Doing Research during a Coup
They let people die! They take the illness and turn it into a big business.
—Gabrielle, HIV activist
February 27, 2004
The city was on fire. Not the Eternal Flame, a work-in-progress memorial to the Haitian Revolution that had yet to be lit, but thick plumes of charcoal-gray smoke filled the sky, blotting out the sun.
I was rushing. My neighbor Lise1 had warned me. “Better pick up what you can,” she said. “You don’t know the next time you’ll be able to be out in the street.” It was late afternoon, soon to be dark.
The market was unusually crowded, voices elevated an octave higher than usual, the staccato shouting of business transactions louder than usual, devoid of its usual joviality: the taunting, joking, and catching up between friends. People scurried by, clutching black plastic shopping bags full of whatever they could afford, whatever they could still find: candles, mosquito coils, cooking oil, matches, batteries for radios, and bulk food like dried beans, rice, milled corn, potatoes, and carrots.
By the time I made it back down the slippery cobblestone street that led to the market, little was left. Instinct, and Michele, a timachann (street merchant) whom I had come to know, told me to seek out the crowds, the long queues, to find what I was looking for. Michele had sold her last candle, and save for the two boxes she stuffed into her halter-top for her own family, she was even out of matches.
Stuck in the long lines, I experienced for myself that indeed it was catch-ascatch-can: get what you could while you still could. After being turned away from three “boutiques,”2 I was finally able to get matches, mosquito coils, and some cooking oil, but no batteries. The “eau miracle” (French for “miracle water”) vendor had already closed up shop by the time I got there. Luckily I had iodine tablets, bleach, and a five-gallon jug of treated water.
The kriz (crisis) in Pòtoprens3 (Port-au-Prince) had finally past the point of no return. For the first time since being teargassed while observing an October protest, I was truly scared. The “insurrection” had finally reached Pòtoprens, just as the “rebel” Guy Philippe had boasted, predicting that he would reach the nation’s capital by his birthday (February 29, the same day as Aristide’s ouster). Earlier that day, still in an obstinate effort to abide by Haitian law and get my permis de sejour4—my “green card,” enabling me to legally live and work in Haiti—I saw what I had only heard about from my family in the United States watching CNN: the lines were drawn, the streets empty. Downtown, just across the not-quite-finished monument to the bicentennial to the Haitian Revolution (1791–1804), the Texaco station was smoldering. Three trucks, each with ten to fifteen men all clad in black and some toting semiautomatic weapons, circled the gas station. The driver of our tap-tap (“public” transport, in this case an old converted minivan packed with eighteen adults, some with merchandise jammed under their seat or on their lap) went numb for a moment, then slammed on the brakes and made an immediate U-turn, speeding back up the hill. At the stoplight where the tap-taps were supposed to turn, the Total gas station was not only burning, but the pumps had been ripped from the concrete. Spooked, the chauffeur continued to climb, yelling at the passengers to please remain seated. Ordinarily, such a deviation in the normal route would have triggered loud protests from the passengers, particularly the timachann carrying heavy merchandise. Like me, other passengers were stunned into silence. Eventually, the driver zoomed his way through side roads and deposited us in front of the neighborhood Catholic Church, not even bothering to collect the fare.
On the ten-minute down-then-uphill walk to my house, I heard gunshots coming from several directions. The remains of a young man lying in the street, shot up and surrounded by a pool of deep-purple dried blood, was generating commotion from the neighbors. I didn’t get a good glance at him, but I was glad that—unlike with other bodies I had heard of from radyo trannde (rumor mill, literally “radio of thirty-two [teeth]”) as well as seen in images from the foreign press—neighborhood dogs were not yet feasting on the corpse.
These images flashed through my head as I tried desperately to buy two weeks’ worth of rations, having difficulty even imagining what I would need, and having an even harder time getting it. I bought what I could find at the inflated price demanded. “We all have to survive,” said a middle-aged merchant matter-of-factly.
Toting a black plastic shopping bag and a wad of small bills and coins in my pants pocket, I shuffled back up the slippery cobblestone street to my house, defeated. My neighbor Lise had told me the obvious: stay home. The sun was quickly making its nosedive into the bay, and soon all would be dark. We hadn’t had electricity for the past day and a half. Being relatively new to Haiti, I asked Lise when it was “safe” to be in the streets. “Look,” she pointed to the street I had just climbed. “If you see more than two people walk per minute, it’s okay. Safer still if you see ten. Just stay at home if the street is empty.”
My middle-income neighborhood of Kriswa (Christ-Roi) was sandwiched between the crowded bidonvil (shantytowns) of Pòtoprens, built to accommodate two hundred thousand but home to more than ten times that amount, and the mountain suburb of Petyonvil (Pétion-Ville), home to most of Haiti’s banks, credit card companies, restaurants, nightclubs, and world-class resorts.5 Haiti is the most divided country in the hemisphere, with the most millionaires per capita.6 In Kriswa, rich and poor lived on top of one another.