Holy Weekend in Haiti

Holy Weekend in Haiti

When I arrived, I was completely unprepared for how serious the Haitians take Holy Weekend.  Offices are closed. Businesses are closed, and anyone who has the ability to  - goes to the country.  Out of respect, many aid organizations gave their aid workers a rest.  It was really the first time that the whole city of Port-au-Prince paused and took a break since the January earthquake.

On Good Friday, I went to the site of the National Cathedral.  All that remains of it is its rose-colored façade and a pile of rubble and twisted wrought iron in the front.  Yet, about 150 people set up a white tent on the grass in front. They brought folding chairs, and some sat on stones as they held Good Friday mass outdoors.  Almost everyone came dressed in white.

“I stay at the church with my daughter,” Marjorie Desine told me.  She lost her home in the earthquake.  Her four-year-old daughter Ismael sat in the dust, playing with her frothy lace skirt as the priest gave the homily.

“We have only Jesus. We have only God,” she says, “We need to pray to God.”

And they did – singing and praying, call and response.  This church is home to hundreds of people, and because it’s situated in a very poor part of Port-au-Prince, many simply walked from the shanties they live in…or the tents that they now inhabit. 

The church itself suffered incredible loss of life. 

When the nunciature and archidiocesan offices collapsed, Archbishop Jospeh Serge Miot was instantly killed.  Vicar General Charles Benoit also later died. 

On Easter Sunday, I also discovered that one-third of the larges choir at the cathedral had also been killed in the earthquake.  Yet, in their flowing white robes and red sashes, they sang with joyful expressions.

One such man – Joincent Bonami smiled broadly at me as he passed by.  He had told me that his three children perished in the earthquake, that he still needed so much help to get his life back together, but he came dressed in a black suit and white tie, looking every bit the part of a successful man.

His strength, he said, comes from his faith.

“I always liked this church because this church makes me complete,” he said, “I have the strength and I believe God can [change things here.]”

The Easter homily was given by Monsignor Joseph Lafontant.  As if in a religious pep-talk, he spoke of liberation and the hope that comes after suffering, emphasizing that those who are living – must continue on, in spite of the challenges brought about by the earthquake.

The current priest of the Cathedral also encouraged people to look to the future.

“They have joy. It’s the moment when we can hope,’ observed Father Glandas Marie Erick Toussaint, the priest of the Cathedral.

“We must say hello to hope because everything is not finished after the 12th of January. We have joy and life to start over.”

Many here want the church to be rebuilt, but Toussaint says that will be up to the government and the church authorities, because, he noted, a lot of things are up in the air when it comes to re-establishing the city of Port-au-Prince.

“Is the government going to reconstruct the city where it is and the cathedral where it is?” said Toussaint.













The Waiting


Across from the great white crumbled presidential palace in the center of Port-au-Prince, thousands of people are living in a tent village called Champs de Mars, named for the green space that they now occupy.  Tents and tarps are strung right on top of each other.  People languish under the tarps for shade…on chairs…using charcoal to cook over small metal containers…and watch the slow progress on the street outside.

A dump truck full of debris rumbles by as Marie Solange Garroud watches from a swivel office chair that she salvaged.  She spends her days like this, seeing the people of Haiti come back…there are merchants now, outside the green-painted wrought iron of the presidential palace gate.  They sell sun glasses, shoes, oranges and peanuts…but no one stops to make a purchase.

When asked what Haiti needs to rebuild, one merchant says, “Haiti is a hospital.  Only God can fix it.”


Garroud doesn’t disagree.  She is staying in this cramped space with her nephew Pierre Benito, his sister, daughter and wife, along with her 22 year old daughter.  Benito was a poet before the earthquake, selling his poetry in books of $2-3 a piece.  Now, all his manuscripts are lost in the rubble of his home..and he must write his poems in his head.

It is sunny this afternoon…but the night brings rain…a preview of the spring rainy season that threatens to wipe out other tent villages that have sprung up along hillsides.

For Benito, his wife and daughter, sister and aunt and cousin, it means standing through the night, rather than sleeping in the mud.  The family had the funds to bring their own tents…they are really fortunate, all things considered.  Catholic Relief Services gave them tarps to complete their home area.  They have some money to buy water and some food from a market that has re-opened nearby.

As 100 nations gathered in New York City Wednesday to decide how much money to donate to Haiti’s rebuilding effort, though, any help seems very far away to Pierre Benito.  “I’m very happy that other nations want to help, but it doesn’t seem fair because my government refuses to contribute,” he says through a translator.

Garroud says she’d consider moving to another piece of land, if the government provides a way to get there.

But for now, all both of them can do…is continue to watch the slow progress outside their tent…and wait.






Haiti Photos 3.30.10


Starting from Scratch


 With devastation like this, three months barely makes a difference.

The rescues are largely over here in Port-au-Prince.  Now comes the much, much harder part: restoring a government, economy – a nation that was teetering on the edge before the January earthquake took 230-thousand lives and caused more damage than the value of the Haitian economy. 

Today, President Rene Preval will ask 100 donor nations assembled at the United Nations in New York City for $3.9 billion to rebuild the nation.  One billion is designated to re-establish the Haitian government, which was already politically weak, but who’s parliamentary and presidential buildings are completely decimated, not to mention its civil service personnel, many of whom died in the earthquake. 

But many Haitians worry the much-needed aid will wind up back in the pockets of the internationals themselves, or the their corrupt Haitian leaders. One Haitian businessman told me he'd prefer to see money be used to train Haitians to do the jobs his country needs, rather than international NGO's who have had a near-constant presence here for more than 30 years.  One effort to curb that – is setting up what will be called the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, which will have leaders of the donor community, NGO’s and Haitian government officials.  Still, many believe this is the world’s best chance of reconstructing Haiti from the ground up.

“If we are going to do this, we’ve got to do it smartly, and that does mean that it’s about partnership with the Haitians,” Sarah Muscroft, deputy head of the United Nations Office of Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs here in Haiti said.

I saw the impact first-hand on Tuesday, when I visited the Petitionville Club Camp.  Once, a ritzy golf course in a wealthy part of town, it is now home to more than 10-thousand refugees in tents….and get this – roving pigs. 

People and pigs co-exist virtually on top of each other on this hillside which aid workers fear will be a death trap once the spring rains come.  Navy Seabees and USAID Contractor, CHF, are digging ditches this week to direct the water safely around the tents into a system of canals.  CHF has a contract for more than $20 million to do this work as well as other debris removal. 

“Get her done. If we can handle Iraq and Afghanistan, we can handle this,” Petty officer, Shawn Pidsanick told me.

Despite this, most of the people I met and spoke with were friendly and pleasant, sporting that famous Haitian smile of welcoming. The children fashioned kites out of bits of plastic and sticks to fly for hours…and a group of boys kicked a deflated ball down the dusty path.  But at night, reports of sexual abuse and physical abuse are rampant.  Several members of the 209th military police company stand guard.  One guard told me he had only ever had to break up fights – no acts of abuse.  Aid workers are focusing now on increasing protections for women and children. 

While American-trained teams of Haitian inspectors are finding that 40 percent of the homes in the city can be lived in again, many Haitians are afraid to return for fear of after shocks, or simple superstition.  And yet – the government has so far only been able to secure a total of 7 tracts of land for resettlement – two were already publicly held.  Three had to be obtained through eminent domain from private landowners.  The hope is to move the most vulnerable nine thousand or so people to one of those tracts by mid-April.