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Month: January 2012

to clarify

I wrote a story last week for TIME on the second earthquake anniversary in Haiti. Specifically, about Titanyen, a new settlement on what was ostensibly claimed “public use” land just north of the capital, Port-au-Prince.  To be even more specific, it is the Titanyen that is north of Grace de Dieu, which is north of Mon St. Christophe, which is north of Jerusalem, north of Canaan, north of Onaville, north of Corail-Cesselesse, which is north of La Plaine, north of Bon Repos, north of Crois-des-Bouquets. (But that’s not the real Crois-des-Bouquets, some locals will say.) And this Titanyen is south of the tiny village Titanyen, which is where I stopped one day to have a tall Coca-Cola by the side of the road and has, I can tell you, been around for a minute.

(People began to move to not-the-village Titanyen in November from Tabarre, Delmas, Cite Soleil, Cabaret, Santo and other places after they heard via SMS and radio that free land was available. Free land! For a first family home or an escape from a camp, who wouldn’t want to come?)

This Titanyen is a mass grave site. It is not where the earthquake memorial took place this year or last (that would be Mon St. Christophe), but rather it is where the dead are (and continue to be) buried en masse. There is still an open pit; when new bodies are dropped in, dirt from the towering mounds that surround the pit is pushed in to cover them. A few metal crosses remain from memorials past, some fallen forgotten in the rocky earth, among the last solemn physical reminders of what this place is.

Kijan rele zòn sa a? “What is the name of this place?”

The answers were different each time I asked. The most popular, Titanyen, was the one that stuck. “No, I think this is Sous Pyant,” a few people said, recalling the name of the sulphur springs across the road and down the way. No one south of here seemed to want to claim the name Titanyen anymore; they had all taken on new names, baptized into their new lives. Someone had already tried to baptize this place, too.

“This is Bethlehem.” One man tried to convince me, showing off a hand-painted sign propped up on a hillside, but the name hasn’t gained much traction yet. Bethlehem. Birth place of Jesus, his saviour, and in keeping with the Biblical names taken on by his neighbours to the south. Bethlehem. Until the name sticks, adopted by a critical mass, the name Titanyen remains. Given the still-open grave, it seems fitting.


We are spoiled in the North/West by our expectation of hard and simple truths, boundaries, statistics, names, spellings. How big was the protest? How many dead? Who won the election? The most recent theme taken up by the international media has been this gem: Where did the money go?

Covering demonstrations is nearly always an exercise in managing manufactured appearances. So much is done for show, for influence and marketing power, but how do you report that the few hundred people that showed up with neat, pre-made protest signs in English at the anti-UN demo were actually bussed in and paid to attend by local politicians, narco traffickers and pro-army lobbyists? (Sometimes a three-for-one deal.) Is a protester still a protester if all he wants is some lunch?

My friend and colleague Maura O’Connor has a piece in the Columbia Journalism Review on the prickly dispute over the earthquake death toll that is worth a read. It astounds me, naïvely, still, how striving for accuracy in numbers can make you so many enemies. I’ve countered claims of overblown head counts by activists and journalists–claims of several thousand demonstrators at a protest when I see with my own eyes no more than several hundred–that has caused some friction, as well as one (so far) low-blow Twitter tussle. The idea that, by wanting to report a lower number, this somehow hurts “the cause.” But doesn’t reporting a flagrantly exaggerated number hurt credibility? And in the case of death or sickness counts–cholera, quake, or otherwise–cooking the numbers for political or financial reasons can have far graver consequences than a simple ego bruise. Choosing which numbers to report, and whether or not to include backstory details, isn’t always easy to navigate.

We measure the strength of movements and public opinion by how many bodies are in the street, with no distinction between the organic and the engineered. We also measure success in reconstruction, it seems, by similarly arbitrary numbers.

WHERE DID THE MONEY GO? Last week’s headlines, ledes and nut graphs screamed this question. An American reporter brought it up on a USAID teleconference, her delivery particularly indignant: where did all that money go? $10 billion pledged, $4.5 billion pledged, only half delivered, dispersed, spent, $155 per Haitian, $173 per Haitian, $200 000 for a country director salary, and people are still in tents, where did it all go?

Underlying much of this talk are a few major assumptions. The first, and most revealing, is that spending fixes things. The money that was pledged — Was it not enough? Was it too much? If all those billions of dollars had been spent, rather than just some of them, would Haiti be in top shape by now? There is no nuanced breakdown of how money is spent in a program, of how much is actually needed to deliver specific services or supplies. I’ve seen NGOs struggle with enormous AmCross grants, overwhelmed over how to spend tens- or hundreds-of-millions of dollars in a set period. Other programs, meanwhile, have languished for lack of financial support–not to speak of the chronically cash-starved state.

The money must be spent! Restricted funds, unrestricted funds, emergency response funds, development programme funds. There are submenus to be explored in this monetary breakdown, and sub-questions to pose. Stepping back further: What does the charity spending impulse reveal? What does the bang-for-your-donated-buck demand reveal? Pouring money into a fractured aid system and then being upset that bothersome problems like homelessness and poverty haven’t been solved after two years is a cocktail that gives me the worst kind of headache.

The self-directed resettlement and reconstruction happening in Titanyen struck me as extraordinary for a number of reasons, one of them being that it is not extraordinary at all. In the face of everything, in the face of mismanagement of funds and expectations, life must go on. People must eat. People must sleep. Some of the most striking personal stories I heard had little to do with the earthquake. The man who had his arms and head disfigured in a machete attack in Freres two decades ago. The woman who put her two children in an orphanage after her husband died, losing all contact with them after they were sold away in a German adoption years ago. At least, she thinks they’re in Germany. Information, she said, has been hard to come by.