A Girl Named Lovely
Chapter 1 The End of the World
It felt like the plane was landing in the middle of the ocean.
Peering out a window, I could see nothing but vast blackness. There were no white lights dotting the edges of the runway, no brightly lit terminal buildings in the distance, and, beyond that, no twinkling city lights. Just blackness, then bump: we were on the ground.
But the voice over the plane’s loudspeaker confirmed that we had in fact arrived at our destination: the devastated city of Port-au-Prince.
It was 10:00 p.m. on January 23, 2010, eleven days after the earthquake. Somewhere out there in the darkness were hundreds of thousands of bloated corpses, severely injured people, and armed thugs who were using the chaos to loot, rape, and exact hideous revenge by burning their enemies alive in the streets. I’d seen pictures of the latter, taken by my colleague, photographer Lucas Oleniuk, and splayed
across the front page of our newspaper, the Toronto Star. They had kept me awake for the past couple of nights, ever since my editor had phoned me during lunch and asked if I wanted to go to Haiti.
“Of course,” I’d said without pause. I was a columnist at the newspaper, but my dream was to become a foreign correspondent. This was my big break. But I’d been quietly freaking out since that moment. What if I was kidnapped by one of those thugs? What if I witnessed a public lynching? Would I be able to handle the Civil War–era amputations to remove gangrenous limbs that my colleagues had reported were taking place in tents around the city?
I packed in our basement the night before my planned departure as my two little kids looked on from the couch. This would be my longest separation from them. Was I being an irresponsible parent, leaving them to travel into danger? Would I return injured or broken? But if I didn’t go, how could I ever forgive myself? Most days, I felt emotionally stretched between two worlds as a working mom; now that tug-of-war between ambition and duty felt as though it would snap me in half. When I couldn’t find my freshly purchased Lonely Planet guide to the Dominican Republic and Haiti, I started frantically tearing apart my bag and sobbing uncontrollably. I was having a full-fledged panic attack. My kids cuddled me on the couch and recited the soothing words I always told them: “Everything will be okay, Mommy.”
Adding to the sticky fear that clenched my stomach and muffled my lungs was performance anxiety. Every journalist is crippled by self-doubt most of the time. We all think we’ve somehow managed to patch things together thus far, but that it’s only a matter of time before everyone else figures out that we are winging it. Would this be the trip that revealed all my failings? Would I crack under the pressure and be forced to call my editor blubbering and begging to be brought home? Would I get scooped by all the competing journalists and miss the big stories?
A cheer went up in the plane around me. I was at the back of an Air Canada relief flight, surrounded by mostly female airline staff who had been trained as caregivers to soothe survivors after airplane
“incidents”—scares or, worse, crashes. For them, this trip was about delivering aid to their colleagues in Haiti and bringing Haitian orphans, whose international adoptions had been expedited by the Canadian government, back to their new homes in Canada.
The volunteers wore matching beige T-shirts with the word “Hope” printed in English, French, and Kreyòl ayisyen —Haitian Creole, one of the country’s two official languages—on the back. They had spent most of the ride bouncing excitedly between seats, snapping photos of one another and passing out chocolates and home-baked muffins.
“What we are doing is greater than all of us,” their upbeat leader, Duncan Dee, had announced over the plane’s loudspeaker before takeoff.
Duncan was the chief operating officer for Air Canada, which had become Canada’s official emergency aid transporter after the Southeast Asian tsunami four years earlier. He was short, with cropped black hair and glasses that amplified his round face. This was his third aid mission, after Indonesia and Hurricane Katrina, and already it had a special significance.
A few nights before, Duncan had watched a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) newscast from Port-au-Prince featuring a child getting sutures without anesthetic at a bare-bones medical clinic. The child’s screams moved Duncan to tears and haunted him. He was a devout Catholic with two children of his own.
“I couldn’t not do anything, knowing I would be in Port-au-Prince forty-eight hours after that child was screaming,” he said. He’d picked up his phone and emailed Peter Mansbridge, the anchor of the flagship CBC newscast The National, who directed him to a reporter in Port-au-Prince. Within an hour Duncan had connected with a volunteer at the makeshift clinic who provided a long list of needed supplies.
Over the past two days Duncan and his volunteer crew had crisscrossed Ottawa, personally collecting wheelchairs, generators, and diapers. Except for one type of antibiotic, they had picked up every
last thing on the list. They were high on compassion and buzzing from the endorphins of altruism.
“It’s a privilege for us to do this. We are helping people who have nothing,” Duncan said.
Back in economy class, I and my colleague Brett Popplewell, a reporter with the Star, were the only ones who were getting off. We weren’t here to save lives or help in any tangible way. We were here to witness whatever horrors were unfurling in the darkness and report it to our readers back in Canada.
I nervously checked my bag one more time to make sure I had everything: my pens and notebooks, camera and laptop. I tapped my waist, where I was wearing a money belt filled with my passport and a thick wad of American dollars I’d packed to pay for drivers, translators, and a hotel room, if I could find one.
I began to shuffle my way to the airplane exit, a sense of dread growing with each step. My breath was shallow, and nausea gripped my stomach. As I was leaving, the Air Canada agent who’d been the most buoyant and enthusiastic called out to me: “Good luck.”
• • •
Outside, the air was thick and warm, like a damp wool blanket. The smell of burning rubber filled my nostrils. It was dark except for the headlights of a giant pickup truck that had rolled right up to the plane, and the white glow of a television camera.
From atop the metal staircase, I could see Duncan’s round face illuminated in the camera’s glare below. The same CBC reporter who had inspired him to help was now interviewing him.
A knot of people moved in the shadows nearby. When I reached the ground, I quickly learned most had arrived to pick up the emergency supplies Air Canada staff had carefully collected.
These weren’t professional aid workers, though. They seemed to be just a bunch of random people who, like Duncan, had watched the news and been inspired to help Haiti in person. I would come to call them catastrophe missionaries.
“We’ve been setting up tents, holding babies, seeing a woman give birth,” said a thirty-year-old man from New Jersey wearing a baseball cap and baggy shorts. “It’s been the craziest two days. We rode in on the back of a dump truck to get here. We brought bags of lollipops to give to kids. We were jumping rope with them today.”
When I asked him his job, he said his fiance was in medical school. I raised my eyebrows. Seriously, what good did he think he was doing skipping with kids in an earthquake zone? I at least had a job to do here. He was just some yahoo who’d come for a strange thrill. I figured he would cause more harm than good. But I scratched everything he told me down in my notebook, hoping my pen was working in the dark. The best cure for performance anxiety is action, and interviewing someone—anyone—was calming.
The man pointed out his group’s leader, a tall, slim, and slow-talking information technology specialist from Manhattan named Alphonse Edouard. Alphonse had been vacationing in the Dominican Republic when the earthquake struck and had rushed over the border with two duffel bags of hastily purchased medical supplies. He’d met up with members of the Dominican Republic Civil Defense and some Greek doctors, and together they’d set up a medical clinic on the edge of an industrial complex near the airport. It was Alphonse who had sent Duncan the list of needed supplies.
“I’m still pinching myself. I can’t believe the plane is actually here,” Alphonse said. “The people of Haiti really need the relief.”
At the clinic, doctors were seeing dozens of patients a day, treating fractures and delivering babies. As I scrawled down his words, I heard something that made me stop. His clinic was taking care of a “miracle baby,” a little girl named Jonatha who had been dropped off six days after the earthquake. The girl had survived all six days under the rubble alone. He figured she was one and a half years old.
“We’ll have to do something for her,” he said. “Her parents died.”
Six days without water—that seemed a miracle indeed, particularly for such a small person. My kids, Lyla and Noah, were three and one, and they wouldn’t make it a single day without food or water.
Even when we were stepping out for a quick errand, I packed as though we were going on a two-day canoe trip with an assortment of snacks in various containers and multiple brimming sippy cups.
I had to find this girl. Alphonse directed me to something called “Sonapi.”
“Go to the Trois Mains and turn right,” he said. I had never been to Haiti before, so the directions meant nothing to me, but I figured locals would know what he was talking about and lead me there.
As we were talking, boxes were being off-loaded from the plane onto the warm tarmac. I spotted my bulky camping knapsack among them. I hauled my bag up onto my back and asked an Air Canada employee if she could tell me the direction of the hangar. She stretched out her finger and pointed under the plane.
With Brett beside me, we shuffled under the hulking belly of the giant Airbus A330 in the direction the airline employee had indicated, hoping that we’d bump into the hangar. We were immediately enveloped by the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. I was still scared, but there was a slight loosening of the coils in my stomach. In a few hours I was going to head out and find that orphaned girl, wherever she was.
• • •
When the sun rose the next morning, the view was devastating.
Port-au-Prince was built around valleys that had once been verdant with trees. At first glance, it also seemed that there were waterfalls flowing down the hills around the city. A closer look revealed that the white wasn’t spray but concrete blocks that had spilled down the valley, one small house smashing the next.
Jumbled piles of concrete lined both sides of the street. The buildings were flattened, tipped over, reduced to skeletons of rebar and wood. Some offered clues to their former lives: a Yamaha sign resting atop a mess of rubble, a large wooden cross with Jesus rising before a jumble of bricks and broken stained glass windows.
So many of the buildings were broken that the ones left standing were easy to spot. They stood out. They resembled dissected
carcasses. Here I could see the rows of dusty desks up on the third floor of a sliced-open building, and there the baby bassinets of a medical clinic.
We passed the country’s largest cathedral, called locally the Port-au-Prince Cathedral, which now resembled a Roman ruin: no roof or stained glass, just pillars and bare walls. And there were the three white domes of the presidential palace. The central one had collapsed like a sunken marzipan cake.
A vast camp spread around the palace in what had once been the city’s version of Central Park and Times Square combined—a dozen small parks dotted with graceful trees and statues of revolutionary heroes. Before, this was where locals would meet at the end of the day to eat ice cream or do their homework beneath the streetlamps. During the annual carnival, it was where the parade and dancing took place. Now every inch of ground was clogged by homemade tents fashioned from bedsheets. I could make out a children’s play structure, with a slide and a ladder in the distance. People had camped out on its upper platform, where kids were meant to line up for their turn down the slide.
People lay on the streets all around, under sheets or tied-up tarps. Others rummaged through the rubble, heaving hammers and digging with their bare hands. Signs made with spray paint flashed from walls and hanging sheets: We need food. Water Please. S.O.S. We need help. We need help. We need help.
I scrawled down notes as I toured the city, trying to get my bearings. But just as I fixed my eyes on one broken thing, another leapt into view. I felt like a kid in a haunted house, overwhelmed and distracted. It was too much to take in.
Brett and I were the second team of reporters from our newspaper to arrive, relieving our colleagues who had rushed into the country a couple of days after the quake and were now strung out and exhausted. They had already reported on the death and destruction. Our assignment was to document what came next: the aid and presumably, the first steps of healing.
But the devastation was so overpowering, it was hard to imagine moving on from it. How could anyone heal from this type of damage?
We stopped in at a police station near the airport, which had become the Haitian government’s temporary headquarters, since most ministry buildings had collapsed. The only sign of any government, though, was the long-faced communications minister, Marie-Laurence Jocelyn Lassègue, sitting alone at a table under a dusty mango tree. A piece of paper had been folded to make a nameplate in front of her, with the word Presse.
“We need tents, medicines, nurses,” she said forcefully in perfect English. It was as if I’d pushed the play button on her monologue, and she rushed on without breaking or even breathing. “The NGOs don’t look at the government’s priority, and they need to be better coordinated. The majority of the population is women and they lost everything. It was already very hard for them to live. It seems the jail was opened, and there have been many rapes. We need soldiers to protect them and put lights up in the camps.”
When I left the station, I was immediately swept up in the next matter; it was all I could do to keep up. But I would soon learn just how prescient Minister Lassègue’s words were.
All morning, I had been emailing Alphonse, the volunteer coordinator, trying to get better directions to the clinic where the miracle girl was being cared for. He had repeated the same two things: “Sonapi” and “Trois Mains.”
Even before the earthquake, Port-au-Prince was an easy city to get lost in. Few of the warren-like streets had names, let alone signs. To find their way, locals used landmarks to give directions: Go to this supermarket, say, turn left, and when you get to the big house with three satellite dishes, turn right. But most of the usual landmarks were now gone, so even locals could spend hours trying to find their way around town.
When I asked our driver if he knew “Sonapi” or “Trois Mains,” he shook his head. He was new to Port-au-Prince.
Passing the airport, however, we circled a roundabout with a
statue in its center. When I looked out the window, I saw it: three joining metal hands. Trois Mains.
Just beyond the statue was a large wall with a big blue metal gate, guarded by United Nations soldiers in flak jackets and blue helmets. Over the gate was a sign: PARC INDUSTRIEL MÉTROPOLITAIN, SONAPI (Société Nationale des Parcs Industriels).
What I found on the other side of that gate looked more like a disorganized campground than a medical clinic. Set around a muddy patch of grass and a brick courtyard were a smattering of tents: silver camping domes, large, heavy canvas shelters, and a big army-green party tent, now full of the Air Canada supplies. Chickens and a rooster scratched in the spaces between them.
The place was eerily quiet. The buzz of activity and crowds of injured patients I’d expected from Alphonse’s description were conspicuously absent. Sundays, it turned out, were convalescence days for the Greek doctors who worked with the large medical NGO Médecins du Monde. The clinic was officially closed.
A few volunteers milled about, including Alphonse, who walked over to greet me.
“You’re here!” he said warmly. “Let me introduce you to Jonatha.”
The miracle child was sitting under the shade of a tree in the center of a crowd of adorers. She was small, with birdlike bones—barely taller than my one-year-old, Noah, but with the coordination of my three-year-old, Lyla. Her hair was fluffing out from a neat row of cornrows that someone had lovingly tended to.
She was sitting on a small ledge, between adults, dressed in a white tank top that slid off one shoulder, a pink corduroy skirt that was also too big, and a plastic pink play cell phone that hung around her neck on a cord.
She did not look like a refugee who had lost everything and survived hell. She looked healthy and happy, as though she were spending another afternoon in the sandpit at a local park. I watched her snatch the baseball cap off the head of one of her adult admirers and plop it teasingly on her own head.
She repeatedly returned to the side of a woman with an auburn bob and brown crinkly eyes named Michele Laporte. A retired psychiatric nurse from Montreal, Michele had flown to the Dominican Republic two days after the earthquake to meet her daughter, and together they had rushed over the border by bus. She called the decision an impulsive “cry of the heart.” She had never done anything like this before.
Michele had spent her first few days setting femur and tibia fractures on the ground, often without anesthetic.
“How can people suffer so much?” she asked wearily.
Then, six days after the earthquake, Jonatha arrived.
The clinic was in such chaos then, no one noted where the ambulance was from.
“We don’t even know how many patients we had this week,” Michele said.
The Greek doctors examined Jonatha and were shocked to find no broken bones, no open wounds, not even any scratches. The only things physically wrong with Jonatha, medically speaking, were long-term malnutrition and giardia, a common digestive tract parasite; neither condition a result of the earthquake. But, psychologically, she was distressed. She curled up in the fetal position and cried for days, refusing to talk except when calling out weakly for her mother.
Michele had decided, simply, to hold Jonatha constantly, keeping her on her lap during the day and curling around her at night. She’d become a human rescue blanket, transmitting warm love from her body into the child’s, and it had worked. Jonatha had stopped crying the day before I arrived. She had started to speak again, too. That morning she’d had another breakthrough: while Michele was sorting medication in their tent, she heard a noise behind her, and turned to find the little girl shaking a pill bottle like it was a rattle.
“She made a smile,” Michele recounted. “It was illuminating. I thought she would never smile again.”
Most survivors are pulled out of the wreckage within the first
twenty-four hours of an earthquake, disaster experts say. Adults are unlikely to survive more than three days without water. For children, it is even less. Michele couldn’t fathom how Jonatha survived, but she assumed the same grace had not spared her parents.
“Will we ever know?” Michele said.
While I listened to the story, I casually studied Jonatha, looking for signs of what she’d been through. A volunteer brought over a Styrofoam container of food, and she was eating like a linebacker: shoveling rice and beans into her mouth, sucking the meat off the ribs, and then crunching the bones and swallowing those, too.
Michele took hold of the container to pull it away, and Jonatha gripped it firmly and narrowed her eyes. Her eyes were dark and exacting, like those of an old woman the world could no longer trick. There was a toughness in this kid I didn’t see in my children. Is that what had kept her alive all those days under the rubble? What horrors had she witnessed? Had someone sung songs of comfort to her, like I often sang to my children, or had she heard nothing but the moans and cries of despair? I hoped her mother had held her for a time before passing away.
Tomorrow, Jonatha’s small life was about to be upended again. After ten days Michele was going back home, as were many of the other catastrophe missionaries. Who would care for Jonatha?
“We don’t want to take her to an orphanage. They are all broken rubble. She needs stability,” Michele said. “But what can we do?”
Less than an hour before, I had been under the UNICEF tarp, set up in the United Nations compound just down the road from the airport. The UN camp resembled a set for the 1970s television series M.A.S.H. Many agencies’ headquarters had been destroyed, so they had set up under dusty tarps with hastily scrawled signs poking from the gravel outside.
There, I learned UNICEF had established three clandestine safe houses around the city for children who had lost their families. Sitting beside Michele, I emailed a contact at UNICEF about Jonatha. He replied within minutes: an officer would be by soon.
“Do you think the care there will be good?” Michele asked. “There are a thousand families in Canada who would want her. I hope she ends up with a good family and can take painting classes and ballet and do all the things our kids get to do.”
I hadn’t been in Haiti for a full day yet, but from what I’d seen that morning and what I’d read about the country, I doubted the care at the safe houses would meet such high standards. After all she had been through, Jonatha seemed destined for an internally displaced persons camp or a broken orphanage, which in Haiti rarely came with school, let alone ballet lessons. Looking down at the petite girl, I was overcome with pity. It was incredible she had survived, but for what? She’d lost her parents and now she was going to be abandoned again.
I checked the time. I had to go. My deadline was looming.
I crouched down and said good-bye to the little girl the way I did to my kids’ friends: with a pat on the shoulder. As I walked away, I looked back to see Michele lead her away by the hand for a washroom break. Her pink corduroy skirt slid down her backside, revealing a pair of diapers.
• • •
I met a lot of little kids over the next few days. Kids living under tarps in the street; shoeless kids lining up for bottled water; filthy homeless kids locals disparagingly called “street rats” who darted in and out of traffic offering to clean windshields for pennies.
Some had uplifting stories. The day after visiting Jonatha, I came across one six-year-old girl on a bed in the middle of the street. It was surrounded by dozens of others and protected from the sun and rain by tarps, converting the road into a giant communal room. The girl’s aunt was combing her hair in preparation for her first outing since the earthquake. A Dominican charity had organized a camp for the kids on her street. I rode in a truck with them to a large house with a walled-in yard, where they sang songs and did jumping jacks. It was a rare moment of joy, one that a select lucky few seemed able to embrace. Most of their stories were heavily stitched with despair.
Later that day, a giant hospital came into view through the car window, and I asked the driver to pull over. It was the public hospital for Delmas, a suburb of Port-au-Prince, called Hôpital Universitaire de la Paix. The earthquake had cracked it but not leveled it, and inside the main courtyard, staff were conducting their first post-earthquake meeting. The parking lot and patch of grass outside were crowded with patients lying on gurneys and mattresses. Many had been discharged but had no homes to return to, so they fashioned their own rooms with sheets and green hospital room dividers.
Inside, I met an obstetrical nurse from Spain who, upon hearing I was a journalist, ushered me into the hospital’s birthing room. The room was cavernous and bare except for a metal table set in its center. Upon it lay a large woman, entirely naked. She was in the midst of labor, grunting and gasping for air. Between her legs, I could see the crown of her baby’s head pushing out.
“Among all this catastrophe is this beauty,” the nurse said. Then he pulled out his digital camera and started flipping through photos of dead babies he’d delivered after the earthquake.
It was all surreal. In Toronto, if I had wanted to witness a labor for a story, it would have taken days of bureaucratic approvals, waiver forms, and stringent communications procedures. Here, I was waved in casually, and this woman’s most vulnerable, intimate moment was simply a backdrop. The mother in me was repulsed. I had given birth to both my kids without pain medication, and I knew how agonizing and intense it was. The thought of some stranger popping in unannounced in the middle of any of it was infuriating. But I was that strange journalist, and I was there for a reason.
My initial fears about missing stories for the paper were unfounded: they were on every street corner, each one more compelling and alarming than the last. The only challenge was picking which ones to focus on. Did I stop at the mound of rubble that had once been a school, where an excavation team was pulling out four decomposing bodies of dead students? (I did.) Or did I go to the nearby Digicel
building, the city’s tallest tower, where the company’s staff was having a giant prayer service on its ground floor? (I did that, too.)
At the back of my mind, Jonatha lurked. I worried not only what would happen to her in the long run but what today or tomorrow would bring. Her crew of adorers seemed kind and well-meaning, but only the Greek doctors and the Dominican Republic Civil Defense volunteers reported to an official organization. The rest were a ragtag group who had flown to Haiti on a compassionate whim and glommed together by chance. What if one of them was there on false pretenses? No one had screened them, and no one was keeping tabs on them.
In the scramble of patients coming and going, volunteers arriving and departing, and Michele leaving, how long would it take for someone to notice that Jonatha was missing? The thought of my own kids in her situation filled me with anxiety. The following day, when the blue Sonapi gate flashed on the side of the road, I asked my driver to pull over. I, too, was suffering a “cry of the heart.”
I found Jonatha wandering between the tents in a sundress, happily eating a banana with Michele following behind her. The retired nurse had delayed her departure by a couple of days to continue caring for the girl. In the meantime, another orphan—a twelve-year-old boy named Carlos—had shown up. Both were reported to the Haitian government. Relieved, I pushed on.
• • •
I was sharing a hotel room with Brett and Lucas, who had decided to remain in Haiti for another week. The hotel was full, packed with aid workers, along with journalists from Fox and ABC News who had converted the rooftop patio into their command centers, complete with hulking satellite dishes and humming generators.
The hotel was located at the top of a steep cobblestone driveway high up a mountain of Pétionville, Port-au-Prince’s rich lofty suburb, which offered television reporters a great backdrop for their evening newscasts. The city below looked beautiful from this distance, all the
destruction softened by the glimmering Caribbean Sea. In fact, if you lay on one of the patio chairs by the pool, you would have no reason to believe something terrible had happened and that the city was in the grips of misery.
Our room was on the ground floor, and we left the glass patio door open at night so we could rush out in our pajamas if we were awoken by another earthquake. Inside, there was a wooden chest of drawers that we’d filled with granola and protein bars from Canada. For days, that’s all I ate. There were two double beds, and the men graciously offered to bunk together so I had one to myself. We barely slept. Instead, we spent most of the night scrolling on our phones through stories from other news outlets, too jacked up on adrenaline and raw emotion to talk much. But by 6:00 every morning, after a few fitful hours of sleep, I was climbing back into a car, heading out with my laptop over my shoulder and bulging money belt around my waist to report.
The reporting was exhilarating. I never knew what story I would find, and invariably whatever story I stumbled upon was more gripping than any other I’d covered before.
Early one morning I went to the national soccer stadium to stand in a women’s food line. Rationing centers had turned into thrashing mosh pits in the past couple of days, with peacekeepers frantically trying to command control by liberally dousing the crowds with pepper spray. So the World Food Programme had decided to distribute rice only to women, figuring they were less likely to riot and more likely than men to feed their families.
It was barely 7:30 a.m., and already hundreds of women were in line, holding each other’s hips to guard their places and chatting excitedly. I quickly learned that life for women in Haiti is hard in a way most North Americans can’t imagine. Most are single mothers who have to pay for everything: water, school fees, hospital visits. They have no real national system of welfare, and spousal support is laughable. Many more die in childbirth than anywhere else in the western hemisphere, and the rate of rape is terrifying. Since the earthquake,
many women were now sleeping under cotton bedsheets, with no protection from the criminals who escaped the central prison.
But the feeling in the line wasn’t despair. It was giddy from relief that they were going to get food and the small scrap of power they’d been given. We were surrounded by men. At the front of the line were United Nations soldiers, sitting atop their hulking tanklike armored personnel carriers. They were dressed for war in camouflaged fatigues and helmets, and they rested giant guns on their laps. Beside and behind, angry Haitian men prowled like coyotes on the hunt. They shouted that they wanted coupons for rice and shoved women out of their paths. The women shared stories and held on to one another, but their conga line shifted nervously and flicked toward the traffic on the dusty adjacent road.
I was pinched between a very pregnant woman dressed simply in a white nightgown and Paulette Paul, a forty-nine-year-old woman whose lined face and gray cornrows made her look decades older. Her right arm was in a cast; she’d broken it while fleeing her crumbling house. Her husband had been badly injured and they had ten children to feed. She held two empty rice bags and hoped that, finally, this time she’d leave with them full. It was at least her fourth attempt to get food.
As we were talking, the nervous energy around us boiled over. Shrill whistles sounded. I looked up and saw that the UN distribution trucks were slowly pulling away. Soldiers on the ground were using their riot shields to push the women back and clear a way through. A wave of bodies rolled toward us. Paulette and I turned and began to shoulder against the women behind us to get out of the way. We rushed onto the road, beside cars that were stuck in traffic, but the scene ahead made us stop dead. Between two idling cars, three men were fighting. We watched as one lassoed the arms of another behind his back. The third man pulled a silver gun from his pocket and brandished it in the air.
My heart thundered in my chest. Instinctively, Paulette and I locked arms at the elbow and leaned into the river of women
barrelling down on us. We shouldered our way to the front of the idling car and then dashed across the road to a gas station.
Once we were safely behind the pumps, we turned to see what had happened.
It was as if my vision had slowed, and I could watch the scene in distinct photos. The silver gun rose up and struck the pinned man against one cheek. It was brandished again and struck him against the other cheek.
Then it was over. The man with the gun got back in his car and drove off.
I never saw what happened to his victim.
• • •
I returned to the government headquarters. They had built a covered dais in the yard of the police station from which ministers could deliver official reports to the press. I watched Haitian president René Préval declare that the country needed many more tents, only to be contradicted moments later by the American lead on relief efforts, Lewis Lucke, who said plastic sheeting would be much better for temporary housing. Who was in charge of the country?
When I left the press conference, the Trois Mains appeared through the car’s windshield. I was working with a new driver by then, a man with long, neatly manicured fingernails named Jefferson, as well as a young English teacher named David, who was translating for me. I asked them to pull over so I could go check in on Jonatha.
The clinic was humming with patients this time. There was a row of heavily bandaged men sitting in wheelchairs under the tree where I’d first met Jonatha, and a long line of women holding babies leaking out from one of the manila tents where the Greek doctors were doing examinations and diagnosing mostly fevers, diarrhea, rashes, and malnutrition. The acute trauma had passed now, making all those supplies brought down by Air Canada useless. The medical team was now greeting dehydrated and feverish children. They had a whole new wish list, starting with baby Tylenol.
I found Jonatha dressed in a little purple sundress, sitting on a thin mattress under a tree. She was eating again from a Styrofoam container, this one brimming with macaroni and cheese. Michele had left, I learned, and a heavyset Dominican woman had been tapped to watch over the little girl.
In fact, a whole new group of catastrophe missionaries had arrived since my last visit. There was a political science student from Boston, a French fisherman, and a life coach from Mexico who had flown into flood zones in Venezuela and rescue camps in Argentina. The life coach had been working with Jonatha every day, getting her to play and separate from Michele so she wasn’t traumatized by the Montreal nurse’s departure. He thought she was improving.
“She needs parents now,” he said.
Two UNICEF workers had arrived to collect Jonatha, but the volunteers refused to let her go with them.
“They didn’t have any identification,” the French fisherman said. “We can’t give her to anyone.”
This struck me as richly ironic and reassuring at the same time. Jonatha’s safety net was stronger than I’d feared.
When the little girl looked up at me, she offered no glimmer of recognition. Her dark eyes fixed on me flatly, then returned to her lunch. She wasn’t a charmer, like my daughter, Lyla, who always plays to the crowd. She wasn’t happy-go-lucky and oblivious like my son, Noah, either. She was hard-baked, weary, and incredibly self-possessed. This crowd of adults was flocking around her because, to them, she represented the country’s fragility—a helpless human rescued from the rubble. But to me she seemed more to reflect the country’s weary resilience. She was a survivor.
She wasn’t the only one in the makeshift medical clinic. A group of fifty children were also wolfing down macaroni and cheese nearby. They were from a damaged orphanage and now lived under a tarp on a nearby field. None of them was as clean or well-dressed as Jonatha. A few wore sandals that were at least two sizes too big, and others had no shoes at all. I watched them line up quietly next to the row of
wheelchairs to wait for a pickup truck to take them back to the orphanage, and wondered if Jonatha would be joining them soon.
I set off down a cobblestone road, heading deeper into the Sonapi industrial complex. Before the earthquake, it had been the country’s premier sweatshop zone, filled with factories making T-shirts for Western companies. Now the factories were not operating, but catering trucks hummed around them. A small Canadian flag fluttered from a spindly tree on the edge of the road, and I wandered past it and up a footpath to where five turbaned men sat in plastic chairs in a circle under a tarp, grating ginger and washing kidney beans for dinner. They were volunteers with Sikh United who’d come from Brampton, a suburb of my hometown Toronto, more than a week ago, to cook 2,500 free meals a day. I was stunned.
“God gave us a lot,” said their leader, a truck driver. “Why wouldn’t we share with somebody who has nothing?”
• • •
That seems like the obvious response of a human being faced with the suffering of other human beings. Even the New Jersey boy, whom I’d dismissed as a yahoo upon stepping off the plane, had good intentions and loving instincts. But the cardinal rule of journalism is to remain objective, which means staying emotionally detached and not getting personally involved. Our job, we say, is to record stories and recount them honestly in all their gruesome and delightful fullness, without bending or influencing them. We are witnesses, not actors, in the world.
That’s how it works on paper, at least. In practice, I was finding it difficult. Every day I was beseeched on the street by people asking for èd—the Kreyòl word for aid. They were hungry; they asked me for food. They’d lost their livelihoods; they asked me for work.
I repeated the same refrain: “I am a journalist, not an aid worker. I don’t have money. I don’t have jobs. I don’t have food. I am here to tell your stories.”
Usually they nodded in resignation but asked me to jot down their
names and cell phone numbers, just in case. When I gave my business card to one man who was among the lucky few to get a temporary job shoveling up the rubble downtown, I was immediately swarmed by his colleagues. They all stuck out their hands, demanding a business card. Despite what I told them, they all hoped I would help them somehow.
The problem was, I didn’t believe my own words. I could feel my money belt along the flat of my belly, still thick with American cash, and in my bag was a fistful of granola bars. I could help them, but my job demanded that I not.
While every other blan—foreigner—I’d met had dropped his or her life to rush here and assist in some way, I had to make the conscious decision, time and again, not to offer even the smallest help. In theory, I knew the stories I was writing would contribute to the larger cause by inspiring Canadians to pay attention and hopefully send money. But in the moment, those abstract thoughts were poor comfort. The guilt and horror piled up inside me like the jumbled debris that clogged the roads.
My normal way of dealing with stress is to shove my feet into running shoes and set out for a hard run. But I hadn’t brought my running shoes, and even if I had, I couldn’t imagine running alongside the mounds of rubble, past people sleeping on the road. So I started to bum cigarettes from other journalists and wealthy Haitian businessmen staying at the hotel after filing my stories.
I’d smoke them on the hotel patio, ten kilometers and a world away from the darkened city below.
• • •
Days later, I was standing outside a pale yellow house in a dense neighborhood with Jony St. Louis. He was a physiotherapist and a translator for a local clinic that included the country’s only prosthetic limb workshop. This had been his home before the earthquake.
From the outside, it looked like the building hadn’t suffered too much damage—just cracks in the walls, a few gaping holes. But,
peering through one, I saw a kitchen on the first floor that Jony explained had come from two floors up. The outer walls had stayed standing, while the floors inside had collapsed like descending cards in a shuffling deck.
Jony had lived in the basement with his wife, Annia, who was a doctor, and their two young kids. On the afternoon of the earthquake, Annia returned from the hospital, sent their children upstairs to play at the top-floor neighbors’, and lay down in bed for a quick nap.
Two stories of concrete and furniture collapsed atop her.
Jony was across the city at the time, working with a stroke patient in her home, when the three adjacent houses all came crashing down. He described how, after calling the patient’s son to let him know she was fine, he jumped on his motorcycle and raced home. The streets were full of unconscious and bleeding people. Ten minutes from home his motorcycle stopped dead, so he abandoned it and ran.
“With each breath, I said ‘My wife, my daughter, my son,’ ” he said.
It was dark by the time he reached his home, so he used the light of his cell phone to guide his way to the spot where his home had stood. There, he dug for Annia with the help of some boys from the neighborhood soccer team he had coached.
Before Jony guided me to the spot where he’d dug, we needed to prepare for the sickly sweet smell of death. A young girl had died in the upstairs bathroom, and her body was still there, decomposing. Around the city, I’d seen people walking with minty toothpaste smeared below their noses to block out the smell of death all around them. Jony had an upscale version of that: peppermint oil. He handed me the bottle and I wiped it on my upper lip, wondering at how the most grotesque rituals become pedestrian in such a short time.
The houses in most neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince were packed tightly together, which explained how so many people died. You fled your crumbling house only to be crushed by the one falling next door. There was barely enough room to walk between Jony’s house and his neighbors’, and the path was now a course of jumbled hunks of concrete shards and cinder blocks. At the corner, we turned down an
even tighter alley and stopped halfway down the width of the house, where there was a hole at the base of the wall. Strewn around it were items of Jony’s former life, yanked out as his team made its daunting progress: his six-month-old daughter’s peach baby blanket and a white sandal, two blue ties, an electronic piano. Jony squatted and picked up a small family photo album, flipping through its pages of happy memories. I crouched beside him and leaned in to peer into the hole. In the dark, I could make out the wooden board of a baby crib.
The night of the earthquake, Jony could hear Annia’s faint voice calling for their two-year-old son, Semi. He and his team had pounded with a hammer and clawed with their hands, calling to her, asking her to knock against the ceiling that was pressed against her face. When they finally reached her eight hours later, one of the boys slid through the tunnel on his back and pulled her out.
“I carried her out to the road like a baby,” Jony said. “She couldn’t move her legs.”
He rushed her to the closest hospital, the same one where I had seen the woman giving birth, but he’d found its dark grounds filled with innumerable patients and few doctors. So he took Annia to his mother’s courtyard. After three days, Annia told him she still had not peed. She needed a catheter.
He turned the city upside down looking for one, all to no avail. Annia died that night, likely of renal failure.
“Her family thinks I didn’t do enough,” he said. “I should have brought her to a hospital in the Dominican Republic. . . . I can’t sleep. I never drank alcohol before, and now I drink a lot of rum at night. That helps me to forget.”
I often cry when interviewing people who are emotional themselves. Sitting beside Jony, I wept not just with sympathy but with horror. I imagined what it meant to be buried alive. To be conscious that your life was ending but to remain trapped and unable to do anything about it. I thought about the heroics of Jony’s neighbors, risking their lives to enter the house while aftershocks rattled and threatened to maim or kill them, too.
The futility of it all was haunting. All that effort, to be left with nothing but guilt and uncertainty. What, I wondered, was a human life worth?
• • •
I left Port-au-Prince ten days after I arrived. Brett and I were loaded onto a bus at the Canadian embassy and driven down one of the city’s main boulevards toward the airport. As we passed the statue of three hands, I craned my neck to see the blue gates of the industrial district where Jonatha was likely still living. I didn’t have a chance to say good-bye to her.
Most of my fellow passengers were Haitian Canadians, dressed in their Sunday best for the trip. They wore straw hats, flowery sundresses, and suits. We walked in a long line onto the airport tarmac and boarded the giant gray Canadian military plane up its back ramp, as though we were trudging into Moby Dick’s open mouth.
Inside, the plane was stripped of all its guts; all that remained was a rim of metal seats along the walls and the cold metal floor on which we all sat, strapped into place by long belts that stretched across many laps before being ratcheted down. Our luggage towered under a net behind us.
The noise of the engine as the plane reversed was tremendous. It sounded, I realized, like an earthquake. The women around me raised their hands over their heads and began to pray and scream. The whites of their eyes flashed. For a moment it seemed like they were reliving the horror of that evening. They were all traumatized.
Before I’d left that morning, I had done a final interview with Gaëlle Delaquis, the Canadian embassy employee coordinating my evacuation. Her nails were immaculate, her high-heeled shoes expensive, and her thick, dark hair pulled into a glossy ponytail. She was the picture of poise; I felt like a slob in my hiking boots and baseball hat.
As we shared a cigarette on the back steps of the embassy, she told me her story of the earthquake. She was driving home from work
when the road had transformed into a roiling river. She managed to maneuver the car to her street, where she found every house destroyed except for hers. Her neighbor was on the road screaming hysterically. The woman had just stepped out to buy some lemons, leaving all four of her kids at home, and now they were all buried beneath the remains of her house. Gaëlle rushed to her garden shed to look for tools, but she found only shovels and a “girly hammer.” Still, for four days, she and her neighbors dug for the children until their voices stopped calling out. In the end, they pulled out only dismembered arms.
I realized Gaëlle’s immaculate appearance was a conscious attempt at control. On the inside, she was a broken mess. Her story, like every other one I’d heard over the past ten days, was intimately raw and emotionally overwhelming. I felt honored she trusted me with it. Each story was an intimate gift. I told myself I had the responsibility to use them well.
Some of my dispatches from Haiti had made the front page of the newspaper. I hadn’t missed anything; on the contrary, I’d dug up good stories and delivered them on time. I had always wanted to be a foreign correspondent, and here I had proved to myself and my bosses that I could do it. But that’s not what I thought about, sitting on the cold floor of the plane, surrounded by refugees and traumatized survivors returning to their second home in Canada.
After telling me her story, Gaëlle pointed her manicured finger across the grounds of the Canadian embassy to a security guard.
“That woman over there,” she said. “She comes here every day smiling in her uniform. She lost her family and is living on the street.”
Gaëlle’s point was that in the mountain of tragedy that was Haiti right now, she was relatively unscathed. Others had it worse and were bravely holding up the appearance of normality, so Gaëlle tamped down her despair and did the same.
I ripped open my knapsack. Before I had left Toronto for Haiti, I had rushed out to the outdoor equipment store and hastily bought a thin sleeping bag and a tent, in case I couldn’t find a hotel room and needed to sleep outside. Both were still sealed in their packages.
I dug both of them out and handed them to Gaëlle.
“Give her these,” I said.
I didn’t report on that woman’s story. In fact, I never spoke to her. So this simple act of kindness was not breaking any journalism credos. But it buoyed me.
I felt, for a brief moment, like I wasn’t just a cold tape recorder indifferently capturing the sounds of suffering. I was a member of the human family, reacting with love and kindness.
That thought warmed me on the cold flight home.