PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — They kept the books, had the training and fixed the computers. They were the educated few of Haiti, an up-and-coming generation of nurses, technicians, office managers and college students.
Now they’re gone — just when their struggling country needs them most.
The Jan. 12 earthquake struck just before 5 p.m., destroying office buildings and disproportionately killing the young professionals who were going the extra mile to make Haiti work. Many were crushed at their desks.
“It is a generation that decided not to leave the country. They chose to work for the country,” said Dieusibon Pierre-Merite, a Haitian sociologist with a United Nations anti-gang program that lost several staffers in the quake. “They are the ones who died.”
Compounding the loss is a quickening brain drain, as people with the ability and means to leave abandon a ravaged country where more than 1.2 million people have lost their homes.
Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive told The Associated Press he has watched with dismay as educated youths board planes to the United States and elsewhere. They leave because Haiti, always a difficult place to live, became impossible after the quake.
“I was looking at their faces: They were escaping a country and they had no intention to go back,” Bellerive said. “I feel love for the people that have lost family … but I believe it’s even harder for the country to see living people that could do so much to rebuild Haiti, leaving Haiti.”
Haiti has gone through such losses of talent before, usually in times of political upheaval. Many fled or were killed under the father-and-son Duvalier dictatorships from 1957-86. People also escaped reprisals under the U.S.-backed junta of Gen. Raoul Cedras in the early 1990s, under President Jean-Bertrand Aristide and in the violent chaos that followed Aristide’s 2004 ouster.
But the losses this time are far more significant.
The destruction was so widespread and so instantaneous — gutting the capital and its institutions at precisely the moment when help, guidance and new ideas were most needed — that the absence will be felt for decades.
“It will impact our culture, the future of Haiti,” said Pierre-Merite, who sent his wife and three daughters, age 2, 7 and 12, to Chicago days after the quake.
Nobody knows how many professionals died in the magnitude-7 quake. Nobody knows how many people died, period. The government estimates around 230,000, but has never revealed how it reached that figure. In a country where two-thirds of eligible workers did not have formal jobs before the quake, and few finish high school, the losses at universities and office buildings are stark.
Gaston Vilvens was a 29-year-old computer technician for Haiti’s Provisional Electoral Council, which was organizing a legislative election scheduled for February. Hardworking and polite, he was a valued member of the team.
“If anything went wrong with a system, you called Gaston,” said Gaillot Dorsanvil, president of the council.
By 4:50 p.m. on Jan. 12, most of Vilvens’ colleagues had left for the day, hurrying home through Port-au-Prince’s notoriously tangled traffic about an hour before sunset. Like government ministers and other top officials in the city, most of the council’s senior staff had gone home, too.
But Vilvens stayed on to fix the security chief’s computer — important for a council that faces constant threats from political opponents. About a dozen other colleagues were meeting down the hall, trying to figure out who would work at polling stations.
Their dedication cost them their lives.
At 4:53 p.m., the earth heaved, the concrete building collapsed and Vilvens and the others were crushed where they sat.
“The people who really worked were the ones who stayed past 4 o’clock,” said Vilvens’ supervisor, Philippe Augustin.
The election was canceled. Along with staff, the council lost offices, computers, vehicles and records. Most planned polling stations in the quake zone were damaged or destroyed, and hundreds of thousands of voters were killed, displaced or left without ID cards.
The council — stripped of some of its most capable staffers — is now struggling to arrange a presidential contest before President Rene Preval’s term expires early next year.
Across town at the State University of Haiti, Pierre Vernet was teaching about 100 students in the Faculty of Applied Linguistics. A founder of the department and a member of France’s National Center of Scientific Research, his three decades of advocacy were in large part responsible for Haitian Creole’s recognition as a full-fledged language.
His students came from all over Haiti, the best and brightest of their villages sent to the only city in the country with major universities. They were a rarity: Only half of Haitians ever see the inside of a classroom and only 2 percent complete high school, according to UNICEF.
The professor and his students died together in a building reduced to concrete rubble.
The lists of those lost are long. They include judges who investigated basic violations of law in a country where street justice still rules; the Foreign Ministry’s point man on relations with the neighboring Dominican Republic; at least 10 agronomists working at the agricultural ministry to restore Haiti’s farm sector.
A crowded nursing school collapsed in a country that hardly has medical care.
Three of Haiti’s leading women’s rights advocates — Magalie Marcelin, Myriam Merlet and Anne Marie Coriolan — were killed. The women, all in their early 50s, had worked together for the 2005 passage of Haiti’s first law criminalizing rape.
Preparations for the next disaster will have to go on without Ginna Porcena, the dynamic director of the National Geospatial Institute, who was part of a group of scientists who wanted to establish seismology stations in Haiti.
The earthquake also killed many foreign aid workers and businesspeople who cared deeply about Haiti and would have been the first to pitch in after a disaster. The United Nations lost 101 staffers, including the mission’s top two officials — the single worst loss of life in its history.
Among those killed in the collapse of the U.N.’s Christopher Hotel headquarters was Mamadou Bah, a French national born in Brazzaville, Republic of Congo. He was a mission spokesman who had started a book distribution program for U.N.-run jails in Haiti.
Killed alongside were Haitian staffers.
Pierrena Perrin Annilus, 29, joined the mission three years ago as a translator. Colleagues told the U.N. she rarely took vacations and threw herself into training.
She had worked her way up to being an administrative assistant for the 2,000-member U.N. police force when she died. Her life had been a hopeful vision, her colleagues said, for the future of Haiti.
The country will wait to see who can replace them. But the generation to come has a steep hill to climb. Traumatized, homeless and underfed, many are living on the streets with their families, their schools still closed two months after the quake.