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Haiti: Grasses of Ginen

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The downtown, around Grand Rue in the old part of the city, looks like a modern-day variant of Pompei. Nothing but ruins. Here the tall buildings didn't even pancake; they just crumbled.

It's ghostly, with no electricity or cars and few people. Those who are out move quietly and slowly. Hollow-eyed, they step from high point to high point through the grey sewer-filled muck that the streets have become. No one smiles when I greet them.

A man sits alone, silent, on a broken chair. When I offer condolences, he shakes his head and says, "It's not sweet."

Fourteen-year-old Donal, dressed in clean slacks and a neat polo shirt, takes it upon himself to narrate the scene. "You see these piles?" He points to what used to be sidewalks, where women called timachann, little vendors, once squatted over sheets and baskets displaying second-hand underwear and scouring pads made of shredded coconut husks, and stirred fried dough in oil-filled black vats over handmade charcoal stoves. The sidewalks have been replaced by cement rubble and rebar bent like bread twist-ties. "All under these piles: timachann. They're everywhere in there. You could hear people screaming all over the day after the earthquake. But no help came; people just had to dig with their fingernails. Then there were piles of bodies in the streets. They were stacked high, here, here, everywhere. And the smell, oh, it was terrible."

Donal pauses, then asks, "Do you think that if you lost your three children you could go crazy?"

"Yes, you could. Do you know someone who lost three children?"

"Yeah. All her children. I have another friend who came home to find every member of his family dead."

The dead, the dead. Roseanne Auguste says, "We've lost so many people, we don't want to talk about the dead anymore."

Most, though, do want to talk. Mostly everyone has a story they are burning to share. Like this one: The elderly Madame Saintilus was a founder and director of a school in Port-au-Prince. In the earthquake her school was crushed and 200 of her students died. She, her sister, and her husband sat under the sun and the moon, day after day, broken with grief. Margo went and strung a sheet of plastic over their heads to protect them as they sat.

A bright-eyed young woman in a baseball cap says, "We don't have enough water to make tears anymore. We've lost everyone."

Passing by Thomas' cooler, where I sometimes buy a Prestige beer for the night or a can of milk for the morning, I overhear a woman say, "He lost everyone. Everyone, I tell you. His wife. Every one of his kids."

A man who crams six people into his little Toyota taxi responds to the standard question of "Did you lose people?" this way: "My cousin and my wife. She left our four children behind."

A well-groomed man pulls his car up on the sidewalk on Delmas Street. The car is wreckage. Its top and sides have been sheared off as with a jagged-edged saw. All the seats but the driver's are crushed. I go over to look at this post-earthquake innovation. "We have to take courage," he says.

Did you lose your house, too?

"My house, yes. And my two children." He exits the car, stepping straight out from the seat as there is no door. He reaches into his wallet and pulls out the laminated school ID of his daughter, 10-year-old Christianne Pierre-Louis. In the picture, her shy smile pushes up her chubby cheeks. Her braided hair is festooned with red ribbons. "Her and the 16-year-old."

As he gets back in his car, he says, "We'll tell God thanks." He rolls the car back onto the street, saying "Have a good day."

Marjorie Dupervil recounts: "I had just come home from work and was getting my toenails painted. You know when you get off work, you clean yourself up a little. Someone said, 'Hey, Marjorie, come here. I have a T-shirt for sale.' I ran out to get the T-shirt and all of a sudden the earthquake happened. When I came back inside, the woman doing my feet was sitting right there, dead. Everyone was dead."

A taxi driver says, "My father's leg was broken in two places. I spent two days trying to get some kind of medical help for him, but I couldn't find any. I think he must have hemorrhaged, and he died."

Helia Lajeunesse wants to show me the photo of her twenty-year-old son who was in the neighborhood of Martissant the day of the earthquake. "He used to come see me every few days," she said. "No one has heard from him." She sifts through the pages of a notebook and finds the only photo she has of Junior, his face half the width of a pencil and indecipherable in a photo no larger than a thumbprint. Her eyes are already perpetually red from crying, and now she starts again.

The number of the dead most often cited is 250,000, but that is utterly meaningless. No tally was taken of the corpses buried in people's yards or dumped in mass graves. Countless people are still missing. And multi-storied buildings everywhere contain flattened bodies - tens, hundreds each, who knows? You drive down the street and someone points. "You see that building? There are still 200 people inside there; they never got them out." City blocks are cemeteries.

You get stories of survivors, too. A woman in a refugee camp tells me, "When the earthquake struck, I bent over my baby like this" - she crouches, arms in mother-protection position. "I said, 'Even if I die, this little baby is going to live.'"

Three-year-old Ali with the enormous eyes volunteers: "I was singing. I flew in the air. There was dirt everywhere. I slept in the street."

A man tells a story of a woman now taking refuge in his village after the quake. She is a single mother with eight children, from age 19 to age 1, and is the sole earner in the family. She is 47 years old. Both of her legs have just been cut off at the thighs. Now what?

Many are the stories of heroism. My reigning hero is Gethro Nelio, a straw-thin man of 23. "What hurt me most was that my father died in front of me and there was nothing I could do for him. His head was crushed and I said, 'There's no way he can live.' Meanwhile, there were people under the cement screaming, 'Gethro, I'm here!' I had to abandon my father to save those people.

"I couldn't forget my father who was dying, but all that was in my head was to save people who might live, who were injured, especially women. In my father's house, 37 total died. It was a three-story building, and all the stories fell and made a sandwich. For those underneath, we didn't have any way to get them out. We took 28 out alive.

"I ran to call Eramithe. She said 'The school has collapsed.' I went to the school and started walking all around, pulling out people who were wounded, pulling doors off the jambs and putting the injured on them to take to the hospital. We took eight people. Even though there weren't any doctors available, we had to.

"Foreigners always think badly of Haiti; they think it's full of thieves and insecurity. But Haiti is a beautiful country. Don't underestimate Haitians."

He tells me, "Each day when I think of the earthquake, I feel like crying, I want to scream. I don't know if I'm going to get psychologically sick later on. But don't forget, I'm a man. I'm not a coward. I do what I do with all my courage and my heart."

How many people escaped from the wreckage and returned inside to save others, only to die themselves?

Not all are heroes. There are other stories. Like the man who knew that a woman was alive inside a collapsed house and left with the keys to her car which was parked outside. Like the driver of the bulldozer which passed by buildings where people were trapped to go instead to a damaged store and get the safe. Like the man who pulled the twelve-year-old girl from a crushed building and then raped her.

The stories, they come all day - on the streets, in the taptaps, in the camps, at the dinner table. Jacques Bartoli says, "They've become almost banal." Me, they fill with despair and indignation and, occasionally, hopelessness.

But Haitians have been through all kinds of things. Olga Benoit says, "If it's not a natural catastrophe, it's a political catastrophe." A wire story quotes the minister of tourism as saying, "This is bad today, but one must remember that we have the historical memory of slavery here. What can be worse than that?"

Tanya Felix tells me to remember the Haitian expression, "We are the grasses of Ginen.* Even if you burn us, as soon as the rains come, we will grow again."


* Haiti's cultural and vodou roots, based in the symbolic ancestral home of African slaves.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years. She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women's Stories of Survival and Resistance. She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.