Living and dying in Port-au-Prince

Michael Petrou reports on the tragic scenes he encounters in the city every day

The bodies I saw scattered on the streets of Port-au-Prince on the afternoon I drove into the city shook me up, but not as much as did the premature baby boy lying motionless in an unplugged incubator on a hospital lawn an hour or so later. I choked and stepped back, immediately forgetting about a man who was having his leg cut off a few feet away.

It turned out the boy, Benjamin Jean-Marvins, was alive, just struggling for breath. Someone figured out how to get power to an oxygen tank pumping and he started to move his hands and flare his nostrils. I don’t know how long much longer he lived. He was a triplet, and a few days later two out of three triplets around the same age died within hours of each other, one in the arms of a Toronto medic on the way to an Israeli field hospital. It seems like too much of a coincidence that two sets of triplets could have been born at the same in the same neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, but maybe it’s not.

During a smaller-scale disaster, I would have tracked this story down. Here, one tragedy gets lost among so many others. The Israeli doctor didn’t ask for the name of the lifeless baby when it was handed to him. I don’t blame him. I started trying to write down the names of every son, daughter, mother, and father who had died, or who lay with gangrene creeping up their limbs, forcing death closer. I wanted their names recorded somewhere, even if never published, to preserve their memory. I knew many would end up in unmarked mass graves. Now my notes are sparse and scattered. The stories blend together: I lost everyone I love; I have nothing; I’m alone; I have a daughter; I can’t look after her.

A downtown crowd beat a man to death today. He had been trying to rob a money- changer. I picked up a man who hadn’t eaten in three days. He didn’t ask for anything. Aftershocks continue. Two doctors jumped off of a balcony during the last big one and injured themselves. Haitians sleeping in the streets often wake up before dawn and sing hymns.