On Thursday, Haiti marked the second anniversary of the devastating 2010 earthquake. NPR’s Jason Beaubien was back in the Caribbean nation for the quake memorials and he sent us this reporter’s notebook about covering Haiti over the last few years.
Haiti is a land haunted by ghosts. My translator, Jean Pierre, won’t shut up about the ghosts. He points toward some men plodding up the dusty street hauling huge bags of charcoal on their heads.
“Zombies,” he declares. “Dead dudes are everywhere.”
Haiti makes you believe in spirits, in resurrection. Fallen presidents rise up, they return in waves. Baby Doc Duvalier; Jean Bertrand Aristide; Ousted into exile but now home.
When I first came to Haiti in 2008, the city of Gonaives was under water. Over the course of a month, Gonaives was hit by two hurricanes, two tropical storms and it flooded twice.
When I came back in 2010, Port-au-Prince was under piles of rubble. Entire hillside slums had slammed down onto their neighbors below. Grey powdery dust covered everything; fires burned across the city.
Two years later, I still can’t pull into the driveway of the Hotel Villa Creole without seeing the ghosts lying there. Right after the quake, the hotel driveway was covered with dying and injured Haitians. Children lay on sheets and blankets on the ground. A visiting gynecologist was sewing up a girl’s head wound by flashlight.
As a reporter, some quotes get burned into your mind. “There isn’t a family in Haiti that isn’t crying right now,” a woman told me in English.
Maybe those words stuck with me because I’d been crying myself. That morning my translator and I had been standing on a field of earthquake debris talking to an old woman. Tears streaked all our faces as the woman recounted how the walls of her house had started to wobble, and how her grandchildren didn’t get out.
And then there were the bodies — piles of bodies — stacked like cord wood beside the road, dumped at the morgue, burned in the streets, shoveled with front-end loaders into trucks and dropped into mass graves at an old gravel pit just outside the city.
Some of the men clearing debris could have been zombies, ghosts who’d wormed their way up to the surface. They were everywhere, stoically pounding away with sledge hammers at what looked like insurmountable piles of rubble.
Just days after the quake, people gathered in front of destroyed churches to sing, to pray, to praise a God that appeared to have abandoned them.
Over the coming weeks and months, spaces cleared. Tarps and tents went up. Shacks were built.
But like the double flooding of Gonaives, Haiti can’t seem to get just one catastrophe at a time.
A cholera outbreak spread across the entire island, sickening a half a million people and killing thousands. More dead; more ghosts.
There’s a lot of bad news in Haiti. Earthquake victims — 500,000 of them — are still living in squalid camps. There are entire neighborhoods in Port-au-Prince with no toilets, no electricity and no clean water. Cholera is now endemic.
But I left this time feeling like the country is at least moving forward. New universities, hospitals and hotels are being built. There’s a government in place.
Haiti’s ghosts seem to hang over the country whispering about its long tragic history. But even so, the streets of Port-au-Prince fill every day with chaotic traffic jams and freewheeling commerce.
It’s reassuring that despite everything, people have somewhere to rush to. They have things they need to do, lives to live.