Friday, March 9, 2012

"Every death is, in a fashion, a murder."

Two good pieces out in the New York Review this week: Mischa Berlinski's ambivalent look back on his five years in Haiti, and Jeffrey Gettleman's review of William Reno's new book on Africa's small wars. The piece on Africa's wars has received more attention, but the essay on Haiti had more resonance for me. Haiti sounds so much like Congo--at once so hopeless and hopeful, so tragic and preyed upon and self-defeating:
I came to Haiti in the spring of 2007 when my wife found a job with the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission there. She was assigned to the southern seaside town of Jérémie, a place where donkeys outnumbered cars on the streets. Jérémie was just 125 miles or so from Port-au-Prince, but only a single dirt road linked the two, and the trip overland could take fourteen or fifteen hours. Otherwise, the only connection to the capital was by propeller plane, if one had the money; or, for the poor, the night ferry, the Trois Rivières.
About a week after we arrived in Jérémie, the Trois Rivières ran aground leaving the wharf. It had been loaded badly, its cargo heavy and high on the bow and its passengers perched precariously above the cargo. Another ship soon came to its assistance. Crew members ran lines between the two boats and the assisting ship reversed its engines. The Trois Rivières did not budge, listing instead under the tension of the ropes until its flank was at a sharp angle to the horizon. Then the lines snapped and the Trois Rivières, rolling fast back to the vertical, flung its passengers and goods into the shallow bay.
Eighteen travelers drowned. The bodies were gathered from the wharf and rushed to the Hôpital Saint-Antoine where in the middle courtyard they were tossed into a promiscuous heap—face down, face up, mouths streaked by weird smiles of sputum and sea foam. The next day or the day after that, the tides shifted and theTrois Rivières proceeded normally to Port-au-Prince. Several days later, the last of the drowned travelers was found on the wharf being eaten by a pig.
Here then was my introduction to Haiti, a classic Haitian tragedy: the careless, criminal incompetence; the gratuitous grief inflicted on the poorest of the poor; the absolute lack of accountability, on the part of both the boat’s owners and the bureaucrats responsible for overseeing maritime safety. ...
The local explanation for the grounding of the Trois Rivières was this: the owner of the vessel had made an enemy—the details were obscure. The enemy had secured the services of a boko, or sorcerer, who had employed magical means to curse the ship. The accident was thus a punishment, the dead bystanders caught up in a private feud.
And like Congo, there is for the Westerner the strange feeling of being always at sea, of never quite understanding what it is one is seeing:
I could be wrong about Haiti—my sense of its people could be entirely mistaken. One of the strangest things about life in Haiti is how mysterious a place it still is; how little the foreigner ever knows about Haitian life. Haiti is a nation where information consists chiefly of rumor, and where story dominates over fact. The structure of the society is opaque. Who is in power? Who makes decisions? To what ends? It is a place whose complexities increase over time: I’m leaving Haiti after five years with the dismaying sensation that I understand it only marginally better than when I arrived.
And like Congo, there is this, too: For all the frustration and anger, the sense of having received a gift one  isn't being asked to repay:
  I was the recipient in Haiti of a tremendous amount of kindness and generosity, and was the witness to many remarkable displays of courage and grace. For all of that I remain enduringly grateful.

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