Amid the Misery, Haitians Ask Why
Failed State Unable to Halt, or Respond to, Disastrous Aftermath of Storm
By DeNeen L. Brown
Washington Post Foreign Service
GONAIVES, Haiti -- "I looked, but I can't find them," whispered Monise Alsenor, standing atop a small hill where her mud-and-sticks house once sat. Two of her seven children are missing.
She trembled, clutched her purple skirt and continued with the kind of stories that people all over this northern region of Haiti have recounted since Tropical Storm Jeanne swept through on Sept. 18.
Some lost their children; others watched more than 20 members of their extended families swallowed by floodwaters and locked in houses that became graves. Some bodies are still hanging from trees. Other people climbed high into the branches, only to be consumed by the floodwaters. Mudslides cascaded from mountains. About 1,500 people died and 200,000 -- essentially the city's entire population -- were left homeless.
Two weeks after the storm, struggling down from the site where her little four-room house once stood, stepping in blue plastic sandals over jagged stones, Alsenor asked why, as have so many other Haitians. Why had so many people died?
The answers, according to interviews with more than 30 people, lie largely in Haiti's status as a failed state, a place with few working institutions of modern life. No one has been able to stop local people from denuding the hillsides around Gonaives, making the soil vulnerable to mudslides. Canals were allowed to silt up. The drains in Gonaives were filled with sewage and trash, local officials reported. When the floods came, the police in Gonaives fled, and no one was left to start the rescue effort.
When Alsenor heard the water coming, she began putting her precious dishes and the birth certificates of her seven children on higher shelves, thinking the waters would be just knee-deep. Suddenly her house tore open and she was swept away.
She heard her children screaming, "Aide'm! Aide'm!" -- "Save me! Save me!" in Creole. She could not reach them. She and her husband spent the night clinging to a spike tree as the muddy current pulled at them. The tree's green thorns ripped off her clothes.
In the morning, naked, she climbed down from the tree and ran where the water ran, along its path of destruction -- snapped trees, broken concrete walls and flattened houses.
"I can't find my children," she said. "The big water, it took them away. I looked wherever the water went, but I can't find them."
"Twenty thousand times, Haiti suffers. Too much misery," Joseph Meralist said as he cleaned out the Gonaives morgue, which was smeared with mud. "Till today, people are still sleeping on top of roofs. What do you call that? Misery. People can't eat. There is no water to drink. There is no unity. This is why Haiti is going through this misery. Why such misery?"
On a journey through Gonaives and surrounding villages, that question and various answers came fast and furious -- from peasants in the fields, nuns cleaning out a pharmacy, relief workers struggling to feed the hungry, gang members overseeing looting.
Foreign experts point to the government's shortcomings. "Vulnerabilities have been allowed to grow in Haiti to the extent that any natural hazard inevitably leads to great tragedy," Salvano Briceno, director of the U.N. Secretariat of the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction, said in a report on the disaster. "And yet, thinking ahead and investing in prevention will save lives and livelihoods."
In May, a storm killed 2,665 people in Haiti, according to relief officials. Briceno attributed that tragedy and Gonaives's to a lack of early warning systems, lack of land management and massive deforestation of Haiti's mountains, which helped create the mudslides.
People here asked why so many people died in Haiti when the same storm hit with more force in the Dominican Republic, on the other half of Hispaniola island, where only 11 people were killed.
They also wondered why, on this side of the border, people suffer so much even in normal times: coups, rapes, rebellions, bandits who cover their eyes with sunglasses, hunger, burning tires, crowded trucks that turn over on narrow country roads, charcoal peddlers in debt, children who can't go to school because they have no money, people who have nothing to eat but mud cakes.
They say there is never peace for long in Haiti. As if for emphasis, only days after the flood hit Gonaives, people staged riots and protests in Port-au-Prince, the capital. Roads were blocked with burning tires, and local reports say three police officers were found beheaded.
Then, added to all this, storms.
Some residents of Gonaives saw mystical explanations. They called the deaths the inexplicable wrath of God. Others blamed black magic and people who practice voodoo or cut their neighbors to drink their blood or slaughtered other Haitians during a revolt this year that drove Jean-Bertrand Aristide, then president, out of the country.
Butteur Metayer, 33, leader of the Front Organization for Liberation, a gang that helped overthrow Aristide, sat near a muddy street in Gonaives, sipping from a brown bottle of rum with other gang members surrounding him. Metayer came to Gonaives last year from Lansing, Mich., after his brother, Amiyot Metayer, an Aristide supporter, was killed, his eyes and heart carved out. The death of Amiyot Metayer sparked the rebellion that led to the overthrow of Aristide.
Butteur Metayer said the flood's high death toll was due to the lack of an organized government. He criticized the current government as well as past ones. "There is no such thing as justice in Gonaives, no courthouse, no judge," Metayer said. "The police, people don't believe in them." He said the government had not fixed any problems in the city. "There is no drainage for the water. If it rains heavily again, there is still no drainage, and a lot of people will die again."
Paulette Mezzille, 48, stood in the door of the bar where she used to live with her husband. He died in the flood, she said, because he refused to leave. Now she was alone, scraping out the oozing mud. She was barefoot and wore pink underwear and a gray Auburn University T-shirt.
She lifted the shirt to wipe her face. Nobody in the street glanced twice. A cat with matted hair and a chewed tail sat on a table that was stuck in the mud. Mezzille tried to move it but slipped into the muck, bracing herself to avoid falling.
Her husband was too frail, maybe 60 or 65 years old, she said. She didn't know exactly. People have looked for him, but no one has found him. He could be among the hundreds dumped in a mass grave.
She told a foreign journalist she was hungry. Her eyes begged for something to eat; she said she had had nothing since the day before. "I just put salt in my mouth," she said. But a crowd had gathered, and giving her a cracker or a bar of chocolate risked starting a riot.
Mezzille said the flood was the act of "God destroying bad people in this town. There are too many criminals." She hushed herself. "Some people might hear me and come and kill me." She turned and tried to shovel out more mud. She slipped again.
'Nothing We Can Do'
Down the muddy street strewn with trash is the hospital where Meralist, 44, the yard keeper, recalled the night of the flood.
"The water came in different directions and broke down the walls of the hospital," he said. "The mothers who had babies in the hospital started running. They didn't know where to go." Some managed to clamber with their infants to rooftops.
Why was there so much death?
"It happened. We have to deal with it," he said. "Nothing we can do. It's very sad. When God is working, it's like going upstairs one stair at a time. It's God's work. Nothing could happen unless God wanted it to work."
A nun, Sister Mary Joseph, was wiping mud from bottles of medicine, trying to save what was left. In the pharmacy, medicine chests had been overturned, needles and packages of medicine thrown about.
"As you can witness, we lost everything: clothes, medication, everything. The depot of medication is destroyed," said the nun, her face tranquil under her habit.
Why did so many people die in Haiti?
"I can't answer," she said, waving her hand.
Why do you think it happened here?
"I can't answer. It depends on the government. I can't determine why."
In the hospital courtyard, Christopher Joseph, 24, was helping load bodies onto government trucks for transport to mass burial sites. He had returned to Gonaives three years ago after being deported from the United States; he lived in Chicago, Miami and New York. He recounted how he saved a baby, a mother and himself by climbing with them to the roof of a building.
The misery of the flood's aftermath continues. "This lady is telling me this morning there is a house with two bodies in it," Joseph said. "They never opened the door. Some people, the door cannot open. It's locked, and their loved ones are in there."
He said he believes the reason Gonaives suffered so much is "there is too much mystic, too much killing. Too much sacrifice. Too much black magic. It is terrible. Too much wrong. Too much negative things. . . . God said, 'Enough.' A lot of terrible things go on here. People cut people with machetes and drink people's blood."
He recalled Gonaives' experience in this year's revolt against Aristide. On Feb. 7, Aristide sent 19 vehicles to the town, loaded with men, to try to restore control. "All of them died. None of them came out alive," he said. "The population did it. The thugs came to kill people here. They were the ones who ended up getting victimized."
Alsenor, walking on a hillside, did not blame Aristide for the flood. She did not blame the lack of trees. She knew nothing of erosion, even as she lived in the shadow of the brown mountains. She was still trying to find her children.
She stepped over a hole where a tree had been uprooted. She lamented that the flood also took her two pigs, two cows and three goats. In this country, animals are like money in the bank. A pig can go for $200, a cow for as much as $500. When an emergency arises, a family can sell a pig. Now that money is gone.
She walked, sucking on a passion fruit. She spat out the skin. Alsenor said she had just bought schoolbooks for her children. A day after the storm, she had gone to a nearby village to look for the two who are missing, turning over bodies that had no faces. She spent the whole day looking.
The next day, she went to another community. She went looking by the sea, where piles of bodies stacked in dump trucks slid into mass graves without headstones, bodies with no identification all mixed together.
Maybe her children were there. She did not know. Maybe they were under the mud. Maybe her children's bodies were in a tree somewhere down the hill from her house, somewhere where the big water took them.