I have never really given much thought as to why the former site of the World Trade Centre in New York had been dubbed 'Ground Zero' following the attacks in 2001. Apparently it's a term relating to an explosion, referring to the point of detonation. I suppose I did make a mental connection between the 'ground' being levelled to zero meters above sea level. Or something to that effect.
In Port-au-Prince, I suppose the application of the former definition to the earthquake last year would refer to somewhere around the Leogane area, south-east of the city, the epicentre of the quake. The second definition doesn't really apply here, as while so many buildings crumbled completely, others suffered only superficial damage. Structurally, the worst are the buildings which half-collapsed, requiring the demolition of the remaining structure. The irregular horizon of the buildings of the capital reflects the varying levels of severity with which the earthquake affected each resident of the city. Some escaped relatively unscathed, but they do not have to look far amongst those closest to them to see absolute devastation.
I visited the city for the first considerable portion of time last weekend. The nuns up here were having a national nun conference in our house, and so my bed was needed in order to cater for said nun influx. Conveniently, a swap of beds with the nuns in Port-au-Prince was arrangeable, so all parties, nun and non-nun, were happy.
As one of the American volunteers, Christie, was flying back to the states at the time also, myself and three of the other volunteers travelled down to the house in PAP with her, hoping to wish her goodbye at the airport, and to go on to the nuns’ house in the city. About an hour north of the capital however, we came to a roadblock. As it happened to be on a particularly straight stretch of road, we were able to see that the line of vehicles waiting to pass went on for at least a kilometer. Word got back to Tidenn, our driver, that there were electrical works going on ahead. As the story went, they had been going on for more than 5 hours without letting anything pass either way. The only options were to wait, or to turn around and backtrack the 2 hours we had already come. As we were also bringing a hydrocephalic baby and her mother to a specialist in the city, the latter was off the table. However, as Christie had to be at the airport to catch a flight, she disembarked, hailed two of the motorcycle-taxis that had been buzzing up and down the line of cars, loaded her baggage onto one and herself onto the other, and took off on a nearby dirt track in the general direction of the airport.
After an hour or so of waiting, the vehicles up ahead began to advance. As we came nearer the point of the blockade, it became apparent that no such electrical works had been under way. UN Police were posted on both sides of the road, some of them directing the traffic, whilst others chased back crowds of people from the temporary housing speckled around the sparse landscape either side of us. The people had been throwing stones at the UN police, according to one spectator that Tidenn had spoken to. There were a few people being handcuffed and put into the back of UN trucks. As we drove on, up a side street I saw a group of twenty or thirty people lined across the street in standoff formation, facing a smaller group of UN soldiers a hundred meters or so away. Tidenn’s interpretation was that the people were angry at the presence of the UN, for despite the world body’s apparent humanitarian efforts, the people were still living in tents in the hills.
Despite the delay, we reached the hospital in Port-au-Prince by early afternoon and saw that the hydrocephalic baby and her mother were taken into care. Inside the hospital compound, I was taken aback by the number of white people, few of whom I have seen in the past few months. Encountering another white person here is strange. It’s like bumping into someone you kind of know, but not really, and there’s that awkward moment when you don’t know if you should say hello or not. Of course it’s completely ignorant to assume that this white person comes from an English speaking country, so I’ve taken to just saying ‘bonjou’ or ‘bonswa’ in Kreyol, and then doing a little awkward wave and nod, and trying not to trip over my flip-flops while co-ordinating all of this. Does the job.
We then drove on through the myriad of streets and finally reached the house where we would be staying. The streets of Port-au-Prince are kind of organised in a grid format. Kind of. It starts off well in the downtown area, all the streets at right angles, relatively easy to negotiate, but as you move further out, it seems as though corners gradually become extinct, and the roads wind deceptively up into the hills of Petionville.
With little organised for the afternoon, myself and Mitch, one of the American volunteers, tracked the source of some nearby enthusiastic chanting, to find what can only, however unlikely, be described as a state-of-the-art outdoor basketball arena, complete with electronic scoring board, American-style bleacher seating, and a buzzer to signal the end of play. The source of funding for such an amenity was blatantly apparent, mind, with the iconic red and white ‘Digicel’ logo printed on every available surface. The Digicel Foundation, the charitable arm of Denis O’Brien’s Caribbean cellular network, has funded countless social projects in Haiti, including funding the salaries of 9 staff in the Bigue Community School here in Gros Morne for the past 3 years. The basketball game was the semi-final of a secondary schools championship, and as most live sport does in Haiti, it had drawn quite a large crowd, and as most crowds do in Haiti, they created quite an atmosphere through drumming and chanting.
That evening we decided to visit the Oloffson hotel in the south of the city. The hotel has gained a certain level of fame since the 1960s when Graham Greene published his novel The Comedians, in which the protagonist owns a hotel based upon the Oloffson. The building itself is unlike many others in Haiti, with large white and green wooden turrets. Although we were only stopping by the open-front hotel bar for a drink, we were encouraged by the staff to have a look around. I was only too keen to take in the swimming pool and the irregularly-arranged suites, each named after a person of significance that has previously stayed in the room. The John Barrymore suite, overlooking the hotel forecourt features prominently in Greene’s novel, but aside from this and the Jean Claude Van Damme Suite (last door on the left) there were few that particularly caught my attention. The atmosphere in the hotel was relaxed, with no more than 25 people, all of whom I presumed to be NGO workers, in the bar. The price of the drinks however, was a snap back to reality. A shack on the side of the road in Gros Morne this was not.
The following day we had arranged to meet a Haitian friend, George, a resident of Port-au-Prince, who we had met previously through another volunteer. George is about 25 years of age, of wirey build, and drives a kamyon, a covered pick-up truck, around the city for a living. He was only too happy to show us around the Delmas area of the city, and bring us to the houses of the members his family, who I gathered were slightly wealthier than the average family in the capital. The neighbourhoods too, although slightly disorganised in their arrangement and without many paved roads, did boast many large concrete-built houses. But even still, none of these houses were more than a hundred meters from a tent, seemingly an inescapable element of the capital.
On the night before our return to Gros Morne, we attended a party with Darren Gill, a former UCDVO volunteer currently working in Port-au-Prince, at the British Red Cross’s compound. These parties seem to run on a sort of circuit basis about the different NGO’s compounds, and generally it’s the same group of NGO staff (deservedly) letting off steam at the weekend. The surrealism of the situation, a party in a city in the midst of a humanitarian disaster, is strange, but is something everyone tries to put, at least for a few hours, to the back of their minds.
This is something that seemed to be a running theme through my short stay. Life goes on. As we waited on board the bus the next morning to make the journey back to Gros Morne, merchants boarded the bus, carrying and announcing their wares: food and drinks, but also shoes, sunglasses, phone credit. People still live in the capital for the sake of a livelihood, which they cannot neglect for more than a day, to dwell on the effects of the earthquake. Many lives were lost, regrettably, but for those still living, their city must be rebuilt, but they must also feed, clothe and educate their children. They must try to carve a life out of the stubborn rubble.