Monday, January 18, 2010

Titanyen...Little of Nothing

Several years ago I worked in a clinic in a slum in Port-au-Prince called Waf Jeremy (Jeremy's Wharf). It is a seaside shantytown that has thousands of people that have migrated there from the southern city of Jeremy.

Life in Jeremy was so hard they felt they needed to leave. The poverty in Waf Jeremy is hard to explain. The man pictured above pulls a cart filled with bags of charcoal. He is called a "mule"

The earthquake last week hurt Waf Jeremy and now people are trying to flee that slum.

I had a patient there one day. A very sweet lady in her 40's. She told me that she and her five kids were sleeping on the floor of a shack and she could only give each child a couple of spoonfulls of rice each day. She was paying rent each month to someone so they could stay there.

She also told me that her husband had been killed by robbers in Waf Jeremy as he sold things on the street corner. She had to have him buried in a "paupers field" just north of Port-au-Prince in the countryside because she had no money to get his body from the morgue and give him a proper burial.

She told me the name of the field is "Titanyen". In Creole this means "little of nothing". (She is pictured here.)

Below is an article from the New York Times last week. With the massive number of corpses from the earthquake, many bodies are being brought to Titanyen for burial.

January 19, 2010
As Haitians Flee, the Dead Go Uncounted

TITANYEN, Haiti — A few miles north of the busted-down buildings in Port-au-Prince, up a hillside where cows graze, an empty hole awaits the dead. Rectangular, 20 feet deep and wide, 100 feet long, it is one of the newest mass graves, but there are many more.

The government’s dump trucks have been dropping off bodies here since Friday. No one counts, takes pictures or searches for names. In some places, legs and arms of strangers are knotted together in a frozen dance, but here the ground has been leveled by a backhoe that has erased all but the tiniest scraps of life.

Look and see: a torn photo of a mustached man in a silver tie; a canceled American passport for an infant born in Stamford, Conn.; and a shred of purple pantyhose never to lure a lover again.

“They have buried so many people here,” said Voissine Careas, 60, a farmer chopping brush nearby with a machete. “And now, they are digging holes for more.”

Along with everything else stolen by last week’s earthquake, Haitians must now add another loss: the ability to identify and bury the dead. Funeral rites are among the most sacred of all ceremonies to Haitians, who have been known to spend more money on their burial crypts than on their own homes.

It is the product in part of familiarity with death — the average life span of a Haitian is 44 — but also the widespread voodoo belief that the dead continue living and that families must stay connected forever to their ancestors.

“Convening with the dead is what allows Haitians to link themselves, directly by bloodline, to a pre-slave past,” said Ira Lowenthal, an anthropologist who has lived in Haiti for 38 years. He added that with so many bodies denied rest in family burial plots, where many rituals take place, countless spiritual connections would be severed.

“It is a violation of everything these people hold dear,” Mr. Lowenthal said. “On the other hand, people know they have no choice.”

In and around Port-au-Prince, the usually high standard for memorials and burials has been upended. The streets have fewer bodies now but the morgue is overwhelmed, and funeral parlors — those that have not collapsed — have more bodies than they can possibly embalm.

The wooden coffins seen in the first few days after the earthquake, lashed to trucks and station wagons, have also become harder to find. In the narrow streets behind the national cemetery where most of them are built, carpenters said they lacked wood and electricity to make more.

“They bury you like a dog,” said Pegles Fleurigine, 51, in an alleyway where he has built coffins for more than a decade. “They don’t bury you in caskets.”

Wood chips hung in his wide mustache. Thin and tall, with a white mask on his forehead, he stood next to a blue and silver coffin, lacquered like a souped-up Cadillac.

“The people this belongs to, they are trying to get money so they can come and get it,” he said.

An even starker contrast between death as it was and death post-earthquake could be seen through a fallen wall leading into the national cemetery a few blocks away. Far into the distance, there were above-ground crypts freshly painted powder blue, with elaborate crosses and poetic names like Famille Leonon Maxi. Up close, there was a hole with the teeth marks of a backhoe and a half-dozen decaying bodies dumped and left.

Some were too swollen to be recognizable, but at one point on Sunday, a young girl in a white flowered dress stared at a dead young man. He had the frame of an athlete, and he wore designer jeans with a wide stylish belt.

Asked if she knew him, the girl turned away.

In the hills of Titanyen, on the outskirts of the capital, there are no young girls wandering. The low-lying swampland here smells of sulfur on a good day, and was once the preferred dumping ground for political opponents of the Duvaliers, Haiti’s brutal rulers from the 1950s to the ’80s. It is considered cursed ground by most Haitians. Only a handful of people live nearby, and on Monday most seemed to be climbing on buses to get out.

Indeed, the name of this place is so notorious that it has been a threat doled out by parents for generations: “If you’re bad, you’ll go to Titanyen.”

Now it has become the home for Haiti’s latest victims. It appears that at first, the dumpings occurred haphazardly. By the roadside, small piles of rubble sit on the grass near horses, looking innocent except for the sight of a human limb poking out.

Farther up on the paved road, and up a dirt road into the hills, the operation looks more organized. Here, there is a backhoe with a goateed driver unwilling to talk. A pole with two large lights, giant glaring eyes, allows for work at night.

The farmers say at least six trucks arrive with deliveries at all hours. Workers paid $100 a day to collect the bodies from the streets of Port-au-Prince said in interviews that they were given no guidance beyond where to go.

After the 2004 tsunami in Asia, aid groups and governments established a system in which people were photographed before being buried so loved ones could search for them. Here, all the dead are anonymous. Mr. Lowenthal, the anthropologist, said this did not reflect callousness on the part of Haitians, but rather an unprecedented catastrophe that has overwhelmed the country and the aid groups.

“This is worse than the tsunami,” he said. “Look at the concentration of destruction.”

The hills of Titanyen are a place no Haitian wants to go, he added. Now, once again, they are filled with hidden horrors.

A long walk down a windy path led first to a mound of rubble filled with passport-size photographs of children, probably from a collapsed school. Over a hill, there was a clearing with dirt piles the size of parking lot snowbanks, all covering the dead. A farmer in a red shirt who acted as a guide stayed a safe distance away from the stench.

At least 35 bodies were clearly visible. Women with shirts stripped off, men with their faces caught in odd grimaces, and near the back, a young child with his arms on the ground above his head.

Some were probably related, others were strangers, maybe even enemies. But in death they shared what for Haitians amounts to the most elemental insult: the lack of a dignified goodbye.

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