Amid Haiti’s ruins, a requiem for the lost

 
 Michaelle Jean, former General Governor and current special envoy to Haiti for UNESCO, reacts as Suzette Prophete tells her harrowing earthquake story at a memorial ceremony at Port-au-Prince’s Universite Quisqueya, in Haiti. (Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

Michaelle Jean, former General Governor and current special envoy to Haiti for UNESCO, reacts as Suzette Prophete tells her harrowing earthquake story at a memorial ceremony at Port-au-Prince’s Universite Quisqueya, in Haiti.
(Deborah Baic/The Globe and Mail)

 
 

He arrived on a motorcycle carrying a potted desert rose, its young, slim trunk wrapped in a plastic bag. Head down, he moved quickly past the rows of unmarked black crosses, dropping to crouch before the concrete mound that serves as a tombstone for the unclaimed bodies buried in the mass grave beneath.

Sobner Bien-Amie then began to dig, his right hand shaking as he clawed past the gravel and into the red Haitian dirt. When he was satisfied with the depth, Mr. Bien-Amie reached for his tree, loosened its roots from the pot and replanted it, raking dirt back into the hole with his long fingers.

He was crying as he fumbled for a water bottle and poured its contents onto the tree, which the 39-year-old agriculture technician chose because it will survive parched conditions. He left it to memorialize his wife, Josie, who walked into the Hotel Montana one year ago and never, to his knowledge, came out.

“I’m not sure that she’s here, but I never found her body,” Mr. Bien-Amie said, wiping away tears.

It was a story repeated over and over again on Wednesday as a stream of mourners trekked through St. Christophe, the sprawling mass grave outside Port-au-Prince to which some 150,000 unclaimed and unidentified bodies were trucked last January. Now, it regularly draws thousands of people who literally lost their loved ones in last year’s earthquake.

Businesses across the country shut down Wednesday to mark the sombre anniversary of the epic 7-magnitude earthquake that struck last Jan. 12. Instead of being clogged with the noise of traffic, the streets in busy Port-au-Prince echoed with the sounds of thousands of churchgoers singing hymns. In some areas, angry mourners set up barricades and lit fires to protest the lack of progress toward reconstruction. Catholic masses began before sunrise and many congregations, their people dressed in head-to-toe white, marched through the streets in huge lines.

At St. Christophe, many people said they planned to spend the entire day at the shadeless site. Gerthe Esperance arrived at 7 a.m. and spent the morning thinking of a couple of lost cousins and the father of her son.

“I don’t know where they are, but I want to think that they’re here,” she said. There was one other thought she couldn’t get out of her mind: “If I was dead, I’d probably be here too.”

Throughout the day, dignitaries made appearances across the city to mark the anniversary. Along the Champs de Mars, where thousands of people are living in tents, Haitian President René Préval attended a ceremony with former U.S. president Bill Clinton to inaugurate the January 12th Park. The earthquake memorial will be constructed on the site of the crushed National Tax Office, where many public sector workers were killed.

Canada’s foremost advocate for Haiti, former governor-general Michaëlle Jean, spent the morning at a memorial service at Quisqueya University, a well-known school where 23 people lost their lives last year.

Ms. Jean, who was recently appointed a special envoy to Haiti for the Paris-based United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said she wanted to make sure “no one forgets Haiti.”

“It’s about remembering all the people who died last year and it’s about also putting all of our belief and hope in life,” Ms. Jean said. Her last trip to Haiti was an emotional tour last March, just two months after the earthquake.

“I didn’t know what to expect when I arrived,” Ms. Jean said of this trip. “I’ve seen some [progress] not enough. It’s been too slow,” she said, adding: “For the change to happen in 10 to 20 years from now, we need to start now.”

Presidential frontrunner Mirlande Manigat also attended the memorial, which featured powerful tales from several earthquake survivors.

Suzette Prophete, a former secretary at the university, lost her arm last year after spending five days beneath the rubble. She was ushering students out of an exam room when “suddenly I found myself in the dark.”

Pinned between layers of concrete, she could hear voices crying, then silence. When the voices stopped, she slipped into sleep.

“I saw Jesus in my dreams,” she said. “He stood by my head and he said, ‘Let’s go.’ He showed me the way outside.”

When Ms. Prophete woke up, rescuers had arrived to help her.

“They pulled me out of the rubble and I had life.” Ms. Prophete urged survivors not to feel discouraged by the fact that the situation remains tough in Haiti.

“We’ll move on,” she said. “Those who died, may their spirit rejoice with the work we’re doing.”