It’s been a surreal week, beginning with
a kind of exultation: an interview with Nobel Laureate Derek Walcott felt
like an audience with an eternal unmatched greatness with footfalls of
Homer, Virgil, Dante. He is the author of “Omeros,” the poet with the
audacity to take on Homer, and in doing so, surpassed the Odyssey. (But
that’s a story by itself) Then came the horror of Haiti, a natural disaster
of unimaginable biblical proportions hurtling its long shadow of death,
suffering and destruction. The death toll from Haiti’s earthquake is
estimated at 50,000, with three million-plus people injured, homeless,
living like ghosts among the dead, because of the fear of aftershocks,
refraining from re-entering even habitable homes.
Finally, a reluctant and timorous hope.
Derek Walcott’s one regret was that he had not conveyed forcefully enough
the animation of our people, the jubilance that neither poverty nor loss
could smother. I saw the animation Walcott spoke of, in young Trinidadian
performers singing as sweetly as angels at the Prime Minister’s reception
for journalists and saw two sides of our Caribbean coins. Even as the bodies
of the thousands were lined up on the side of the road, as people screamed
for their children, whose hollow voices rose up in anguished response, as
the drains literally ran with blood, even as the streets were called the
roads of the dead, where bodies lay putrefying, where some two million
people wandered in a daze looking for their families, injured and homeless,
with crushed legs and homes.
There were reports of the voices of men
and women singing a “beautiful sound in the middle of a horrible tragedy.”
It could not have happened to a more vulnerable country, poor, illiterate,
ravaged by corrupt regimes and repeatedly lashed at by hurricanes. In a
supreme twist of irony, despite being the country in the Western Hemisphere
to have a successful slave revolution, it has a history of oppression by
dictators, including Francois Duvalier, and of foreign intervention
primarily from France and the USA.
It is a buckled country, inhabited by
some nine million people, in which half the population lives on less than a
dollar a day, and as much as 70 per cent of the population is illiterate.
(Which makes monetary aid meaningless for ordinary people, since the people
will never be tooled to run their own country.) Haiti’s ravaged state is
dramatically apparent from the air. The portion of the country, which it
shares with the lush rain- forested Dominican Republic, is recognisable by
its half—a shorn landscape, reduced to dust as Haitians in their poverty
have cut trees, burnt coal, made space for shanty towns.
Tuesday, 12th January, 2010: The scenes
of devastation after a 7.0-magnitude earthquake rocked Haiti were the worst
in the country in 200 years, toppling buildings in and around the capital,
Port-au-Prince. Here is a cobbled reconstruction from eyewitness reports.
With the initial quake came a blanket of dust that completely covered the
city and obscured it for about 20 minutes. Those few seconds eventually
wiped out 50,000 lives. Thousands of buildings, from the National Palace and
UN peacekeeping headquarters to humble stick-and-mud shanties, were
destroyed by the quake which struck with no warning. By Wednesday, bodies
lined the streets of Port-au-Prince as Haitians frantically searched for
survivors in the rubble of their devastated capital city. People were buried
and the injured crying for help.
By Thursday, there were fears that many
more would die of thirst. Water was more precious than gold. The roads were
cluttered with hungry, homeless people. The failed state had collapsed
completely, a ruined port and an overwhelmed airport. There were hundreds of
crumpled buildings and little heavy machinery to pull out the injured and
dying. Desperate survivors set up roadblocks of corpses in Port-au-Prince to
protest the lack of emergency aid reaching them.
Thousands of injured people spent a third
night twisted in pain, lying on pavements waiting for help as their despair
turned to anger. Yet, three days no statement to the people from the
President of Haiti, Rene Preval, and such a delayed response from Caricom
while they “meet.” Shameful, but expected. Please don’t ever sing “Haiti I’m
sorry.” You will be making a farce of David Rudders ballad. So we call on
Walcott for hope, and hear the deep lush voices amidst the dead and injured.