Haiti Diary: Grief & Gratitude - Part 2
Sister Mary Alban Bouchard CSJ was in Haiti during the 2010 earthquake. Continuing from her first set of Haiti reflections for the Lenten season, she now shares with us her final diary entries during that time.
Tuesday Jan. 19
Rousseau (who is driving despite injuries) drove me to the small airport to try to go to Cap Haitien. But the Americans have complete control of the airports and have locked the gates of Guy Malory, the little airport for domestic flights of small aircraft. I am barred out. Another option closed!
We get word that that the body of Sister Odline, a young member of the Sisters of St. Anne, has been found in the ruins of Quisqueya University. We drive up Turgeau as far as we can, then walk the rest of the way, guardedly into the university grounds, careful to skirt as far as possible around the cracked and bulging comer of the broken building.
Sister Rutney stays back. She can't do it. Not after having fallen one storey, trapped between two floors, extricated by two of the young Sisters who found her.
There are three yellow Caterpillars pounding at the cement to try to reach the debris inside. They have uncovered Sister Odline and four others, now lying side-by-side in black body bags.
It is a very hard moment for the young Provincial of the community. This beautiful campus is totally destroyed.
There is a plan for some Sisters to drive to Cap Haitien on Thursday. I am invited to go and I am glad. Then there's a rumour that an earthquake is supposed to hit the north.
The plan is dropped. Option closed!
I try my cellphone to reach Maeve at Kenscoff, the big orphanage on the mountain where I have often gone for a few days in the hermitage. By some miracle, we connect. But the news is grave. The old hospital, Petionville Hospice Damien, has gone down. It was used for programmes for the handicapped and had guest rooms for visitors.
The New Hospital has set up a field hospital and is inundated. Groups of medics are coming in to help and so are former volunteers from several countries. These are wonderful young people I came to know.
I was in the habit of spending a few days or a weekend at the old hospital and had been in touch recently to do that. I might well have been there and died.
I sit down, grateful that the New Hospital is able to function, that people are coming to help, that I am not alone. And I pray, pray in silence with no words. There are no words.
Wednesday, Jan. 20
We are rudely awakened by a very strong tremor.
My eyes are dry and gritty from the plaster-cement-poussiere in the air up at Quisqeya yesterday. People are putting on a moustache of toothpaste to lessen the smell of death. We can't stay in this place much longer. We are waiting! Waiting for what? We do not know. And I am truly homeless with the homeless, poor with the poor. The survivors say: "It was not my time." Well, the Lord has kept me safe indeed.
I am writing smaller and smaller. This is my last sheet of paper. What is hard is the inability to keep in touch. Teleco is down and I can't charge my cellular phone.
The children invent games. One is Imitation. They do an action, I repeat it. They dance. I dance. They squeal with laughter!
A medical team from the Dominican Republic arrive at our yard. They are going to take our Maximilian for surgery. I am so happy. His mom will go with him.
These days are teaching me how to live one day at a time, how to be at peace with complete insecurity. Yet the stars are so brilliant. I feel close to heaven.
Farah, a beautiful woman who had charge of Hospice St. Joseph, came on a motorcycle taxi to see how I was. She says she will return tomorrow.
Around 1:25 p.m., I tried once more to call Sister Margaret. I got her! She told me, "The Embassy in Ottawa knows you are there and alive. Here's the number. They can arrange to evacuate you. Hold on! Don't hang up."
I didn't hang up, but the phone went dead. I never was able to reach the number in Ottawa.
More earthquake warnings for Cap Haitien and the Dominican Republic. I decide it's crazy to go there. Do I need a second earthquake? Are the tremors not sufficient at a rate of four to five a day?
I make a definite decision to present myself at the Canadian Embassy next morning if possible.
Thursday, Jan. 21
I wake at 6:05 a.m.. The others are still sleeping, but I rise. Farah comes bright and early ready to conduct me by motorcycle to the Embassy.
I feel overcome by grief at leaving. I think I will never return to Port-au-Prince.
We arrive there with mobs of other people already lined up. Thanks to my little piece of paper (a copy of the first page of my passport), I have no trouble getting in. I can see this processing will not be swift but I'm here, I'm safe and the decision is made.
It's about 9 a.m.. It will be 4 a.m., Jan. 23, before I arrive in Toronto.
I am served by a former student of our business school of Christ Roi. Her name is Mercedes — we recognize each other and that is comforting. During the time I am being registered and processed, there are two tremors, the second of which brings people scurrying out of the Embassy.
There are at least 490 of us evacuees in the Embassy. Many more are waiting outside.
The staff and young Canadian volunteers treat us with great respect and sympathy. The transport will be a huge military plane chartered for evacuations. We do not know when it will arrive.
They prepare to serve us lunch.
I sit here feeling gratitude and grief. I record that there was a tiny piece of chicken on each plate.
After supper, I went out and walked in the spacious grounds of the Embassy and that was good. Children were playing on the slide. Several families had blankets on the grass and infants fast asleep. Then we all went up to the storage depot and were given a light mattress each to put on the ground. Soon everyone was bedded down.
A young attendant, Shannon, came to me and asked how I was doing and if I had a covering. I didn't, so he went off to see what he could do. He came back with his own light, waterproof sleeping bag and spread it over me saying, "Just don't let anyone steal it in the morning." I was very grateful. I had received my travel document marked Orange 10. I prayed for no rain and then fell asleep in peace.
Friday, Jan. 22
At 4:30 a.m., a small insistent bell woke me up. I realized it was a wake-up call. Just then, a decidedly strong tremor happened. Everyone ran, but since we were already outside, I sat still. It passed but it was disconcerting. When is this shaking going to end?
A staff person came and announced buses. Orange 9 departing! A whoop went up. Soon, Rouge 7 was called. I waited for Orange 10, but it was not yet. I had a toasted raspberry jam sandwich and weak coffee for breakfast. I felt another wave of grief at leaving.
I had tried so hard to stay but there was no point, no money, no place to go, no communication, no more choice. Please God, let me come back. I start planning to come back to the North and my grief is dispelled. I feel almost excited.
Word gets around that a woman died among us in the night. The wait was too long. There's sadness.
Finally, Orange 10 is called. I am on the bus to the airport.
We got to the airport about 2:30 p.m. and waited in tents for the military aircraft to arrive. There was further delay as some mechanical flaw had to be corrected. When I stood up for boarding at the end of the line, I was overcome and fainted. I had two soldiers at my side who got the medic fast. I guess he checked my vitals and doused me with ice water. The diagnosis was heat stroke and fatigue. They put me on a small chair and carried me aboard the plane.
We left at about 6 p.m.. The medic was on board and came over to see how I was doing. I was OK but shivering in the air conditioning since I was all wet. He said, "We had to do that!" He went to get a blanket. There were none aboard, so he gave me his sweater. I was very grateful.
We landed in Kingston, Jamaica to finish re-fuelling for the flight to Montreal. The flight to Montreal arrived at 4 a.m.. It was –11 C. We were met by the Red Cross workers with warm blankets, which felt wonderful.
We were ushered into a shuttle and taken to a Wyndham Hotel, where a whole conference room was set up with Red Cross volunteers ready to greet us, give us free phone calls, arrange travel to destinations, etc.. I just can't describe how beautiful they were, how welcoming to the Haitians, a good number of whom were elderly and children. That was the first time I cried!
I called Sister Margaret, who was so relieved and said she would meet me personally at the airport.
I arrived in Toronto by WestJet at 7 p.m.. Many Sisters were waiting.
Now I am trying to rest and respond to endless conversations and questions. I am in the process of renewing my passport and other lost documents. The plan is to return to Cap Haitien and continue the peace and microcredit work.
I just learned today that my friend, Brother Joseph, was killed at Louis de Gonzague. Sad news.
I also learned that the 12 cyclone-proof houses we built after the hurricanes of 2008 all resisted the earthquake and are standing firm. Very good news.
That's the way it will be — one taken, one left. Sad news, good news. Grief. And gratitude.
Some Overall Reflections
On the morning after the tremblement de terre, I rose early from the ground and went to the conference center chapel, which was still standing. I looked in and saw rubble and displacement. The large statue of the Blessed Virgin had crashed down. The statue was destroyed. I picked up this piece and turned it over. It was exactly one half of the head of the Virgin's image. The eye upturned seemed to be full of sorrow. This is what has happened to our city, our country. This is the only souvenir I have of the earthquake.
I know I speak for the Haitian people, especially of Port-au-Prince, in saying a deep-felt thank you for your generous and practical love in the recent donations to our Haiti Fund for rescue and restoration.
The people of Haiti have always chosen life. You have seen this in TV and newspaper coverage of the earthquake: a child pulled out after seven days, his hands outspread in triumph and smiling with joy, a man finding a door intact and standing it up while telling the kids to bring pieces of wood from the wreckage to build their house.
They have cried to God and God has sustained them as God also sustained me. I have a new of solidarity with the religious communities and my neighbours in Haiti. We passed through the catastrophe together as victims and survivors. I have a firm hope that Haiti — Port-au-Prince, Leogane, Jacmel and Cap-Haitien — will be rebuilt.
This can and will happen if the Haitians are given a chance to re-envision their country, hand in hand with those like you, our friends, who come to their aid.
Peace and grace and blessing be with each one of you.
By Mary Alban Bouchard CSJ