“In a few weeks, the international media will leave the country, and Americans will be free to forget about Haiti once again. It is my hope that this story will give American readers a glimpse into the lives of people I have come to love in Haiti. We must not forget them.”
On January 17, 2007, a gang of armed kidnappers broke down Francky and Tania Désir’s front door near the village of Callebasse, Haiti, in the mountains just south of Port-au-Prince. They abducted the Désirs’ 2-year-old daughter Fabby and held her for $200,000 ransom. For 5 days, the Désirs did not know if they would ever again see their daughter alive. Francky Désir negotiated the ransom down to $5,000, borrowed the money from relatives in upstate New York, and delivered the ransom to the kidnappers in Delmas. The next day, his daughter was released on the street nearby. Her clothes had been stolen, and she was severely dehydrated because she had been given little to eat or drink except moonshine. She was afraid for her life, but she was otherwise unharmed.
For the last two years, I have been traveling to Callebasse to work on a book about Fabi Désir’s kidnapping. While there, I often stay as a guest at the orphanage where Tania Désir used to live, and which she and Francky now operate. When news came last Tuesday, January 12, that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake had hit Haiti, my first thought was of the orphanage. What about the children who live there, and what about Tania and Francky Désir? Were they alive? Were they safe? Was there still a roof over their heads?
Information came in dribs and drabs, some of it good, some horrible. The orphanage was still standing, but many of the other homes in Callebasse had fallen, and many in the village were dead. All the children at the orphanage were safe and accounted for. Tania was safe, and Tania’s children were safe. Francky was missing. He had driven a truckload of men to a church meeting in Port-au-Prince the morning of the earthquake, and no one had heard from any of them.
In first days after the earthquake, the television showed horrible scenes, most of them from Pétionville, the richest and best-constructed city in the country. The streets were full of rubble. Bodies lay dead beside fallen buildings. Men with sticks and shovels tried to rescue the people trapped inside.
Then worse news. The Hotel Montana had fallen on its occupants. The Caribbean Supermarket was down. The National Palace was down. These were bourgeois places, the places where foreign dignitaries slept and the richest families shopped for imported ice cream and President René Préval governed. If the earthquake was sufficient to topple these well-built places, what of the cheap concrete and tin-roofed squatter houses in the bidonvilles on the unstable rises overlooking Pétionville? What of the shantytowns alongside the open sewers of Cité Soleil by the water? What about the impoverished cities of Carrefour and Léogâne, near the epicenter of the earthquake? What of the remote mountain villages like Callebasse just hours from Port-au-Prince?
It was not difficult to foresee the worst: International aid would reach the city first, get bogged down in the transportation, security, distribution, and other logistical snags that would greet the first responders, and never quite reach the countryside.
Yet if I had to choose a place to ride out the aftermath of a devastating earthquake—in the city or in Callebasse—I would choose Callebasse. The people I knew there were survivors. They grew their own crops, raised their own rabbits and chickens, and believed in replenishing the local forest. They lived through the fall of the Jean-Claude Duvalier regime, the dechoukaj uprooting, the so-called political times surrounding the rises and falls of the priest-President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the terror of the kidnapping gangs out of Cité Soleil, and the hurricanes of 1998 and 2008. What man and nature destroyed, they rebuilt.
And if I had to bet on a single survivor, I would bet on Francky Désir. In the last three years, he had lived through many nightmares—his life threatened, his dogs poisoned, his trucks and guns stolen, his daughter kidnapped—and yet he went to work daily, driving his truck up and down the same mountain roads along which his tormentors had taken his daughter, so he could shuttle supplies between the village on the mountain and the city below. He was the neighborhood taxicab driver, offering free rides to town to anyone who asked. He was the neighborhood ambulance service, on call 24 hours a day, to bring the gravely ill and injured to the nearest hospital in Fermathe. And he was the neighborhood’s chief mechanic, able to build one new truck component from three old, broken, and mismatched parts. In his downtime, he was turning his house into a walled, armored, and iron-gated fortress so no one would harm his family again.
A day passed with no news. Then, Wednesday evening, a new report: No one had heard from Francky, but now the roof was caving in on the house he was fortifying. Tania and the children were sleeping outside, in the open area of the yard, for fear that aftershocks might topple the house or the wall around the property and crush them.
At 8 AM on Thursday, January 14, the phone rang, with good news: Francky was alive. Then the bad news: The truckload of men he delivered to the church meeting had died along with everyone else in the building, 40 dead altogether. Francky would have died too, except that his truck developed mechanical problems on the way down the mountain, and he skipped the meeting to buy some parts downtown.
One danger of writing a dispatch from the moment is you don’t know what is going to happen next. I continue to fear for the safety of my friends in Haiti—I am afraid to hope too much—and I plan to return to the country as soon as flights resume to see them with my own eyes and to offer whatever help I might. For now, I offer an excerpt—the story of Fabby’s kidnapping— from a book now less close to being finished. The village of Callebasse must be rebuilt. The ill and injured must be tended. The dead must be buried.
In a few weeks, the international media will leave the country, and Americans will be free to forget about Haiti once again. It is my hope that this story will give American readers a glimpse into the lives of people I have come to love in Haiti. We must not forget them.