In Haiti, a father’s lessons withstand the earthquake

The lessons a Haitian father taught his son can’t be crushed in the rubble of mere concrete and stone.


Sony Jacques waits with other injured patients to to be seen after a physical therapy session. (Liz O. Baylen, Los Angeles Times / March 8, 2010)

By Joe Mozingo, Los Angeles TimesOctober 10, 2010

Reporting from Port-au-Prince, Haiti —
He was running through what felt like a dream. He had to get home. His father, Sony, would know what was happening. He’d keep everyone calm and tell them what needed to be done.

White dust choked the air. Ghost-gray figures stalked about, digging at mountains of shattered concrete.

Robenson Jacques, 33, sprinted up the hill to his house on Rue Estime. The bottom-floor office where his father sold lottery tickets had crumpled like a can.

“Sony’s dead,” his mom told him.

“Mama, please don’t say that! Sony cannot be dead.”

“He is,” she said, quietly sobbing.

Robenson climbed over the ruins of his neighbors’ dwellings to the back of the house. He rushed from person to person, begging: “Have you seen my father? Is he inside? Has anyone seen Sony?”

He could barely breathe. His mind kept flashing to a single thought: But I haven’t done anything for him yet.


Robinson felt that he owed the world to his father.

In their starkly poor neighborhood, Fort National, where gangs and crime lured many boys, his dad showed him the right way. He encouraged him with school, talked to him with respect and pride and love. Though his mother whipped the children now and then, his dad never did.

When Robenson graduated from high school, Sony was so proud he tapped his meager savings to rent a car for the day. And he paid for his son’s business school, where the younger man was taking an exam when the earthquake hit.

The oldest of five brothers and sisters, Robenson was trim and solid, with a thin moustache and a gently receding hairline. He looked up to his dad and tried to capture his pensive dignity. He went to the Masonic Lodge with him, spoke in a low, deliberate tone, dressed nattily, worked hard and listened to others. He took good care of his 2-year-old daughter. But in ways, Robenson felt he was still a boy, living at home, depending on his parents to survive.

His father commanded deep respect throughout the neighborhood. At 58, with cropped silver hair and a handsome, open face, Sony was called “director” and counted on for cool, level-headed advice. Whenever gang violence threatened to explode, he helped draw the leaders back from the brink.

He had worked hard to get where he was. He had sewn tennis shoes in a sweatshop for a dollar a day for years, and then tailored school uniforms on his own, then opened his lottery bolet, Sony Center Banc.

Over two decades, he transformed the rusted tin home of his childhood into the grandest on the block: three narrow stories of cinder block, stuccoed and painted pink, with poured-concrete floors and barred windows. He loved nothing more than taking in the view from the top floor, catching the breeze that skirted over the stifling alleys below. Neighbors affectionately joked that he was a boujwa now, as if he had actually made it into the middle class.

Sony can’t be dead, Robenson thought.

Robenson circled around in despair, not knowing what to do. The light was fading. Their home was destroyed. Where would they sleep? Where could he get food and water for his daughter?

A teenage girl called out to him.

“Your father’s not dead!” she yelled. “I hear him in the back.”

Robenson and his younger brother Johny scrambled back over the avalanches of debris.

“Where are you?” they called out.

They listened for a moment, then heard a faint, cracked voice beneath the concrete. “I’m in the bolet.”

Robenson clasped his hands in elation.

“We’re going to get you,” he said.

They frantically removed the smaller pieces of rubble with their hands, opening a hole so they could touch the back of his head. But the night came quick and moonless.

Robenson wished he could be a superhero and lift everything off his dad. As he waited for dawn, he reoriented his future on one pursuit: Get his father out to safety, find whatever medical help he needs and take care of the family.


When they dragged Sony out the next day, the back of his right hand was split open to tendon and bone; his left leg was severely swollen and pockmarked. But he was alive and conscious.

“Thank you, thank you,” he rasped, coughing dust. His family kissed and hugged him.

Robenson rushed up to the street and commandeered a door some men were using to transport corpses. He and his brother laid Sony on it, and a group carried him to a yard where nurses were providing basic first aid. It startled him to see his father so helpless.

When Robenson and his brother finally got Sony to a hospital the next day, they waited in vain for a doctor. His hand and foot were beginning to smell of infection. They searched for food and water during the day and slept on the ground at night.

The days soon ran together. Robenson tried to ignore the bodies arriving by the dozens, splayed and stripped of all dignity, decomposing in the morgue parking lot a hundred feet away.

He found his mind wandering through memories: his dad coaching him in soccer when he was little, showing him how to play chess when he was older. “This game shows you the principles of life,” he would say.

He remembered how Sony arranged soccer games to keep all the young ones out of trouble, how he organized a pool of money so the poorest families on their block could have a Christmas dinner, how the neighborhood voted him to be in charge of distributing relief to the people who needed it when aid groups came by.

The thought of his father being cast into that sprawl of bodies sickened him.

The U.S. Army and foreign doctors started to arrive. Robenson heard that a U.S. hospital ship was anchored in the bay, and the Army started transferring patients to it. He quickly found the doctor making decisions, whom he persuaded to look at his dad. The doctor said they’d fly him to the ship.

Sony turned to Robenson.

“You need to take care of everything,” Sony said. “I’ll be gone for a while.”

“You’re not going to die.”

“I know. I’m going to be fine.”


Sony returned six weeks after the Jan. 12 earthquake , with a leg missing. The doctors had said infection in his left foot would kill him if they didn’t amputate at the knee. They fixed his hand with a skin graft, but he could barely move it.

The neighborhood looked exactly as he had left it, like the ruins of a lost civilization. His family was sleeping in a two-room grade school with a couple of dozen others. Robenson salvaged a bed, which Sony lay on most of the day under a new tin roof, listening to his radio, watching the children play.

He could feel phantom electricity running up the missing part of his limb. And the leg still lived in his dreams, so he woke up every day to suffer the loss anew.

He wondered how he could get his bolet up and running again. That was his only chance to survive. He had no savings; his home had been his sole asset.

Robenson took him to their Masonic Lodge, where they found strength in the mix of the brotherhood’s secret rituals and his country’s voodoo deities.

Sony’s life, even his business, was woven into the spirit and dream world, like so much in Haiti. Customers came to him with their nightly dreams to see whether he could glean any numbers for them. He consulted the brittle yellow pages of his tchala, the book to translate visions into numbers.

Dreams were never to be discounted: A week before the earthquake, a woman told Sony she had dreamed of a giant rock crushing the entire city. He thought of that woman a lot these days.

One morning in March, Robenson flagged a taxi, an old diesel Saab with a cracked windshield. He helped Sony as he struggled to the street with a single wood crutch. His father still couldn’t grasp anything with his right hand. The Saab clattered down the hill in low gear.

“I haven’t seen Rito,” Sony said. “I hear his wife is dead.”

“I haven’t heard,” Robenson said.

Sony looked at a lotto on the corner. “Looks like he’s rebuilding. Everyone’s rebuilding in tin now.”

The taxi dropped them off at the Centre Hospitalier du Sacre Coeur. In the shady yard, Sony sat on an iron chair next to other amputees and waited to see the nurse.

When he first lost his leg, he fell into an abyss of depression. He felt like he’d be half a man, pitied and pitiable, unable to survive on his own. He’d have to call people for help whenever he needed to get around. The city was unforgiving to the disabled, all steep hills and narrow alleys, cracked sidewalks clogged with vendors, and then rubble.

But he became resigned to it all, reziem. It happened, and he could only do what he could do. Robenson was helping him get around and taking care of the family. Sony didn’t have to ask. This made him proud.

They had come here to consult with Handicap International about getting Sony fitted with a prosthetic leg. A nurse checked his wounds, then Robenson wheeled him through the grounds to the American group’s tents. Sony watched two blue butterflies flutter around a red-barked mabi tree. Robenson flirted with some young women. Life still had its moments of beauty.

When it was Sony’s turn, the nurse had him lie on his side and try to lift his half-leg up. “Un, deux, trois,” she counted. He clenched his teeth and flinched with each lift.

“This activates the blood circulation,” she said.

He did this over and over, on his side, on his belly, on his back.

When he was done, she told him he wasn’t quite ready for the prosthetic.

“Did I do good today?” he asked her.

“You did really well.”


Sony’s hand recovered and he learned to walk with crutches. He received his prosthetic leg in May.

In the evenings, under the dim light of a bare bulb, he struggled to get the hang of it, lurching about and wincing as the cuff pinched his leg. He had to swing his foot out so the aluminum knee joint locked before he put his weight on it. When it didn’t, he fell like a stone — if no one caught him — landing on his hip and elbow. Every step became a leap of faith.

On the street across from the ruins of his home, he paid a couple of young men to find some corrugated tin and rough-cut two-by-fours to build a hut no bigger than an outhouse. They painted it blue with the name Sony Banc stenciled in red. He was open for business.

Soon the government came in with excavators and removed much of the rubble and destroyed homes, including his bright pink one in the center, leaving a barren clearing. To stake his land, Sony had his workers quickly put up the skeleton of a new house, with sticks and a few scraps of rusted tin.

One summer day, thick with the smoke of the morning’s cooking, Sony hiked himself up on his crutches around 5:30 and headed to work. He clenched his jaw as he climbed up the steep hill. The streets were already busy with women carrying fruit and charcoal on their heads to the market. At the top of the hill, crowned by a crushed minivan, he turned on Rue Estime.

Directeur!” a man called out. “You’re not going to open today?”

“You must be crazy,” Sony said, and laughed. “How else am I going to make it?”

Sony unlocked the dented black padlock on his bolet. He climbed up on his wicker stool and opened up the counter. From his perch, he could oversee the men rebuilding his house. The roof was done, the rusted tin walls were closing in. There would be no plumbing, no flooring, no windows, no beloved third story to catch the breeze.

The government told them they would build shelters for the people here, but he knew better than to wait for that. In Haiti, you survived on your own.

A young man named Ken Ken stopped by, grinning, to see the director. They had been buried in the rubble within feet of each other. Sony gave him a few coins to buy a coffee. Robenson came by on his way to work as a security guard at a tiny private hospital that had lost all its income when the foreign doctors arrived. He hadn’t been paid since the earthquake and could only pray that the money was coming soon. He hoped some day to save enough to enroll in business school again.

People stopped by here and there to pick their numbers. Sony consulted his borrowed tchala, typed on his new calculator. Scraps of paper with scrawled numbers were pinned all around him. Yet business was way down, bringing a fraction of what he made when he barely managed to pay the $800 yearly tuition for his son.

A newscaster on the radio warned Haitians that hurricane season was here, to get out of the gullies and ravines. He looked at his new house and the shanties beyond, cascading into the deep ravine below.

When he was a child, it was not much different. Life was muddy, sweltering, hungry, bug-bitten. The time between then and now, the period when he had managed to get a toehold on the lowest rung of a middle class, felt like a dream today, like something crushed by a giant stone.

He was too old to climb back up himself. It was Robenson’s turn now.


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