Last December marked the 30th anniversary of the terrible Spitak Earthquake, which shook Armenia and killed anywhere between 25,000 and 50,000 Armenian nationals and left thousands orphaned. Twenty-one years after this tragedy, natural disaster befell yet another small country in the world. This week marks the ninth anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, which claimed anywhere between 100,000 and 300,000 lives. After the 2010 Haiti earthquake, I thought of a friend who, during the 1988 Armenian Earthquake in Spitak, was under the rubble for three days before she was rescued.
Haiti’s earthquake was a humanitarian nightmare. People all over the world did their best to respond. The United States provided nearly 60,000 Haitians with Temporary Protected Status (TPS). But this November, the Trump administration said it’s canceling the humanitarian program that has allowed thousands of Haitians to live in the US. If they don’t leave by July 2019, they could be deported. Naturally, the public has responded with protests with statements from public officials, including New York Assemblywoman Rodneyse Bichotte, herself a Haitian-American. Haitians in the US, similar to Armenians in the US, send millions of dollars back to their homeland to support their families. Haitians in New York and Florida including the Family Action Network Movement, which filed a class action lawsuit exposing the racist immigration policies of the Trump administration and the Department of Homeland Security, are waiting for justice.
Nine years after its earthquake, Haiti is still in extremely poor condition. It has been a painfully slow recovery. There are a number of social-historical factors that explain why bouncing back from such a devastating event—difficult for any developed country—has been particularly hard for Haiti.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anybody that it has a lot to do with colonialism. During my research, I found out that when Christopher Columbus landed in Haiti in 1492, there were an estimated 500,000 indigenous inhabitants—the Taino-Arawak and Caribs. Fifty years later, they were nearly eradicated due to disease and Columbus’ cruel genocidal policies. Columbus was so sadistic that his own men sent him back to Spain in chains.
In 1697 the Spanish ceded a third of the island to France, whose colonists began forming sugar and coffee plantations and engaging in slave trade. Many of their slaves were the Fon people from Dahomey. Vodun (more commonly known as “voodoo”) was a traditional religion of the Fon and many other West African indigenous peoples. It was forbidden in French colonies but nurtured in secret as a vital spiritual force that connected them to their ancestors and gave them a sense of dignity to survive. Their trances built skills to remember a spiritual purpose separate from the horrors of daily slave life.
The Haitian revolution, the largest and most successful slave revolt in the Western Hemisphere, started in 1791 with a voodoo Bwa Kay Iman ceremony. They invoked their ancestors the Minos, which means “our mothers,” and referred to the Dahomey Amazons, a fierce female militia that protected their king. Toussaint L’Ouverture united a vast network of over 200 slave leaders that started a 13 year freedom struggle in which Jean-Jacques Dessalines defeated the British, Spanish and even Napoleon’s army!
In 1801, Haiti became the first post-colonial, independent, black-led nation in the world, but was economically shunned by powerful empires, which had been built on the backs of slaves. The US—being one such empire—boycotted Haiti while France demanded 150 million francs to compensate for their stolen land. It took Haiti over 120 years to pay off this debt, which greatly impoverished the country, and now many Haitians are demanding France return this extorted money.
In 1915, the US invaded Haiti, transferred $500,000 in gold reserves to New York and changed Haiti’s constitution so foreigners could own property. In 1919, the US Marines killed rebel Charlemagne Peralte and photographed his body mounted on a flagpole with a crucifix. Hundreds of copies were distributed as a warning not to protest US occupation. The US would not allow Haitians to elect their popular leaders and instead, supported dictators like Papa Doc and Baby Doc, leaders who abused the people and ran up a debt of hundreds of millions of dollars.
In solidarity with the Haitian earthquake victims, I wrote a poem called “I Am Sailing On A Raft Of My Bones.” I have read it at many Haitian benefits and on Haitian radio, always mentioning how in 1915, while the US was invading Haiti, the Ottoman Turks were committing the Armenian Genocide.
I Am Sailing On A Raft Of My Bones
Quivering fingers are a sign
Quivering fingers are a sign of life
Stretching up through the concrete coffins
Pressing on my breasts
Breathe your caring into me
So that I can inhale the sunrise
It is so hard for us to breathe
Mother Earth is also suffocating under
Millions of tons of real estate developers rape concrete
We are cracking, exploding, tumbling
Releasing into each other becoming
Scattered parts of an infinite universe
Inside my eyelids oceans roar
I am sailing on a raft of my bones
In the choppy sea I can see 250,000 Haitian bone rafts
Guided by the luminous skeleton parts
Sunk deep in the Atlantic, of the 100 million
Africans killed in the Middle Passage
Our bones fuse together, the yearning, returning
Crashing on the shores of the motherland
While the daily unnatural disasters Caused by
Conquerors – Genocide, Slavery, Poverty continue
In an instant your life can change for the worse
In an instant your life can change for the better
Ayibobo Ayiti, Hail to the Spirits
Successful slave rebellion, Voodoo Queen, 1st Black Republic
Ayibobo Ayiti shackled to corrupt governments
Backed by US imperialism, but Ayiti you are still fragrant
With the spirit of justice and resistance
Ayibobo Ayiti Hail to the Spirits
Hail to the Spirits