving India, almost magically, an email came from his brother, back home, telling him his family was safe.
“I am glad I held out. And for once, I was lucky to be poor,” Jerome told me. His family home, situated some distance from the epicentre of the earthquake, had been spared. We met to celebrate the good news.
How widespread is the destruction in Haiti? No one knows as yet. Has the museum I visited with Jerome collapsed? What about the rare artefacts? I was lucky to visit this island nation during a lull — between the 2004 coup and the 2010 earthquake — and my thoughts repeatedly turn to the places and people which had an India connection: I remember the fabulous evening in Hotel Montana, where many of the UN staff stayed and where Eddy Handal, India’s honorary consul in Haiti, threw a party for us, the visiting journalists, in the summer of 2008. Scores of people who were trapped inside that hotel on January 12, that fateful Tuesday when the earthquake struck, are feared dead.
One of my most vivid memories of Haiti was a visit to Carrefour-Feuilles, a sprawling slum on the edge of Port-au-Prince. It had become the site of an innovative community-based waste management project funded by India, Brazil, and South Africa (the IBSA alliance), along with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). When the project began in 2005, Carrefour-Feuilles was synonymous with guns and gangsters. I spoke to women like Gislene La Salle, a widow and a mother of six, who had found work in the recycling project. The former street vendor told me her new job had helped her feed her family better and send three of her six children to school. Patrick Massenat, a local youth, heading a committee set up to oversee the work, told me every morning, a group of workers went out and collected waste from house to house. The trash was brought to the project site where another group sorted out the garbage — separating paper from plastic and metals. Then part of the waste was made into fuel briquettes. The project had begun to wean the community away from violence. As I was leaving Carrefour Feuilles, I remember one of the women workers came running to me, to thank India. The Indian support had touched their lives and ushered in hope. The local youth coordinator spoke of long queues of people who came begging for work.
Google tells you almost everything about everything, but as Jerome told me, sometimes even Google does not know what has happened to people you care for. I know Carrefour-Feuilles has been hit hard by the earthquake but I do not know if Gislene, her family, and the others who worked at the “triage centre” sorting out the garbage have survived. There has been no response to the emails I sent out, nor any news about many of the people I had met in Haiti. But Jerome has convinced me about the power of miracles. Amid the debris, there could be bits of hope. And the people and places I remember so vividly may not be all gone.
Patralekha Chatterjee writes on development issues in India and emerging economies and can be contacted at email@example.com