PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — The silhouetted bodies moved in waves through the night, climbing out of crumbled homes and across mounds of rubble. Hundreds of thousands of people made their way to the center of the shattered city by the thin light of a waning crescent moon. There was hardly a sound.
It took a few moments to recognize the great white dome bowing forward into the night. Another had fallen onto itself, its peak barely visible over the iron gate. The white walls of the 90-year-old mansion were crushed, the portico collapsed. Haiti's national palace was destroyed.
It was clear from the first, terrible moments after the quake, when I ran out of my broken house to find the neighborhood behind it gone, that Haiti had suffered a catastrophe unique even in its long history of tragedy.
But it was not until reaching the Champ de Mars plaza at the center of the capital, more than six hours later, that I understood what it meant. Not just homes and churches had succumbed. Haiti's most important institutions, the symbols and substance of the nation itself, had collapsed atop the shuddering earth.
The people came to the palace in droves seeking strength and support. Some wondered if President Rene Preval might emerge – or his body. They were looking for a leader, a plan, some secret store of wealth and aid.
But there was no news, no plan, no help that night. The president was not there. Nobody was in charge.
In the year since, crisis has piled upon crisis. More than 230,000 are believed to have died in the quake, and more than a million remain homeless. A cholera epidemic broke out in the fall, and in its midst a dysfunctional election was held, its results still unclear.
There was hope that the quake would bring an opportunity to break the country's fatal cycle of struggle, catastrophe and indifference. But promises were not kept, and no leader emerged, within Haiti or outside.
What little center there had been simply disappeared, and the void was never filled.
Among those gazing at the collapsed palace that night was Aliodor Pierre, a 28-year-old church guitarist and father of two. Until that moment, he had lived in the slum of Martissant. His friends called him "Ti-Lunet," little glasses, for the wire-rimmed pair he wore.
He was drinking beer at a corner store when the earth began to move. He tried to walk into the street but the force knocked him down. A roar filled the air, like a thousand trucks crashing through a mountain forest. A friend tried to bolt but Aliodor shouted "No!" and held him back. They lay together on the ground until it stopped.
Aliodor picked up his head. His apartment, a five-story building, was flat. Everything he owned was buried inside. He didn't know where his wife and children were.
Then the screaming began all around him.
Aliodor ran to his parent's house a few blocks away. It had fallen. He shouted and an answer came from inside. He smashed a window and pulled out his mother, hurt but alive. Neighbors rushed to help rescue other relatives. Still his wife and children were missing.
His heart raced. He and a friend ran through the neighborhood, pushing off concrete and slicing through barbed wire with pliers. In one doorway, they found a young girl who had nearly escaped before the house fell forward onto her lower leg. "Save me!" she screamed. Aliodor looked for a hacksaw to cut her free, but she died in front of him.
Dazed, he followed the crowd through the falling light to the central plaza. People were shouting: The national palace, Roman Catholic cathedral and Episcopal cathedral – where Aliodor sometimes played guitar – were gone. He looked for the white domes, but couldn't see them.
He sat down near a statue of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the liberator and first president of Haiti.
Hours later Aliodor had still not found his wife, Manette Etienne, their 7-year-old daughter, Sama, or their 3-year-old son, Safa. Pain wrenched his stomach as he pictured them dead. He didn't know what had happened to the nursing school his wife attended.
He started walking toward his neighborhood. As he reached a gas station, suddenly there was Manette, walking toward him. The children had been saved by a teacher who ran them out of school when the shaking began. They had thought he was dead, too. They held each other and for a moment the broken city disappeared.
"It was like the earthquake never happened," he said.
By morning, people began carving up the lawns and plazas, marking space with blankets, umbrellas and bits of cardboard to sleep on. Some thought being near the government might mean being closer to the aid. But there was no government there. When Preval came out of hiding, he set up shop at a police station that backed directly onto the airport runway. Maybe he was leaving, people mused.
They wanted to leave. The Champ de Mars plaza reeked. Stagnant fountains became toilets, washing pits for clothes and wells for bath water. Bodies trapped under the rubble started to smell. Those survivors who could got surgical masks. Others painted toothpaste mustaches under their noses.
Two days after the quake, roaring gray helicopters dropped onto the rubble-strewn lawn outside the palace. American soldiers of the 82nd Airborne Division jumped out with their rifles, packs and armor – the vanguard of what President Barack Obama called one of the largest relief efforts in U.S. history.
The soldiers took over the airport and stood guard as U.N. peacekeepers handed out rice, beans and water to a desperate crowd. Fights broke out and pepper spray filled the air. Aliodor lined up once for food, then swore never to do it again.
He asked the soldiers why they had come with guns. A young private told him they had been on their way to Iraq when they were told to go to Haiti instead. Aliodor asked why he wasn't carrying food, water or something to help people build houses.
"He said to me, 'I'm just a sharpshooter. I'm very good at shooting,'" Aliodor recalled. "But I said, 'Haiti's not at a war.'"
On the last day of March, donors at a United Nations conference pledged nearly $10 billion for the reconstruction of Haiti, with its almost 10 million people. The United States alone promised $1.15 billion for 2010, the largest one-year pledge.
Days later, word spread that the national palace would be torn down. Radio reports said the government of France had agreed to help build a new one. On April 8, people came to see the demolition begin.
The palace was the backdrop for the famous statue of the Neg Mawon, the escaped slave blowing a conch shell to call others to fight for freedom. But the palace's history, like Haiti's, was never simple.
The Beaux Arts mansion, designed in 1915, was torched while still under construction by a mob bent on assassinating the president, Vilbrun Guillaume Sam. It was completed under the U.S. occupation that followed his death, and was the scene of successive coups and ousters. Eventually, it became a symbol of terror under the father-son dictatorship of Francois and Jean-Claude Duvalier.
Presidents ceased living in the palace after Jean-Claude's 1986 overthrow, but it continued to host world leaders in its salons – and protests and coup attempts on the lawn.
The people of the Champ de Mars watched as the backhoes tore down what was left of the portico and, for the first time in most of their lives, they got a glimpse of the grand salon and the crystal chandeliers inside.
Then the machines stopped. A Preval aide said there were disagreements over how reconstruction should proceed. Demolition came to a halt.
On the plaza, aid groups had handed out plastic tarps and put in portable latrines. Shacks went up across every open space. Someone tied a tarp to the side of the Neg Mawon.
Aliodor scraped together most of the money he had – about $51 – to buy wood, sheets and tarps to put up a little shack, a few feet (meters) from where he had sat down the first night.
The bonhomie and spirit of sharing that had prevailed in the days after the quake cracked, and then broke. Mugging, robbery and rape became facts of life. Aliodor sent his children to his quiet hometown in the rural south to live with relatives.
Without a government to organize them, the people began organizing themselves. In settlements all over the capital, camps set up organizing committees in an intricate bureaucracy. Aliodor's Place Dessalines was the largest. He was named spokesman for its central committee.
"I'm one of those guys who has little money but I have a lot of strength," he explained.
There was, at one point, a plan.
As the homemade camps swelled beyond 1.5 million people, the government said it would relocate 400,000 to the capital's outskirts. Officials set up card tables around the Champ de Mars to register people who talked excitedly about getting new homes, better than the slums where they had lived before.
In April the first camp was ready in the open desert north of the capital, designed by U.S. military, U.N. engineers and aid groups. About 7,500 people living on a golf course were chosen to move, encouraged by their camp's manager, actor Sean Penn.
It was a disaster. There were no trees and the site was too remote. Also, it turned out that the parcel belonged to Nabatec Development – whose president was head of the relocation commission. And so the company stood to gain government compensation for its land.
Over the summer, a storm ripped through a quarter of the camp's tents. People screamed and cried as, again, they lost their homes.
Only one more relocation camp was built. The rest of the project was abandoned.
In May, an old smell returned to the Champ de Mars: Tear gas. Parliament dissolved because an election could not be held to replace expiring seats. Its last act was to grant emergency powers to Preval and create a reconstruction commission co-chaired by Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Clinton was already the U.N. Special Envoy for Haiti. Aliodor and others wondered if he was now their governor.
When Preval announced that he might extend his term beyond February 2011, opponents marched to the palace. Police and U.N. peacekeepers fired rubber bullets and tear gas at rock-throwing demonstrators and into the camp.
Then Haiti settled in for a summer break. The World Cup was on.
In July, exactly six months after the quake, big cars pulled up to the palace. The government was moving back in. News conferences, once held under a mango tree at a police station, would now be in a new wooden gazebo. A defiant Preval said the lack of massive disease outbreaks and violence was proof that the quake response had gone better than people were saying.
Then came the medals. Twenty-three honorees – including Penn and Clinton – received certificates deeming them Knights of the National Order of Honor and Merit. There was no mention of the dead, or the giant shantytown a few hundred feet (meters) away.
The officials then announced that the previous six months of grinding inaction had merely been the emergency-recovery phase. Now, they said, reconstruction would begin.
Aliodor and Manette were losing weight. Food was scarce and there was no work. The shack boiled in the summer heat.
Every day Aliodor woke up in their cramped bed and walked out to the sight of a big rubber bladder, wider than his shack, that aid groups sometimes filled with treated water. Above it stood the statue of Dessalines on a horse, waving to his left.
The sun beat down until it gave Aliodor a headache. He had an eye infection. He was starting to get angry.
"The government, the ones who are responsible for us, don't really want us to go because while we are in misery they are enjoying themselves," he said. "Every day they are making money on top of our heads."
The aid groups promised they would do this and that, fix a toilet, bring more food. Sometimes they did, sometimes they didn't. The committee squabbled. People stole what they needed.
Behind Aliodor's shack, the backhoes and bulldozers at the national palace had been sitting idle for months.
"The country needs to have a national palace. But if it's under these guys who are in power now, the palace will never be built," Aliodor said.
He looked at Dessalines again, waving on his horse. Maybe he was trying to leave, too.
Rumors had been spreading for weeks. A strange disease was killing people in the countryside: like diarrhea, but it could kill you in hours.
In mid-November, it arrived on the Champ de Mars. A woman everyone said was crazy walked into her tent one day and did not leave. In two days, the tent gave off a nauseating smell. A brave soul opened the tarp and found her lying dead in her own filth. A fight broke out between neighbors and police about who would clear her out.
The next day a young man was found dead in a toilet. Word came in from the Cite Soleil slum that dozens of children were dropping dead. The foreigners called it cholera.
Then the news spread that U.N. peacekeepers might have brought the disease to Haiti.
"I'm not supposed to be here, waiting for cholera to kill me in a public park," Aliodor said, jutting out his lower teeth.
As the year drew to a close, the international community pushed for a presidential election. Donor countries provided $29 million, including $14 million from the United States. Black-and-white pictures of the 19 candidates were hung on the palace gates.
The Nov. 28 election was, by most measures, a failure. Hundreds of thousands who had died in the earthquake were still on the rolls, and untold thousands of survivors were turned away because of disorganization or alleged fraud. There was violence and voter intimidation. Nearly all the major candidates called for the vote to be canceled.
When results were announced days later, the city was shut down with flaming barricades. Gunmen wearing shirts of the ruling-party candidate called for people on the Champ de Mars to come out and celebrate. Then they opened fire. Up to three people were killed and several injured. Aliodor and others took turns keeping lookout at night.
Nearly 3,000 people died of cholera and more than 100,000 were infected.
Clinton's commission had approved billions of dollars in projects, but many remained unfunded. Less than $900 million of the donors' conference pledges was delivered.
The United States delayed the bulk of its $1 billion pledge of reconstruction money until 2011. So far, it has sent $120 million to a reconstruction fund and provided about $200 million in debt relief.
The guys hanging in front of Aliodor's house still call him Ti-Lunet, but his glasses are long gone. His hair has receded.
The afternoons are still baking hot, and tire fires from a daily protest burn black, acrid smoke nearby. Aliodor has criticism for everyone. He asks me to deliver a message to my country:
"I blame this on the United States, because the United States is the world power," he says. "Why would you accept for us to be living in poverty?"
If Dessalines were alive today, Aliodor says, he would lead the people in a revolution against the government, foreign soldiers and other foreigners who aren't helping. He hopes the spirits of the ancestors will come back and teach Haitians to be independent again.
"God is the only one we have hope in," he adds.
Aliodor pulls out a photo album from under the bed and flips through pictures taken before the quake. There is Manette, in a nursing uniform. And there he is, fit and muscular, a gold cross hanging from his neck and nearly brushing the guitar in his confident hands.
He looks down at his stringy arms. They look like someone else's.
Afternoon shadows come upon the tens of thousands of tents in the central plaza. Soon the people will be shrouded in darkness, just as they were on that night almost a year ago.
Beside them, the national palace lies cracked upon the lawn. There's a gaping hole in the middle.