Raymond C. Offenheiser, Oxfam America’s president, recounts his impressions of the ravaged Haitian capital after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck the city leaving 230,000 people dead and more than one million others homeless.
I arrived in Port-au-Prince on the one-month anniversary of the ghastly earthquake that rocked Haiti to its core. The airport was hectic, full of UN officials, aid workers and military personnel frantically working to move goods and people, struggling to coordinate and manage their own stress in face of the monumental task that confronted them.
As we left the airport, the scale of the tragedy unfolded: block after block of collapsed buildings and 500,000 people living in ramshackle shelters. Some had tents. Some had the familiar blue sheeting, and others had nothing more than bed sheets. Disposable cups, plastic bags and every other kind of trash formed piles on the perimeter as overtaxed sanitation workers tried to manage the exploding scale of this human refuse.
Much of this story has been told, but I was privileged to witness a new beginning. An effort by an entire nation to confront and accept an unspeakable level of grief.
Around town, small churches overflowed with men in suits and ties, women in white dresses and their best hats, and preachers exhorting their faithful to sing, chant, grieve and embrace.
At the Oxfam office, I met with colleagues who told me of the many dimensions of the humanitarian response taking place. All the while, a small religious choir two doors down sang, and sang and sang. Their rhythm set the tone for my entire afternoon and evening, never stopping for more than a few seconds. Young voices led the call and a small organ provided a trace of a melody.
It was hauntingly beautiful and seemed to provide the necessary inspiration for our Oxfam team. Not only had they lost two colleagues, but many of them had lost family and friends as well. Still, they did not stop to mourn.They carried on as they had since the minute the quake hit.
At Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish the next morning, Father Fredrick told me that he was preparing to open the front door of his church for a 5 p.m. service when the quake struck. While he was able to flee, another colleague froze in her tracks and did not make it to the door. Like many heroes in Port-au-Prince, he immediately took over an empty lot across from the church and turned it into a gathering place for parishioners to find solace in the company of their neighbors. In short order, they had organized a community group of 125 families, arranging shelter, water and hygiene services. Families posted their names and new addresses on their makeshift shelters and began to cope with their new reality.
At another small empty lot up the street, another 300 parishioners gathered around a woman who led them in prayer, reflection and singing. Men, women and children swayed to the music with both hands over their heads. As I surveyed the crowd, I was drawn to the sight of a solitary man, probably in his 70s, who stood alone away from the group, hands over his head, swaying in his own private space. What was his loss, I wondered. A wife of many years? Children? Grandchildren?
Around the city, I witnessed community-wide efforts to come together to cope. But how can an entire nation that was struggling before the quake recover from such devastating collective trauma? Is it possible for a country to go through a public and collective process of grief management?
A Haitian psychologist told me about her efforts to initiate some trauma counseling with students at the university that is now a pile of rubble. She told me that many students, laborers and friends she has worked with share the same experience of falling asleep thinking they are in a nightmare, hoping that when they wake up, things are back to what they were. She confessed that this is happening to her as well. She and her husband were still sleeping in the garden in front of their house. Yet deep down, each of them knows it will not end. It must be endured.
She believes that the experience of processing this trauma will be different for each person, given where they are in their lives and what resources they have. But all of them will count on hope to keep them going.
On the last day of mourning, people took their grief to the streets in a show of renewal and life. Everywhere you turned, there were processions of hundreds of people marching, singing, and waving leafy green branches. Men in suits and ties, women in their finest, children in fluffy dresses of all colors. Renaissance on the streets of Port-au-Prince. The work goes on, but the healing has begun.