By Lindsay Johns Dailymail.uk
Last updated at 12:35 PM on 12th January 2012
Today is the second anniversary of the horrendous Haitian earthquake – one of the most terrible natural disasters ever to afflict mankind.
In approximately 35 seconds on Jan 12, 2010 the malevolent earthquake ripped through the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, leaving death, destruction and tragedy on an epic scale in its impious and unfeeling wake. Some three hundred thousand people were killed, some immediately, but many died horribly protracted deaths after much excruciating pain.
Thousands of children and adults alike were hideously maimed by falling buildings or buried beneath rubble; limbs were crushed like flies with a flagrant and callous impunity. Whole families, whole streets and whole communities were erased in an instant. And perhaps those were the lucky ones. Many thousands of children were orphaned. 1.5 million people were left homeless. Subsequently, cholera, famine, panic and rape spread through the make shift camps erected for the survivors.
Destruction: Earthquake damage in downtown Port Au Prince
Destruction: Earthquake damage in downtown Port Au Prince
A national state of emergency was declared as the infrastructure, already weak, had been decimated. Moral collapse seemed imminent, amidst the physical disintegration. International assistance came and went. The sheer loss of human life in the earthquake and its aftermath was appalling. The pictures of unadulterated terror and bloody affliction beamed non-stop into our living rooms were as stomach-churning and brutalizing in their starkness as anything I’ve seen in decades.
Disaster relief funds were immediately started. Public figures like Hollywood actor Sean Penn flew out and helped in the camps. Others, like former Fugees singer Wyclef Jean, made sententious pronouncements from America. Us Brits gave generously, donating much time and money. On reflection, and to our immense credit, we are good in a crisis and we share what we have with others well. Even in these straightened economic times, we dug deep and made sizeable donations to the relief effort.
But, prior to the earthquake, what did we really know of Haiti? Only what we had heard in the media: that it was a much blighted, former French colony in the Caribbean, famous for voodoo, the brutal regimes of the dictators Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier and their merciless band of hired thugs the Tonton Macoutes.
What else? Immortalized by Graham Greene in his 1966 novel The Comedians, possibly that it was the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, where many ate mud cakes and lived in shanty shack squalor. Possibly also, depending on your knowledge of history, that it was the first independent black republic in the Western hemisphere and that a man called Toussaint Louverture, the slave revolt leader who led his army of slaves to victory over Napoleon’s forces back in 1804, was immortalized in a sonnet by the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth.
Perhaps also we had seen the shoot-out scene in the Hollywood action film Bad Boys II, where actors Will Smith and Martin Lawrence take on Haitian Creole-speaking gangsters in Miami. But beyond celluloid or literature, not many of us knew, or had even met a Haitian before, since there are very few Haitians in the UK. (Haiti is a Francophone country and its diaspora is based in Paris, New York and Miami).
The reality was that, until that calamitous day two years ago, even for the most ardent Francophile or Caribbean aficionado, Haiti was but a distant dot on the edge of our consciousness, sufficiently far away in its poverty, squalor and corruption to not trouble our sleep or disturb our waking thoughts. Then the earthquake happened and it tore the heart out of our geographical ignorance and the first world complacency which routinely immures us.
Other public reactions to the tragedy were more galling. How can we forget the utterly repellent American TV evangelist Pat Robertson, who attempted a tactless theodicy, telling the Haitians in a (by now) infamous broadcast that the earthquake was God’s wholly deserved punishment on them as a people for their “pact with the Devil” after wanting freedom from France and for their voodoo beliefs.
Like Voltaire’s satire of Leibniz’s theory of the concatenation of events in his masterpiece Candide, in which, with trenchant humour, he intellectually eviscerates Panglossian Optimism and the doctrine that ‘everything is for the best in the best of all possible worlds’ (which was prompted by Voltaire’s own revulsion at the huge loss of life in the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 and the callous reactions of those who sought to explain away such natural phenomena with platitudes about God’s will and divine providence), humanists the world over were disgusted and revolted by such crass religious bigotry. Where was Voltaire when we needed him to go head to head with Pat Robertson?
To all those fantastically bigoted and risibly myopic Christian fundamentalists who said the earthquake was God’s will: the providential design and mysterious workings of an omnipotent, benevolent deity my ass! Please don’t ever attempt to rationalize human suffering in such theologically remote and abstract terms.
Try telling the orphaned five year old girl with one leg and a gangrenous stump for the other, crying out through clenched teeth for her mum in Port-au-Prince that it is all God’s will. To do so is not only untrue and unjust, but palpably diminishes your own (questionable) humanity.
Today, two years on, an island is slowly rebuilding itself. But human suffering, hardship and poverty on an immense scale still unfortunately remain. Half the rubble has been cleared from the streets of Port-au-Prince, but much still strews the alleys and the public thoroughfares. Progress has been slow, not least because of the sickeningly large cholera epidemic (apparently introduced by accident by UN troops).
In short, Haiti today remains a humanitarian disaster of staggering, biblical proportions. Homelessness and disease are rife. 500,000 people are still living in tents in despicable sanitary conditions and life is far from returning to even a vestige of normality for the city’s millions of inhabitants.
Sadly, we live in an ephemeral headline culture. Today’s newspaper is tomorrow’s fish and chips wrappers. Given our short attention spans, today’s disasters and tragedies are often forgotten after a few months, or even weeks. Or, if we are fed up of viewing the tragic, disconcerting images, at the click of a remote. Surfeit of suffering? Zap. Change the channel for something more palatable.
Cyclones, earthquakes, tsunamis, droughts and famines – all these lethal natural phenomena still ravage our planet each year, causing huge loss of life and untold suffering. And yet, despite great philanthropy on many of our parts, some of us still have a tendency as a society to dismiss these tragedies, especially ones where we cannot readily see ourselves as the victims.
I wish that the truculent and recalcitrant muppets up and down the UK who took to the streets and rioted last summer in the asinine belief that their desire for a new pair of trainers and their adherence to the instant gratification culture which envelops them was worth looting for, had bothered to look at Haiti and what teenagers their age over there have, or more accurately, don’t have. Whilst too many of our moronic, monosyllabic, spoilt ‘Yu get mi, blud?’ yoof crave flat screen TVs and the latest name brand trainers to be aching cool and vacuous in (and, what’s worse, claim poverty when they don’t have them), Haitians of all ages continue to suffer and live in real indigence and survive in conditions that most of us wouldn’t allow our pets to live in, let alone other human beings.
Today, on the second anniversary of the earthquake, let us spare a thought for the poor, bruised yet still standing people of Haiti. Bloodied and battered, but not defeated and not vanquished, they are an inspiration to us all.
Against the most overwhelming odds, they are a hardy, resilient and dignified people who after their already ridiculously elevated suffering quotient, scarcely deserve yet more vicissitudes. Yet still they endure, with a Stoical courage and a magnanimity of soul which is truly awe-inspiring and incredibly humbling. Watching the Haitian people respond to the earthquake made me never want to complain again about not having enough money.
As the Haitian Creole proverb goes, admirably expressing their moral and physical fortitude in the face of crushing adversity, ‘Fer ka plié, mais nou pa ka plié.’ (Iron may bend, but we will not bend.)
If the Haitian earthquake can teach us one thing above all else, then it must be that we are, despite living in this age of rampant, parochial materialism and chronic egotistical posturing, in the true sense of the phrase, our brothers’ keepers. Regardless of our provenance, colour or creed, it is our common humanity which unites us and which renders us stronger. In times of terrible anguish and vile suffering – times when we question the very fabric of the human condition – wherever it may be in the world, we must pull together, dig deep and help those who could so easily be us, but with a different name or a different face.
As the French novelist Albert Camus elegantly wrote in La Peste (his prize-winning, allegorical novel about the fight against evil and Nazism) on our common plight:
‘We are all in the same boat. We must help each other.’
To support the relief work of United Haitians in the UK, a charity of Haitians based in London who ship clothes and medicines to Haiti and pay school fees for orphaned Haitian kids, please go to www.uhuk.org