Vilmond Deralcine is never late for the 5 o’clock mass on Tuesday evenings. However, on January 12, he had stopped to pick up a friend. As she was not yet ready, he decided to wait for her. Those who had arrived early for church would be dead just minutes later.
Vilmond took advantage of his visit to a home with a television set to watch a popular show that begins at 4 o’clock. Exceptionally, there was electricity on the evening of January 12th, which he thinks resulted in an even greater death toll. His friend was in the bathtub as he waited in the living room with her nephews and nieces.
The evenman, as it is now universally known in Port-au-Prince, began as a loud noise. At first, Vilmond thought a passing bulldozer had dropped into a large pothole in front of the house. However, this noise started softly and grew in intensity. He found himself thrown to the right and then to the left. Then he heard people outside yelling, “Pitye, pitye!” He looked out the window and saw the buildings across the street swaying back and forth to the same rhythm that was tossing him around. Then it stopped. Everyone ran out of the house.
He thought he was witnessing the end of the world. He says he didn’t scream like those around him. I believe him. Vilmond does everything he can to make things better and accepts everything that comes his way. He says that he just left himself in the hands of God.
People who had escaped the swaying buildings had assembled in the middle of the street when the earth started shaking again. All of a sudden, every large building around them fell to the ground with all the occupants still inside. The neighbourhood was completely flattened in an instant.
He left Delmas 33, winding his way down to Delmas 19 where he lives – rather, lived. Delmas 31, en route, was especially devastated. The images that are now burned into his memory are of people caught in the doorways while attempting to flee homes caving in upon them. The action – their desperation to escape – was frozen in time as only one leg or one arm had made it to safety.
When he arrived at Delmas 19, he found more horrors. It had been a middle-class district under Duvalier in the 1960s. Like all such neighbourhoods in Port-au-Prince, it had been completely transformed over the last thirty years as waves of peasants arrived from the countryside, where the United States had undermined the agricultural base by dumping subsidized produce. Peasants squatted wherever they could, with men and women supporting whole families on salaries of under two dollars a day in the American assembly plants that Jean-Claude Duvalier welcomed to Port-au-Prince. “Make yourself at home, my poor are your poor.” Vilmond’s father arrived in Cite Soleil from the countryside twenty years ago, a talented tailor forced to send his youngest children to an orphanage when his wife died.
On January 12, Vilmond witnessed a remarkable reversal. The poorest in the most desperate housing in Delmas seemed to have largely escaped with their lives. (This, unfortunately, is not the case among the slums built into the mountainsides.) Their poverty meant that there was, literally, less overhead. Meanwhile, the trappings of wealth quite literally trapped the wealthy. His rich neighbours who lived in a five-story apartment complex on rue Mackandal and normally drove the shoeless pedestrians off the road without mercy were now trapped under the rubble of their concrete residences.
Vilmond heard screams coming from the complex. The fifth story was now at ground level, atop an ungainly pile of debris. Those who had lived on the top floor were alive and screaming for help, having fallen to the ground along with it. Vilmond says he cannot calculate how many of them he and the other poor people from the neighbourhood freed from the rubble with their hands that night. For once, he says, the impoverished were more fortunate than the rich. He says that all the poor know that the rich manage to sustain themselves in Haiti through fraud, corruption, and exploitation. The poor, who know very well who profits from their suffering, saved their lives.
Before the evenman, Vilmond lived in what had once been the cook’s room behind a clinic run by a Haitian doctor trained in Saskatchewan in the 1940s. In the 1990s, when Delmas 19 was no longer safe, the doctor fled to Petionville and hired a peasant to guard the grounds. Now, Vilmond saw that the entire building had been reduced to rubble like everything else. His friend, the security guard, who allowed him to stay there, has now escaped to the mountains above Tiguav to live with his family. Vilmond has joined his friends up the hills in Delmas 33.
Each zon in the city has organized itself into a konbit. This phenomenon – a cooperative grouping that peasants brought with them to Port-au-Prince – has been part of Haitian culture since slavery. When the mainstream news tells us that the wealthy countries must intervene because the Haitian state is incapable, they perhaps are unable to see what they don’t know to look for. While they are in desperate need of supplies, poor Haitians know better than to wait for authorities to come and organize them. Haiti can only be rebuilt from the bottom up. Western powers must be discouraged in the firmest possible terms from imposing foreign structures on Haitians. Anyway, Haitians will never allow it.
In Delmas 33, Vilmond lives with about forty people who have formed their committee, their konbit. His friends from church have welcomed him there. The first leader of the konbit was not a success. He assumed the position by force of character but was soon seen to be selfish and not working in the interests of the group. Now, Vilmond has been recognized as the leader. He thinks it is because he was a prayer leader in the church and people already had confidence in him.
Vilmond says that the most violent people from many zones are getting the food, water, and medical supplies. Vilmond is not only a great admirer of Martin Luther King, but he is also inherently non-violent. Courageous beyond description in the pursuit of justice, he told me flatly that he will not fight another Haitian for food or water. Whatever the people in his konbit can get their hands on fairly, they share according to their individual needs.
When I knew Vilmond in Haiti, his waist measured 26 inches at 5 feet 10. Last year, he was within a heartbeat of dying of tuberculosis. I could scarcely believe his friends when they told me that he had lost a lot of weight. I raised enough money in Canada to pay for his antibiotics and x-rays and only recently has the tuberculosis gone into remission. However, he is facing the evenman with his health greatly compromised. He ate nothing for several days after the evenman, saying he just wasn’t hungry. Since then, he has eaten small amounts of rice. The doctor had told him to keep warm after the tuberculosis. Now he is sleeping under the stars.
In his konbit, there are five babies among the forty people. There are Protestants, Catholics, and Voodooists. Although most of the people are poor, there are some middle-class members who have retrieved the rice that they stocked in their homes and have shared it with the group. Without refrigeration, they kept no meat or perishables. Nothing is left. Vilmond laughed at me when I asked if they had been able to eat vegetables. Meat is out of the question (although Vilmond thinks the already healthy rat population of Port-au-Prince is profiting from the situation.) The people in his konbit are drinking water that is dripping from pipes. He knows that the water will become dangerous to drink, but there is no alternative
Trucks belonging to the Haitian elite and international organizations, seemingly full of supplies, fly past both Delmas 19 and Delmas 33 without stopping. Vilmond says that the poor fall to the ground running in pursuit of the trucks, pleading for help.
To heal the wounds that people suffered during the evenman, the members have cleaned open sores with soap and used fabric as bandages. There has been no outside help of any form.
On Friday morning, January 22, American soldiers came through Delmas 33. They told him that they had been on their way to Afghanistan when they were rerouted to Haiti. He spoke to them in English, telling them of the desperate condition of the people in his care and the need for basic supplies, medicine, food, and water. The soldiers took note and told him that they would return soon. But they have never come back. “They lied to us,” he says. “Why did they have guns and not water? What are they doing here?”
Everyone is sleeping under the stars, since the tents that were available went to those who fought most fiercely for them. Fortunately it is the dry season. Since they can’t take cover inside buildings that would be even less stable as the ground around them absorbs water, they are left to pray that no rain falls.
For the moment, they take care of each other.
- Note: In 2006, Vilmond Deralcine spent four months with the author. With French as a common language, they exchanged English for Creole. Vilmond introduced the author to people in his social network who shared their experiences: women who worked for the foreign assembly plants, an orphanage with no funding, Christian and voodooist groups, and finally three trips to the countryside to experience rural Haitian life. The author (when he once had a few dollars) paid for Vilmond to finish high school (with honours), a rare achievement for the youth in Cite Soleil. The author finally made contact on January 25 to discover, to his great relief, Vilmond is alive and still making people around him laugh.