January 16, 2010
Resolve Among the Ruins
By BOB HERBERT
In Haiti, the apocalypse wears the trappings of the norm. It’s a place where heartbreak never seems to end.
One evening many years ago, when I was on assignment in Haiti for The Daily News, a man took me to the back of a pickup truck and pointed to his two small children. It was obvious they were ill. Both were shivering, although the evening was quite warm.
The man pleaded with me to take the youngsters and smuggle them into the United States. “They will die here,” he said, whereas in America they would be safe and “grow strong.”
I tried to explain why that was impossible, that I could not take his children. The man listened politely, then quietly said thank you, and with an expression of the deepest despair climbed into the cab of his truck and drove off.
Enslavement, murderous colonial oppression, invasions by powerful foreign armies, grotesque homegrown tyrants, natural disasters — all you have to do is wait a while in Haiti for the next catastrophe to strike. On Tuesday, it was an earthquake that crushed the capital city of Port-au-Prince and much of its surroundings and raised the level of suffering and death to heights that defied comprehension.
“The world is coming to an end,” cried a woman in the midst of the carnage.
Pooja Bhatia, a journalist who lives in Haiti, told The Times, “I was here during the 2008 hurricanes that left thousands dead, and thousands and thousands homeless, and that felt like the apocalypse. But that pales in comparison to this.”
Just when you think the ultimate has happened, the absolute worst, something even more dire, comes along.
And yet. No matter how overwhelming the tragedy, how bleak the outlook, no matter what malevolent forces the fates see fit to hurl at this tiny, beleaguered, mountainous, sun-splashed portion of the planet, there is no quit in the Haitian people.
They rose up against the French and defeated the forces of Napoleon to become the only nation to grow out of a slave revolt. They rose up against the despotic Jean-Claude (Baby Doc) Duvalier and sent him packing. Despite ruthless exploitation by more powerful nations, including the United States, and many long years of crippling civil strife, corruption, terror and chronic poverty, the Haitian people have endured.
They will not be defeated by this earthquake.
I spoke on Friday with Ruthzee Louijeune, who works at the Posse Foundation here in New York and had waited like so many others for word about her extended family in Haiti. Eventually, she learned that her uncle, 43-year-old Michelet Philippe, had been killed and that several relatives, including her grandparents, were living in a car in Port-au-Prince.
She wept as she talked. “We’re grateful that we have a body to bury,” she said. “So many people don’t even have that. But right now there is no transportation to take him back to the village where he is from, so they are looking for a respectable place to bury him. It’s so hard. He had a wife and three children.”
But even in her grief, Ms. Louijeune spoke forcefully about the resilience of her family and what she referred to as “her people.”
“My family always taught me to be proud of Haiti,” she said, “whatever anybody else might say about it. They taught me to read on my own and to learn the true history of the country. We’re strong, and despite the hunger, despite the poverty, despite all the problems, we’ll make it through.”
If there is any upside to such an enormous tragedy, it is to be found in the spirit of the people clawing, in some cases with their bare and bleeding hands, through concrete and filth and metal to comfort and rescue survivors and reclaim the dead. And it’s to be found in the powerfully humane way in which so many people, in Haiti and outside of the country, have responded to this shattering disaster — spontaneously, generously and in many, many cases, heroically.
There are no satisfactory explanations for why this kind of event should have occurred. But we can control the way we respond. Faulkner tells us: “I believe that man will not merely endure, he will prevail. He is immortal, not because he alone among creatures has an inexhaustible voice, but because he has a soul, a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”
In the darkest of moments, Plutarch is also a comfort. “Good fortune,” he said, “will elevate even petty minds, and give them the appearance of a certain greatness and stateliness, as from their high place they look down upon the world; but the truly noble and resolved spirit raises itself, and becomes more conspicuous in times of disaster and ill fortune.”