The earthquake occurred at 4:53 p.m. Jan. 12, 2010. Dusk comes early in January. On the 12th, darkness came early — and with brute force.
Throughout the terrifying first night, able-bodied survivors blindly clawed their way through the rubble in search of family members, friends or to the cries of the trapped and dying. Some died in the search process. Some wished they had.
At first light the carnage and loss of life came fully into view. Piles of bodies were everywhere, and over the next few days the piles became mounds that stretched for blocks.
Close to 300,000 Haitians died in the earthquake. If being crushed to death wasn’t a cruel enough fate, most of the victims found their way into the back of dump trucks and were unceremoniously bulldozed into burial pits just north of Haiti’s capital, Port au Prince.
If you thought things couldn’t get any worse for the victims and their grieving loved ones, you’d be wrong.
There are few places in the world where man’s cruelty and inhumanity have become synonymous with a geographic location. Think the concentration camps in Germany, the killing fields of Cambodia or the entire country of Rwanda. In Haiti there, too, exists such a dark and forsaken place — Titanyen.
Since the late 1950s, when Haitian dictator Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier ruled with impunity, more than a hundred thousand Haitians have been murdered or simply discarded in this desolate area. Tonton Macout’s (Duvalier’s death squads), multiple coup d’états, acts of Mother Nature and extreme poverty have funneled its share of victims into the earth.
Thus, with its brutal history well known and its landscape already littered with dried bones and teeth, the Titanyen region became the obvious choice to house the earthquake victims.
For weeks, legions of anonymous dump trucks made their pilgrimage from Port au Prince toward Titanyen. One after another they came, their grisly aggregate of human beings and rubble in tow, to open wounds cut into the earth.
“Earth to earth, ashes to ashes and dust to dust” was never meant to be like this.
Although scores of mass and unmarked graves bloated the earth for miles up and down the National One highway, only one grave site was set aside as a token symbol of the tragedy. The government of Haiti, following the lead of Haitian clergy and international news organizations, settled on a single parcel of land in Saint Christophe, a scratch of dirt just south of Titanyen, as the official ceremonial site. Curiously, no other site has ever been recognized.
Initially, the ceremonial site was one of reverence. From a distance, thousands of black crosses stood like Haitian sentinels above the fallen, and a blanket of black and white stones serenely hugged the earth and those entombed. Unfortunately, this sense of reverence was a façade. If you took a closer look, shattered bones, skulls and tattered clothing bled from below.
For years the ceremonial site lacked any shred of dignity for those interned. From its creation in 2010 until now, the site has been entirely mismanaged. No oversight. No maintenance. No fencing. Consequently, in an area previously void of any vegetation, human bodies unwillingly feed the unnatural and unchecked growth of weeds that stretch like trees eight feet into the air. Adding insult to injury, dump trucks, in broad daylight, brazenly continue to dump countless loads of garbage on this sacred land.
If flesh-fed weeds and garbage tombstones weren’t disturbing enough, stray dogs and grazing oxen routinely fatten themselves on the protruding bones of the dead as local kids play “children’s” games with the remains of their ancestors. Inexplicably, these abhorrent truths have not been reported. Neither has the fact that for 51 weeks of the year this site is an afterthought, its only attention coming a week or so prior to the “Big Show.”
Annually, on the anniversary of the catastrophe, the key players who oversee and influence Haiti orchestrate an official ceremony. This much is known. What isn’t known is that the podium, grandstands, port-o-lets and fleets of official vehicles are planted on top of the dead while bused in crowds, like extras on a movie set, assume their positions. This is the charade of St. Christophe, and the fifth anniversary was no different.
On Jan. 12, 2015, St. Christophe took on a carnival-like atmosphere. Haiti’s parliament had just collapsed. Hundreds of protesters lined the highway. Vendors hocked their goods. Foreign dignitaries bowed their heads between glances at their smartphones. And police in military uniforms steered all non-essential political props off the access road and into the weeds and piles of garbage. Few, if any, realized what lay beneath their feet.
It would be easy to pin the blame for this shameful situation entirely on the government of Haiti. It is, after all, its responsibility to administer the affairs of itscitizens, alive or dead. However, the earthquake’s catastrophic impact on its institutions is undeniable, as are the aftershocks — physical, emotional, financial and political — that still reverberate today. Therefore, a more convincing argument is that it was always the moral responsibility of the international community to intervene on behalf of the fallen. Unfortunately, in the absence of profits, dignity for the dead was always going to be an orphaned and bankrupt proposition.
Regardless of who is responsible for the shameful treatment of the dead and the lack of consideration for the grieving, it’s time to make this right.
Not sure where to start? Here’s a suggestion:
From the ceremonial site in St. Christophe up to the settlement of Titanyen, every mass and unmarked grave site must be embraced as sacred land that is designated as a “World Heritage Site,” commercially developed as the Haitian National Memorial and Peace Park and formally managed by the Haitian government, and initially funded by the international community.
Only then will Haiti be able to move on from this tragedy.
J. Kelly Lange is a Tampa writer, business consultant and founder of Haiti Recovery and Development Company. He has traveled to Haiti numerous times.