Monday, April 28, 2008

Food Riots in Haiti

Hola todos!

I’m back in Louisiana and re-integrating into Americana. In an effort to avoid unnecessary worry, I waited to post this entry til now, from my parents’ cozy living room...

Tuesday April 8, 2008

It feels like one of those moments in a movie that gives me goosebumps, when violent war or eery protest scenes flash on the screen, voices are yelling, and it's overlayed by some apocolyptic Ave Maria type music. It's usually the climax of a movie, and afterwards leaves me exhausted, without words, to stare dumbly at the credits as they roll by.

Except this is my office, my morning cup of coffee, and the radio rudely blaring of news of the ongoing violent protests in Haiti. Meanwhile, the church music is coming from another co-worker's computer. My Haitian co-workers are nervously scuttling back and forth. Everyone is trying to get news of the outside. I finally ask if we can turn off the protest news, because I'm in no comforts of an air-conditioned dark movie theatre, and my head is starting to hurt from the barrage of noise and information.

The gunshots started yesterday afternoon when I was in my boss's office. With no clue of what was about to begin, I laughed and asked if I could get a ride home instead of my usual walk. The shots continued throughout the afternoon. At one intense point, they sent us hiding under our desks and away from the windows. My laughing was replaced by an empty, tight feeling in my stomach, and wide-eyed alertness.

The culprit, rising food prices. Talk here is that drug-involved gang leaders ousted from the slum of Cité Soleil could be sparking the protests, or at least taking advantage of the situation and fueling the flames for their own purposes. Here's a brief background:

Yesterday, police helped all our employees get out the gates safely. Fonkoze's walls are thick and high, so I haven't been worried while I'm in here. A co-worker who'd somehow been outside though, had returned to the accounting division holding an orange-sized rock, streaked with blood. Friends of mine picked me up from work yesterday. They had me stay with them last night, as my apartment is just minute's walk from the thick of the protests around the Presidential Palace. They picked me up from Fonkoze, dodging the rocks in the road, and flying past any bystanders left in the streets. Roads around the city are blocked with demonstrators and flaming barricades. Stepping outside yesterday afternoon, I had my first intake of the distinctly unforgettable smell of burning tires. They're banging on the gates of Fonkoze as I write, I'm waiting here until things calm down. The Haitians are leaving the office now; I'll stay here with my boss where I feel safer.

All my friends have been amazingly good to me, passing me odd canned goods from their pantries until I can safely get to a grocery store. I'm home in less than three weeks, and not sure if I'll see the climactic war movie scenes in quite the same light anymore...

Wednesday April 9, 2008

Last night the rain pounded on my roof more furiously than ever before, since I’ve arrived in Haiti. It comforted me though, drowning out any other sounds, as I lay in bed waiting for sleep. Who wants to riot in the rain?! It was the end of day two of the riots—a day filled with gunshots and BOOMS! By late last night though, the sound of the rain was mostly filling a void, an abnormal silence, actually. The streets were cleared of the average pedestrian and even the usual rooster calls were missing. (Yes, roosters here crow any time they get the itching to do so!) Earlier in the evening, my electricity had gone out and I was sitting at my neighbors, reading. She’d noted the only noise left was the crickets.

Yesterday morning, we all got out of Fonkoze by about 10am, before the roadblocks became truly impassable. At home in the afternoon, from my bedroom window, I could see people running in my street. Gunshots were alarmingly too close by. The explosions continued all afternoon, loud booms of I-don’t-know-what. Throughout the day, friends and I kept in touch by phone. Mostly, my friends called me, because I’m running out of pre-paid cell phone minutes, and can’t go out on the street to buy more minutes from a vendor! Some amigos of mine got home yesterday by armored convoy. (I walked home with another Fonkoze employee.) The Embassy gang passed through the thick of downtown, in front of the Presidential Palace. They reported that anything that could be thrown in the streets was. People everywhere, and the front gates of the Palace were seriously mangled. The crowds thronging the Palace yesterday weren’t successful breaking in because armed UN guards held them off, which was probably the sounds of gunshots I heard.

Andy, a friend of mine who teaches at a school further from downtown, was stuck at school for hours. (Sounds like a teacher’s nightmare!) Some of her students who’d tried to leave had to turn around and come back because they just couldn’t get through the roadblocks. A parent who was driving to the school to get her kid was forced out of her car en route, the car was stolen, and the mom walked the rest of the way to the school, through the chaos. Another parent left two separate vehicles at the various roadblocks, and finally got to the school on a motorcycle taxi to find her child. People are in such a desperate frenzy to get where they are going that they’ll hit your car and just keep going. The roadblocks, protests, and shootings have spread throughout town now, even in the zones where the rich blans normally go to feel safe.

Today, day three, nobody is going to work—no way to get around! Hope you’re not in labor! My neighbors are in the compound with me, which reassures me. I did a food inventory, and should have enough for ten days. About half of that is straight rice though. Fortunately for me, some former tenant left behind an abnormally large amount of tarragon and balsamic vinegar. (Who eats balsamic vinegar in Haiti?!) I bet I can make something snazzy with that though! Rumors are saying the protests should last only three days. President Préval is supposed to address the nation today… (He was supposed to speak yesterday afternoon, then last night…) Hmmm, we’ll see.

Truly, my greatest worry is that my Mom will find out what is going on in Haiti! My Dad has been seriously ill and in the hospital for over four weeks now. I think Mom would implode if she has one more factor to make her stress right now. It’s her birthday today, too. Knowing I probably wouldn’t have internet today, I craftily sent the early Happy Birthday e-mail last night, (“Look what a punctual early-bird daughter I am, Mom!) so that hopefully she won’t suspect a thing. J She’s so composed, but just doesn’t need to know this now. She’s helpless in the situation and it would only cause her worry. I’ll be home so soon anyway, a bit over two weeks. In a moment of lucidity, Dad had joked a couple weeks ago that he wasn’t in the shape to come get me if I got kidnapped. I promised I’d behave…! I doubt our local Lafayette Daily Advertiser covers Haitian news. (More likely to find schedules of the Rayne Frog Festival, the Delcambre Crawfish Carnival, and Zydeco Joe’s next musical appearance!) If any well-meaning neighbor or friend says anything to her about the situation down here, I’d want to sock him in the face!

Tuesday April 15, 2008

By the Thursday morning of April 10, day four of riots, friends and I had an elaborate scheme of crack-of-dawn maneuvering to extract me from the craze of downtown Port-au-Prince. Not knowing which way rioting would turn or how long it would last, I welcomed the chance to get out of the haze and stay in the security of my friends residential neighborhood. I felt guilty though that I was going to enjoy a day with friends, at their apartment complete with pool, while the real reason we were even liberated from working was everything opposite of such comforts!

Haiti is FULL of these dichotomies.

I was ready for action by sun-up at 5:30am, Operation Skedaddle Out! At which point my BOSS calls me! (Surprise!) In a turn of events, I was out the door by 6am for a field visit to one of the Fonkoze’s branch offices in the rural North instead. As Boss and I drove to the airport, we saw the charred black leftovers of burnt-tire barricades everywhere. The gas station quickie mart around the corner from my front door was completely looted—huge glass windows all busted. The pattern of destroyed windows, some raided offices and stores, and overturned dumpsters in the streets repeated itself all the way to the airport, where I caught a flight North.

By the time I got to our cozy Fonkoze-peach-and-purple branch office in Lenbe, it felt decidedly like Haiti, but a world away from the craze of downtown capital.

PS—I still plan to post some last best-of-Haiti pictures... :)

1 comment:

Rob said...

Okay, for some reason, I decided to link to your site from Jeff and Kristin's blogger. Maybe God just wanted me to... Anyway, reading your first title, Food Riots in Haiti pulled me in. I'm super tired and I didn't have a chance to read any of your posts, but as I was scrolling down I read "mountains beyond mountains" (required reading for any Haiti lover). Then, I saw some pictures.
Anyway, I lived in Haiti for 6 months. I did some missionary work there, and some other aid-oriented stuff. We worked on the central plateau, looks like you most definitely were not on the central plateau. Anyway, my heart will probably be stuck there forever, but I'm stuck here for now, and I'd love to here what you were doing over there. You know, exchange stories and stuff.
Anyway, if you want you can e-mail me at I'm Jessica.