Today is my second to last day in Haiti. The sun is shining, the motos are honking, and from the perspective of this shady hammock it’s hard to believe that in just over 48 hours I’ll be dealing with snowbanks, black ice and fozen nose hairs all over again.
That’s right, I’m leaving Leogane. All Hands temporarily shut down operations this week to allow the staff and volunteers to take a much needed break before ramping up operations for 2011 starting on January 24th. It’s been a busy couple of weeks, with everyone working like crazy to get everything in order before the break. There are only about 12 of us on base right now, with a laundry list of optional chores to take care of but no real obligations. It’s a weird way to wrap up 3 months of serious communal living and extreme hard work.
My last week of work was intense, for lack of a better word. Last Wednesday was January 12th, which marked the one-year anniversary of the reason why I’m here in the first place. The City of Leogane decided that they needed to do something to commemorate the occasion, but didn’t have the means to make it happen on their own. One of the biggest issues that they had was the mass grave site, just outside the cemetery. There were over a thousand people buried there after the earthquake, with nothing to mark their place but a simple iron cross and a sign explaining that the site would be renovated in the near future. The bus station is across the street, and it wasn’t rare to see vendors setting up shop next to the cross or moto taxis cutting through the grave site. The Director General of the City, with whom I worked closely during my time on the Mayor’s Office project, approached All Hands and asked if there was anything we could do. All it took was 3 architects, 40 local and international volunteers, 2 weeks of hard labour, and 1 whole year gone by since the disaster, and now Leogane has a dignified place to remember those they lost to the 2010 earthquake. One of our volunteers who worked on the grave site writes for AOL Travel, and her story and photos are worth checking out here.
Because of my familiarity with the mayor’s office operations and staff, our project director asked me to help out with the planning and preparation for the events of the day itself. (For my involvement I made my hometown paper again, if you’d like to read the story here.) All Hands offered to provide logistical and financial support for whatever Leogane wanted to do to commemorate the anniversary. I’ll spare the City my rant about their usual lack of organization, planning, proactivity and vision…let’s just say it was an uphill battle to have everything in order by January 12th. What matters is the end result, and it all came across quite nicely. There was a mass early in the day at the Catholic church, which had been destroyed by the earthquake and rebuilt by the Canadian Army last January. In the afternoon, a funeral procession started at the mayor’s office, wound its way through town collecting supporters along the way, and made its way to the mass grave site. A brass band (called a “fanfa”) played Haitian funeral songs, and there was some singing and chanting by the vodouisants. Mirlande Manigat, the supposed front runner in the ongoing extreme confusion of the presidential elections, made a surprise appearance to pay her respects at the mass grave. The Sri Lankan army, who make up the security portion of the UN mission in Leogane, joined the community in their march, trading their assault rifles for bouquets of white flowers.
The march ended at a soundstage set up on the main road, with music and speeches from local officials. Chris, one of our project coordinators, and I were unexpectedly called to the stage to sit with the city officials to thank us for our help in preparing for the day. When I was done panickedly composing a speech in Creole in my head in case I was called on the speak (I wasn’t, thank God), I surveyed the crowd in front of me. I was surprised to see that our volunteers made up the majority of the international participants. There were rumours of security concerns leading up to the 12th, with some NGO’s worried that there would be protests about how little had been accomplished over the past year. It seems that those concerns kept most of the international actors in Leogane from attending the day’s ceremonies. I felt like it was one more nail in the coffin of NGO relationships with this community; proof that they habitually keep the people they’re helping at arm’s length. It was nice to see our international staff and volunteers standing side by side with the people directly affected by the earthquake, and to know that they were glad we were there.
At the end of the day, all of our volunteers came back to our base to commemorate the anniversary privately. Thomas, one of our local volunteers, put together an emotionally charged slideshow of photos of the past year. Many of the local volunteers stood up and shared their stories of where they were on January 12th 2010, and how the disaster affected them. We heard about people’s friends, relatives, lovers, and colleagues crushed under concrete. They told us about nights spent huddled in cow fields, living like animals, feeling like this had to be the end of the world. We heard about the rumours, about not knowing who was dead or alive for weeks and months, of hearing screaming and crying that seemed like it would never end. Most of them spoke about it almost subjectively, as though it were something that had happened to someone else. It’s crazy to think that every pile of rubble in this city has a family attached to it, and that each member of that family has a story similar to what our friends shared with us. We’ve all known someone who has suffered through the tragedy of losing a loved one or losing their home, and can all empathize with that individual or family’s pain. But I can’t even begin to fathom that pain on the massive scale of these millions of people who experienced those life-altering losses all at the same time. It was hard to hear, but we all knew how important it was that we at least get an idea of what the Haitian people experienced this time last year.
At the end of the day I was exhausted. I went up to the roof to look at the stars and digest everything I’d seen, heard, and experienced. I called my sister Mallory back home in Canada, because I felt like I couldn’t end the day without telling my family how grateful I am that we are all still alive, and to know that we are safe, and how lucky we are to have never had to experience the kind of loss that was all around me on that day. It was a hard day, it’s been a hard year, but at the end of it all life has to go on. The next day we were back at work building schools and clearing rubble. Lavi pa fini.