In Haiti, a Refuge for the Living and the Dead

In Martissant Park, the only public park in Port-au-Prince, people find a pride of place and a hallowed ground to remember their dead.

Identity… personal identity… lies deep within the heart of every individual’s psyche, deep within her or his sense of being and uniqueness and meaning. And I believe that the collective identity of a people, of a society, depends to a significant degree upon the strength of the identities of its individual members. How rooted are they? How comfortable are they with who they are as individuals among a group? And how confident is this group? This I find fundamental to the functioning of any society and country.

Here in Haiti, the Western Hemisphere’s “least-developed country,” we are a nation built by slaves who dared to break their chains. We sprang from the loins of people whose identities had been crushed by a machinery of enslavement that literally worked people to death and did not care what their names were or what became of them. After slavery, generations of people in Haiti survived by drawing into small groups who lived in a myriad of isolated villages, places that took days and days to reach on foot because there were no roads. Under the Duvalier dictatorship, the central government made this lack of cohesion even worse because the father and son Duvalier used arbitrary violence and informants to spread mistrust, and people drew into themselves.

In the decades since the fall of Baby Doc Duvalier, the opportunity to escape abject rural poverty has brought hundreds of thousands of people out of the villages. They have crowded together in the capital city’s sprawling new slums.

Now we have hundreds of thousands of people, living in crowded and promiscuous “cities,” with no public services, struggling to create a new urban life in precarious conditions.

Everything seems to be a priority: jobs, food, healthcare, school, water, electricity, etc.

We Haitians build our individual identities first through our relationships with our siblings and parents and step-parents and aunts and uncles and grandparents and cousins—who might not even be cousins according to the definitions people use in other cultures—and second through the villages and regions where we have come into the world and come of age and call home.

Much of this sense of identity became fragmented for many people when they migrated to Port-au-Prince and found themselves living in places that have been neglected by the government, places that are crowded, dilapidated, dirty, and violent. Places where fresh water is a long walk down a steep hillside, and where sewage systems do not exist. Places where the police are afraid to tread because the gangs control people and want to continue to control people.

In the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti had no way to tally its dead, no way even to list the people who were lost, no way to attach names to the missing that could be squared with any existing list because no complete list exists and the Civil Registry is far from complete. Many people simply disappeared. They simply did not return home, and no one heard of them again.

Every component of our society and government must confront this complex issue of providing legal identity to the citizens of Haiti: the courts, the police, the schools, the state elections officials, the hospitals… and the people themselves. Building a robust and complete Civil Registry is of the utmost importance if we are to give every single citizen a sense of legal identity. Access to the Civil Registry has been extremely difficult for the Haitian people especially those living in the rural areas, since they must travel long distances on foot to reach the registry. Although the papers can now be obtained for free there is still a lot to be done to provide legal papers to all Haitians at birth.

And if you are without papers or a regular domicile, how do you assert yourself as a citizen. How can you speak of democracy if people don’t feel themselves qualified to act as citizens, to speak as citizens, and to vote as citizens. (This is even before considering the problem of illiteracy and lack of education.) And how can you have sound economic development when so many people lack the bona fides through which they can gain access to the justice system.

Martissant is another neighborhood in the capital city that has experienced a helter-skelter transformation with the influx of rural Haitians in search of better living conditions. Hillside slums literally surround Martissant Park, the only natural refuge anywhere near the capital city.

The idea of creating Martissant Park sprang from an urge to preserve an island of natural beauty threatened by rapidly advancing urban sprawl. FOKAL worked to make it a physical space that the people in the surrounding slums and thousands of people elsewhere in our capital might be proud of: a symbol that would strengthen who we are as a collective, as a people.

One way to ensure that the residents of these teeming slums began to feel a sense of pride, a sense of ownership in this park, was to make them participants in the idea of the park, to consult them in the decision-making processes that have shaped this space and what it contains and offers. In this way, the organization and establishment of the park itself contributed to bolstering their sense of identity, both as individuals and as a group, as neighbors who could work and trust each other.

This slow, painstaking process is one reason why the organization of the park has taken a long time. It required many group discussions over many years. We called in many people to participate, family leaders, priests and priestesses, school teachers, community organizers, young people, old people, women, men, and even young men we knew had fallen into criminal gangs and wanted to find a way out. In many instances, the written invitations we sent out to these people were the first invitations to anything any of these people had ever received.

The earthquake dealt us a terrible setback. But it also galvanized our efforts. And the results are not just visible in a wonderful waterfall and another building that has gone up. They are visible in the attitude people around the park have toward this space.

Haiti’s president, Michel Joseph Martelly, visited Martissant Park. Five hundred people from the neighborhood came. They were not shy in expressing pride of place. And one way their pride of place has been strengthened is the fact that the park has become a kind of hallowed ground, a place to remember their dead.

After the earthquake, a young man in the neighborhood found his house crumbled with his grandmother inside. They could see the body of his grandmother; they could tell she was dead, but there was no way they could get to the corpse as it was under so many layers of concrete. This man loved his grandmother. He told us she was very old and had arranged for her own funeral, provided money, purchased the coffin, but had not foreseen the earthquake. It was excruciating for him to be unable to respect her will. To wait for days, leaving her like this “without dignity,” until he finally found help to recuperate what was left of her and to give her a “proper” burial under the circumstances. He often talks about her when he visits the memorial.

Following the earthquake, our government made no real effort to create a registry of the dead. Here, with the participation of people from all over our neighborhood and our city, we have helped make the park a place where anyone can come—siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts, and cousins—and they can recall, by name, the people whom they lost, loved ones who may have died in their own homes, loved ones who may have walked off one day and simply never returned.

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