Haiti’s Sacred Ground
J. KELLY LANGE Special Correspondent – Tampa Tribune
Published: November 21, 2010 | Updated: March 22, 2013 at 02:06 AM
“Friends, though absent, are still present.” – Cicero
On January 18, 2010, less than a week after Haiti’s cataclysmic earthquake, 60 Minutes ran a story that changed the course of my life. In the segment, “The Tragedy of Haiti,” an untold number of dead Haitians were scattered about the landscape; some were stacked like human lumber, some were heaped together in the scoop of a backhoe and dropped into the back of a waiting dump truck. We were subsequently told they were heading to a mass grave outside of town. I was saddened and sickened – my heart became as broken as the mangled bodies waiting their turn.
Later that evening, after Googling “Haiti” and “Mass Graves,” I discovered that Haiti’s fallen have been taken to a landfill just outside Port-Au-Prince. Here they were unceremoniously dumped on top of existing garbage and entombed by rubble and debris from the earthquake. I began to envision how I’d feel if my own family and friends were treated like garbage. Would I turn my back to this truth? Would I write a check to some charity and then head off to meet some friends for dinner? Turns out, my answer is no.
As a result of the 60 Minutes story, I put aside my selfish and comfortable life and established a new company with the sole purpose of helping Haiti and its people. For months, I have worked day and night on multiple recovery and development initiatives, each designed to improve the future possibilities of Haiti and its people. Yet at the end of everyday, after focusing on thousands of details regarding Haiti’s future, my thoughts always drift back to the images of Haiti’s recent past – to its mass-grave/landfill.
I have just returned from Haiti. Throughout the island, I experienced events and human conditions that extended beyond my grasp emotionally, intellectually and spiritually. In Port-au-Price, I witnessed an old woman, her right arm torn off at the elbow, struggling with a bucket of water as she navigated the rubble and chaos of her surroundings. In Cap Haitien, I watched through gritted teeth as horribly burned individuals were provided free medical care at Haiti’s one and only burn clinic. I also traveled deep into the “shadowlands” of rural Haiti, to places so desolate I cried at the mere sight of children. It’s amazing, and disturbing, how far back in time one can go while traveling so few miles.
It has been nine months since January’s earthquake and few Haitians are thinking about their country’s rebirth. Nearly 300,000 lives have been lost. Nearly two million Haitians are homeless; their country lay in ruins. Unspeakable crimes are being committed in the tent cities. Food and water are scarce. There are no jobs to speak of, and a cholera epidemic is beginning to spread. This is a tragedy of epic portions and it’s only getting worse.
There is an old saying in Haiti: “Beyond mountains, there are mountains.” This proverb speaks directly to Haiti’s tumultuous past and to their acceptance of future struggles. While I understand their resignation, I would like to postulate a new proverb: “Beyond mountains, there are mountains, until there is a green field.” And here is the green field I envision.
I have set my sights on raising the necessary funds and international awareness to convert this mass grave/landfill into a national memorial. Haitians are not garbage and no rebirth of the country can occur while they are being treated as such.
For months, I have been trying to determine who owns the landfill where the earthquake victims were buried. Equally important, I’ve wanted to know who has been responsible for its continued use as a garbage dump. Unfortunately, the answers to these two questions have been mysteriously elusive. Or at least they were until recently when I was informed of the landfill’s horrific past.
For decades, hundreds of bodies, maybe thousands, have allegedly been discarded in this landfill, courtesy of past coups, death squads and Mother Nature. And while most Haitians know the ugly history of this desolate spit of land, few dare discuss its dark past least they become its newest resident.
In a field just north of Port Au Prince, friends, though absent, are still present. Amongst the rubble and debris, they call to us with pleas for respect and dignity. There is no question that their treatment in death is an affront to humanity. The real question is, who will heed their calls?
J. Kelly Lange is a Tampa writer, business consultant and founder of Haiti Recovery and Development Company.
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