For most of the past 20 hours I’ve been hiking the earthquake-rubbled streets of Port-au-Prince. Tuesday night, when we had less idea of the scope of the devastation, there was singing all over town: songs with lyrics like “O Lord, keep me close to you” and “Forgive me, Jesus.” Preachers stood atop boxes and gave impromptu sermons, reassuring their listeners in the dark: “It seems like the Good Lord is hiding, but he’s here. He’s always here.”
The day after, as the sun exposed bodies strewn everywhere, and every fourth building seemed to have fallen, Haitians were still praying in the streets. But mostly they were weeping, trying to find friends and family, searching in vain for relief and walking around in shock.
If God exists, he’s really got it in for Haiti. Haitians think so, too. Zed, a housekeeper in my apartment complex, said God was angry at sinners around the world, but especially in Haiti. Zed said the quake had fortified her faith, and that she understood it as divine retribution.
This earthquake will make the devastating storms of 2008 look like child’s play. Entire neighborhoods have vanished. The night of the earthquake, my boyfriend, who works for the American Red Cross, and I tended to hundreds of Haitians who lived in shoddily built hillside slums. The injuries we saw were too grave for the few bottles of antiseptic, gauze and waterproof tape we had: skulls shattered, bones and tendons protruding from skin, chunks of bodies missing. Some will die in the coming days, but for the most part they are the lucky ones.
No one knows where to go with their injured and dead, or where to find food and water. Relief is nowhere in sight. The hospitals that are still standing are turning away the injured. The headquarters of the United Nations peacekeeping force, which has provided the entirety of the country’s logistical support, has collapsed. Cell and satellite phones don’t work. Cars can’t get through many streets, which are blocked by fallen houses. Policemen seem to have made themselves scarce.
“If this were a serious country, there would be relief workers here, finding the children buried underneath that house,” my friend Florence told me. Florence is a paraplegic who often sits outside her house in the Bois Verna neighborhood. The house next to hers had collapsed, and Florence said that for a time she heard the children inside crying.
Why, then, turn to a God who seems to be absent at best and vindictive at worst? Haitians don’t have other options. The country has a long legacy of repression and exploitation; international peacekeepers come and go; the earth no longer provides food; jobs almost don’t exist. Perhaps a God who hides is better than nothing.
Pooja Bhatia, a fellow at the Institute of Current World Affairs.