Anniversaries hurt. They brutalize the body. They pummel the spirit. Especially the anniversary of a catastrophe, where we are remembering the death not just of one or two people, but hundreds of thousands: 300,000 to be precise. Just when we thought our pain had subsided, it emerges again, it expands from a daily ache, which we hoped would one day disappear, to the throbbing agony we experienced at the moment that it seemed the world ended.
Two years ago in Haiti, the Earth opened, buildings collapsed, and people died. Armies descended, displaying military might worthy of a war zone. A flock of nongovernmental agencies came, too, growing from an estimated 10,000 to 16,000, making Haiti host to more nongovernmental organizations per capita than almost any other country in the world. Money was pledged by the world’s powers, great and small, $9.9 billion worth of promises, with less than half of that actually delivered.
Two years ago, I watched all this unfold from my home in Miami, mostly with an infant in my arms. Three weeks later, when I was finally able to travel to Haiti, my chest nearly exploded in spite of the pumping and bottling one must do when away from a nursing baby. During that first trip, seeing so many people—including friends and family members—sleeping on the streets, in the shadows of shattered houses, cramped next to each other in public places in makeshift tents, I dreaded the first rain.
Since then lots and lots of rain has fallen. Even a hurricane has blown through.
Two years worth of rain and sun has thinned out the tents. Wherever they could, people abandoned the pretense of temporary shelter and converted cloth and tarp to tin and wood, even where the land was not theirs. Some have been forcibly evicted. Gunmen have come in at night—some sent by private landowners, others by the state.
You will hear that the number of the displaced has been reduced in half since the earthquake, that it has shrunk from 1.5 million to 600,000, but you will not hear where the displaced have gone.
In a devastated city of mostly renters, where unemployment is at nearly 60 percent, the displaced have been accused of purposefully squatting in squalor, living in open spaces where the heat dehydrates babies, and women and girls are raped, supposedly just to catch the attention of nongovernmental organizations. As if they had mansions that they were neglecting, hidden food and water that was going to waste, schools for their children that they were hoping to trade up for a better one, as if they had anything but their dignity left intact.
Sometimes it can feel as though none of us is doing enough. That feeling, especially among those of us children of Haiti who are living in the diaspora, is the opposite of donor fatigue. It is sometimes hope and sometimes guilt. Hundreds of friends and family members rely on us. We finance homes, clinics, schools, weddings, and funerals, but there is always more to do for, and with, people who are eager to get a foothold themselves and do so proudly every day.
On this anniversary, while remembering the dead and celebrating those still living, I also want to recognize more than ever the marginalized members of Haitian society—people like my grandparents and their grandparents, poor, urban and rural, self-reliant and proud men and women who are the backbone of Haiti. Without their full inclusion and participation in the reconstruction of their country, Haiti will never fully succeed.
Edwidge Danticat is a fiction writer, essayist, and memoirist. In 2011, she edited “Haiti Noir” and “Best American Essays.” This is an excerpt from Edwidge Danticat's essay in the February 2012 issue