By Dominique Rattner
Habitat for Humanity Haiti’s director of public relations and development communications
It was a war zone. Days after the earthquake, I drove through a city that had been ripped apart by the force of nature. Like photos from a World War II collector’s edition, people walked in a daze, on and around the wreckage, through a cloud of dirt that looked like sifted wheat flour, suspended and suffocating.
If you dared to look down the ravines or up the steep embankments along the narrow roads radiating out from the city center, you could see those who did not survive — left where they died because retrieving them was too dangerous.
Every subsequent trip you made along those roads, you wondered if the victims were still there, and they were. Out of respect, you lowered your head as you passed and said a brief prayer hoping their departure was quick and forgiving. Where you could not see them, the air constantly reminded you of their hidden and honored presence. You could choose to wear your mask or leave it hanging around your neck — forcing you to meet a reality you never imagined seeing.
I joined Habitat for Humanity days after the earthquake struck Haiti, though my history with the country goes decades back. I lived in Haiti as a teenager, graduating from high school in Port-au-Prince. I left in the mid 1980s to attend college in the U.S., but returned many times to visit my mother, who operated a scuba diving business along Haiti’s northwest coast. Fast forward more than 20 years, the earthquake brought me back.
1/12/10 is Haiti’s 9/11. This is their world war.
I recently finished reading about Louis Zamperini, a U.S. Olympian who ran in the 1936 Games in Berlin. Several years later, he found himself floating in a life raft 2,000 miles from land after having been shot down in the Pacific. He drifted for nearly 47 days, fighting off sharks, catching fish with his bare hands and frantically patching hundreds of holes left by the strafing of a plane he thought was coming to rescue him. He eventually washed up on shore only to serve as a POW for the next year and a half.
What does Zamperini have to do with Haiti? His experience, like that of millions of Haitians, shows us how the human spirit, mind and body can endure unimaginable suffering. Depravation made worse by the terror of its indeterminate end. Such suffering has no past, present or future. It endures throughout man’s existence.
When reading Zamperini’s story, I felt his agony and longed for his rescue. One year ago, I saw the agony of the Haitian people and the death and destruction from nature’s war with itself. I longed for their rescue then. Today, it pains me to see it so far off for so many.
Through his suffering, Zamperini talked about human dignity — how it’s something you must have in order to survive. With dignity, your strength and power to fight back, to survive, is greater. This is what I see in Haitians — dignity, a survivor’s will and the hope they will be saved. Like Zamperini, they are focused on living, and not dying.
While we can’t rescue everyone, despite our yearning to do so, we can help save many. Let this one-year mark be our renewed call to bring hope and homes to help re-anchor families who are adrift. We must hurry.