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The Sound of a City Shattered: Haiti, January 2010

May 14, 2010

Sometimes the sounds that are missing speak more than those that we hear. When I arrived in Port au Prince, Haiti, on January 19th of this year, the only sounds I heard at night were from airplanes, taking off or landing every twenty minutes. Bringing food, medical supplies, and water, much of which would sit, undistributed, protected by thousands of US military personnel and UN Peacekeepers with their white amphibious vehicles and machine guns.

It was a city split into hundreds of micro-cities, with the networks of electric wires, markets with food, access to gasoline, roads without UN road blocks; all the things that made one breathing entity out of this city suddenly split to pieces. At night pieces of rubble were dragged to block off streets so that people could stretch out in some of the only safe and open places – the streets.

And a city transformed, with public parks now homes to thousands, and hundreds of buildings, the ones still standing, open and echoing, with eerie lines marking their outsides, silently warning those who pass.

We visited a half-completed medical facility – it was intended to be three stories but only one was completed, and those we were with had hopes that the un-built stories would give it enough strength to be unaffected, to be able to be used as a semi-permanent clinic. When we arrived, we saw cracks dancing along the outsides of the walls. That sharp, fearful realization, that had us almost running out of the building we were staying in during morning aftershocks.

A silent feeling, a buzz of adrenaline. A noiseless noise, that nothing is as it was, or as it could be. There is life in the sound of cities, some sort of intangible mixture of the voices of people working and walking, absorbed in their own lives but sharing something due to their proximity, of stereos blaring and horns honking, of laughter and shouting.

The sadness of hunger and thirst and a feeling of complete abandonment is not a sound, not a noise, it’s a quietness, a lack of extra movement, a realization that there is no point in asking for what does not exist, what will not be given. It would be easy to miss, that quietness, if it didn’t convey so starkly that this city had been shattered, that it had been shattered to begin with, that it had been told two hundred and six years ago that the world was not interested in Haiti, was not interested in the hopes and dreams of a people that unshackled themselves.

I spent two days working with a 45 year old painter. He painted paintings, he explained in Spanish, not houses. We mixed the two languages we shared, his Spanish better than mine, my English better than his, and he spoke to the people whose wounds we were cleaning, bandages we were redressing, in French and Kreyol. I couldn’t help but wonder what those who came out from within the spread of tents thought as I spoke, in the momentary delay before it was translated, before my sounds and movements had meaning tacked on. Was I communicating respect, solidarity, when the actual words that were being spoken were not mine, were not even in a language I understood?

We worked there for two days and made friends with five or six people who helped translate. At the end, I got contact info from one person, his English perfect, a university student who had started an organization to bring help to his country – he gave me the email address for it. I asked John, John Charlie, the 45 year old painter, if there was any way I could get in touch with him, and in a moment of tired stupidity asked him in Spanish where he lived. He pointed out into the tent city at the edge of which we had set up the clinic – I live here; I’m here every day, you can find me here.

Daniel Patterson is a Wilderness First Responder who spent two weeks in Haiti with an activist medical relief organization. He lives, works, and writes in Providence, RI.

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