Four years ago today, the earth shook in Haiti. It lasted less than a minute. By the time the trembling stopped, death had already begun.
Many were killed instantly, by collapsed buildings, oncoming cars, falling pipes, girders, walls. Others died in the days that followed, bleeding out, missing limbs. Some died while being carried to makeshift hospitals. Others died on blankets or old mattresses while awaiting treatment.
Disease and unsanitary conditions took more lives. Bodies were buried in mass graves. Some were tossed in dumps. Many remained for weeks beneath flattened buildings. Some were bulldozed away, leaving no remains for a casket, no grave site to visit.
When the dust settled, Haitian authorities estimated more than 300,000 were dead. That would be about 3% of the entire population.
Had those percentages applied to the U.S., it would be over 9 million people dead – or about seven times as many Americans killed in every war we ever fought, from the 18th Century to Afghanistan.
Three percent of your people.
Four years later, life is still unsteady.
A glimmer of hope
I began going to Haiti a few weeks after the 2010 disaster. I go every month now. That’s more than 40 trips, I guess. You lose track in the fog of the place.
People ask all the time, “Is Haiti getting better?” Yes and no, I always say. Haiti is a strange nation, both tragic and joyous at the same time. Perhaps no other country on the planet has endured more natural catastrophes – or more man-made corruption – than Haiti. Yet no place I’ve ever been has more smiling children.
My purpose there is to operate an orphanage/mission in Port-au-Prince, the capital city. Around 40 kids, nearly all of whom came after the earthquake. In choosing which ones to admit, I sat and listened to the heartbreaking stories of each person who brought them.
After a while, a pattern emerged.
The earthquake hit. A dwelling collapsed. A parent was killed. Maybe both parents were killed. The child was taken to a tent village and lived in crowded, filthy conditions, with mud for floors and toilets a long walk away. The child slept on the ground, often with four or five others. There was no schooling. Little to eat. Nothing to do all day but sit and stare.
Days, months, even years passed. The child did pretty much nothing. Perhaps he or she played in muddy water, alongside skinny dogs and fat wild boars. Violence was often witnessed. If older siblings or relatives engaged in sexual relations, it was often in close proximity to the small children, leaving them curious, confused, or, in worst-case scenarios, abused.
Eventually, someone – the surviving parent, the guardian – could not afford even the meager cost of feeding the child, or needed more space, or got involved with someone else who didn’t want the child – and so that child was brought to a mission or an orphanage.
And some of them came to us.
People of resilience
I recently returned from my monthly Haiti visit. We celebrated New Year’s at the mission, a tradition the kids had never heard of before last year. We lit sparklers. We sang “Auld Lang Syne.” It was only 8 o’clock at night, but, hey, kids have to get to bed.
As I made the rounds, kissing them goodnight, I noticed several of them who had been so happy just minutes earlier now lying in bed, staring off into space. Some of them had tears in their eyes. This is not uncommon at the end of a fun day. I think I know what it is. I think they are missing their families. I think they are missing life before the earthquake.
Which is why my answer to the “getting better?” question is always yes and no. Because no matter how much rubble is cleared from the street, how do you ever get over the horror? How do you get past the nightmares some of our children have of crawling out windows, or seeing people dead in the street, or, as one of our young girls experienced, seeing your house collapse with your parents inside it, never to see them again?
That life goes on at all, that playgrounds refill with people, that women carry huge baskets on their heads, that churches are full on Sunday mornings, is, in itself, an incredible act of strength.
And, in the end, that’s what’s most amazing about Haiti. The sheer resilience of its people. But at night, in the quiet of a bed, memories come back, screams and horrors and longing and loneliness. Buildings have been repaired, but souls still need patching.
Less than a minute? Three percent of your population? It was four years ago today that the earth shook. For many in Haiti, the ground is still trembling.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Catch “The Mitch Albom Show” 5-7 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).