It happened at seven minutes to five in the afternoon. Offices were about to close. Schools were emptying. It was one of the busiest times of day for humans on Hispaniola. There were people everywhere. First it came like something slithering through the grass. Like a snake. Its tail reached 8.1 miles below the surface of the earth. And then suddenly it was there. At Leogane, 15 miles south-west of Port-au-Prince, the subterranean thing centred and surfaced. It unleashed hell. It was savage, merciless. The earth quaked. It literally did.
But it didn’t last long, somewhere between 30 seconds and one minute. It doesn’t seem very long. Unless you were in it. And it is what happened in that unfeasibly short period of time that changed everything.
At 4.53pm on Tuesday 12 January 2010, an earthquake registering 7.0 on the Richter scale hit Haiti. More than 250,000 people were killed. Port-au-Prince was destroyed. Leogane, the epicentre, was levelled. Much of the southern part of the country was wiped out. The UN building in the capital, a six-storey administrative complex, was instantaneously squashed into a single storey as one after another, pile after pile of concrete smashed down. One hundred people were inside.
Kenneth Merten, the US Ambassador to Haiti, gave the best description of what had happened to the country. ‘It looks,’ he said, ‘like an atomic bomb went off.’
Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. So says the CIA in its World Factbook. The CIA actually posts lots of facts online. I scroll down its Haiti page. Here’s another: ‘A massive magnitude 7.0 earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, with an epicentre about 15 miles west of the capital, Port-au-Prince. Estimates are that over 300,000 people were killed and 1.5 million left homeless. The earthquake was assessed as the worst in the region over the last 200 years.’
The country collapsed.
People gathered outside churches and prayed. They congregated outside the rubble of government buildings and sang. There were bodies everywhere. Everywhere became an open morgue. The problems of life reasserted themselves in a new way: the old problems in a new way. Shelter, food, water, safety. Particularly safety. Danger everywhere: from the ground beneath your feet, from falling buildings and bricks above – from the people surrounding you.
Tented cities appeared. There were no communities. There were no streets. There were just fragments of families left, as if some giant inscrutable hand had randomly plucked people – you, you, not you – and in a heartbeat, a tremor of the earth, everyone else had gone.
The world was new. How would people live? People in Haiti did what humans have probably always done: they formed groups. That part of us that is very old surfaced anew. Very quickly there were new associations between people with the old ways gone. A new Them, a new Us – new tribes. Some people gave food to strangers, to people who had in common with them the gift – the small miracle – of having survived. But there were others – looters. Looters would kill you for anything, for a bag of rice in your hand. They dragged people out of cars. Shot the driver. Took the vehicle. They didn’t care. Some were former neighbours, but there was no longer anything resembling a neighbourhood. The world on this side of Hispaniola was new.
Dogs were running wild. Some died as other hapless animals in the city had died; others ran alongside the gangs of looters. The looters carried sticks, machetes, iron bars, sharpened pieces of wood, anything. Some shop owners armed themselves. They fired at the marauders, some were killed. People climbed into gutted buildings through windows, across collapsed rooftops, and dragged out mattresses, while bodies remained inside. People tied impromptu masks across their mouth and nose to allay the stench and airborne infection. Toothpaste became a highly coveted item: it was smeared under the noses to counter the smell of the bodies. With the dead everywhere, cars were turned into hearses. But even these were carjacked. The bodies tossed out, the vehicle taken. Gangs formed along roads and created roadblocks. They demanded money for passage. They instituted a new form of taxation. Sometimes bodies were piled up to form roadblocks. An international news agency reported a ‘frenzy’ of looting. Was that right? The word frenzy derives from phren, the Greek word for mind. Had people lost their mind?
At the Anglican church in the Carrefour district of Port-au-Prince, the Reverend Paul Frantz Cole said, ‘If the people don’t get food, they will have reason to give vent to the violence inside all of us.’
Who did he mean by ‘us’? And was he right? What is inside?
‘The earthquake happened on a Tuesday,’ Madame Phisline told me. ‘The men came on a Thursday. So quickly all this badness comes out. You see, people were saying, “Beware, beware, the walls of the prison have fallen down.”’
Hundreds of prisoners had escaped. Many of them were being held on remand, incarcerated before trial, some had not even been charged. Some had simply insulted or offended someone they should not have. Some were entirely innocent. But there were others.
‘You must understand,’ Phisline says, ‘there was no electricity. They came out of the darkness, these men, if they were still men, and they were … operating right through the camp. No one knew what to do. If we left, my children could be in greater danger. They’d catch me. They’d catch my children. There was a police station nearby. But the police wouldn’t come to help us. They wouldn’t come into the camp. They didn’t do anything to protect us. So I thought, okay: I can’t run with my kids, so the only choice I have left is to do whatever I can to protect them. I could hear the men in the next tent. The people next to us were screaming, then silence. They did not see us as human any more. Something happened. Something terrible happened in their heads.’
It was as if something that had been contained could no longer be; as if a sickness far worse than any virus or contagion were infecting everything; she spoke as if at night something dark and appalling spread its wings over the city. Old women prayed for the daylight to come again; people held their breath in the darkness. The intruders would appear with contorted faces, the hideous masks of nightmare and broken dream. People huddled behind sheets around failing candles and waited. There was nothing else to do.
‘They came to our tent with machetes and shaving blades,’ Phisline said. ‘The blades cut the sheets they like were cutting a leaf or peeling fruit.’
About the Tribalist: here.
Where to get the book: here.