"Everyone lost somebody. Even a part of your family that you haven't met yet. You lost somebody. We are all brothers and sisters."
January 12 is the most infamous day in Haitian history, and it's a day that has been engraved in the mind of all who experienced it. Samuel, who works in PID's Child Sponsorship Program, was one of the first people I talked with who was willing to talk in detail about his experience on that dreadful day.
With the anniversary only a week away, he told the story of how he was walking in downtown Port-au-Prince, when the 7.0 magnitude earthquake hit.
"In less than one minute... just as we are now, talking, having fun, just enjoying ourselves...after just one minute there was a lot of smoke and a lot of people were dead down here."
As soon as he realized what had happened, he began to worry about his mother. The earthquake had destroyed all communication lines, and his cell phone was not working. He began to sprint down the streets back to his mother's house, trying to avoid the bodies lying in the road. As Samuel saw the amount of people stuck under the rubble, his fear for his mother's safety only grew.
"A lot of people in the street were saying 'Oh my mom is dead,' or 'I just got word that my dad was killed,'" Samuel reflected to me, "and I said I do not want to receive a call like that."
Samuel was lucky enough to find his mother in the streets that day. But most Haitians were not as lucky. Over 300,000 people lost their lives during the 2010 earthquake and as Samuel said, almost all Haitians were affected by it in one way or another. However many locals refuse to talk about that day, something I found true no matter who I spoke with. It seemed that once someone moved past a dreadful event in their life, such as the earthquake or living in a slum, they tended to shun it form their memories. They had moved on, and had no interest in going back.
I only met one other person who was willing to talk about Haiti's dark history: Madame Adline. Adline worked for PID as a laundry woman, and each week she spoke to the teams about the history of Haiti (On the second week of my trip, the team was fortunate enough to go to Haiti's Historical Museum in Port-au-Prince. There we learned about history's destructive Haiti, but we got a more personal perspective from Adline).
Haiti is a nation founded on slave labor. Despite the fact that Haiti is a predominately black country, there were no native black people on the island until they were brought over as slaves by the French. This French colony grew successful in the sugar industry and became one of the wealthiest in the Caribbean. However during this process, the French completely depleted the environment as well as the people they were enslaving.
In 1791, the Haitians launched one of the first successful slave rebellions over the French and became the world's first black republic. However, many countries reacted negatively to Haiti's slave revolution. Other countries feared that the revolution would serve as a dangerous example to their own slaves, and so they limited their economic partnerships with the country.
And just like that, Haiti found themselves locked out of the world economy. Haiti quickly plunged into crippling poverty, ultimately becoming one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere.
But that is not the end of Haiti's devastating history.
For over 30 years, military controlled elections resulted in the establishment of a dictatorial, corrupt regime that oversaw military and governmental purges, mass executions, and the institution of curfews enforced by the president's violent police force.
"The people in Haiti were not free," Adline whispered. Speaking of Haiti's dark history was something that could get you killed, even today, if the information got into the wrong hands. "You could not talk in the streets about politics because the bad people were always listening. If you were talking badly about the government they would set your house on fire...they didn't care if there were children inside."
One story that particularly stuck with me was Adline's reflection on Pope John Paul II's visit to Haiti.
Pope John Paul II had donated a lot of money to Haiti to help the impoverished people escape from the slums. However, Haiti's corrupted government just pocketed the money for its own use (This is a common theme in Haiti: under their corrupted government money never went to what it was intended to fix). However when the pope declared he would be coming to visit the poor people of Haiti, the government panicked .
They could not show the pope that there were still poor people in Haiti...so they devised another plan.
They set up loudspeakers in downtown, calling all the poor and disabled citizens to city hall. Government officials proclaimed that the pope couldn't wait to meet all the poor people and the government was going to bring the poor people to him. They loaded all the poor into dump trucks, claiming they were headed to see the pope.
Instead, government officials drove them deep into the woods. They raised the backs of the trucks, dumping the people into mass graves dug deep into the ground. Simultaneously they dumped another truck full of dirt onto the people, burying them alive. Finally, they drove the trucks over the graves to make sure the poor people had been completely wiped out.
As Pope John Paul II arrived in Haiti, he instantly proclaimed that he knew horrible things had happened and immediately began to pray for the country.
This story put Haiti's history into perspective for a lot of us on the trip. We all knew about Haiti's earthquake, but that is not the full story. Haiti is impoverished because they were never given a chance to develop.
The French depleted their land. The world turned it's back on them. The government took away their freedom. And Mother Nature continues to devastate them. It is a vicious cycle that Haitians had to endure for centuries.
However, as of 2017, things are starting to get better. Their current president is allocating funds to the proper resources. Paved roads are being built, solar-powered street lights are blossoming, garbage is being collected off the streets, and free public schools are becoming more accessible.
Haiti has a long way to go, but they won't be able to get there without our help.
To be continued...