In Haiti, a body abandoned alongside the road shows the fine line between life and death

By Tamara Lush, AP
Friday, January 15, 2010

In Haiti, little separates life and death

PORT-AU-PRINCE — The body lies on the side of the road that leads to and from Haiti’s capital city.

It is a woman, sprawled on her back, her left hand draped over her forehead. Could she have fallen from a dump truck carrying bodies to nearby mass graves? Nobody seems to know or care.

The buses whiz by, not stopping.

Death is like that in Haiti. The dead — often killed in political coups or famine or natural disasters — do not shock the living. Especially now. People cover their noses with their shirts, say a prayer, and move on. There’s surviving to do.

But now, the demands of death are overtaking the resources of life in this devastated country. The morgue is running out of room. The crippled government doesn’t have enough trucks to collect the dead.

And the Red Cross has run out of body bags, although more bodies are covered in sheets — or in nothing — than in bags.

Haitian President Rene Preval said this week that 7,000 of the estimated 45,000-50,000 earthquake victims were buried in mass graves in recent days. Others are trying to bury their loved ones themselves in weed-filled lots near busy streets. And death is not yet done — sick people are getting sicker, trapped people are giving up after three days of hope, and the rest are running out of food and water.

In Carrefour, a shantytown south of Port-au-Prince, the bodies are being taken by the truckload to be burned — easily more than 2,000, maybe more than 3,000, said civil protection coordinator Jean-Remy Bien-Aime. And indeed, people are burning bodies at a garbage dump next to the ocean. Someone has even dumped a casket into the big trash pile aflame with human wreckage.

The gravesites are also springing up in the largely rural countryside that surrounds Port-au-Prince. They line the road leading away from the city, in a gruesome measure of misery instead of miles.

At one spot, the dead are heaped in a pile, mixed in with deep red dirt and garbage.

At another, the bloated bodies are scattered into giant pits. A backhoe waits nearby, but there is no driver.

Four of the pits are still open, awaiting the new bodies that will surely come. The ground is also pocked with freshly dug holes. In a reminder that death is nothing new in Haiti, the city’s pauper graves lie nearby, neat rows of white crosses.

Yet for all the chaos of Haiti these days, this final resting place for hundreds, maybe thousands, of people is a quiet oasis, beautiful even. It lies between a serene blue bay and a swath of hilly brown mountains. The only indication that the frenetic city of Port-Au-Prince is nearby is a pervasive brown fog — the city’s pollution — that hovers over the bay.

As a group of journalists make their way back into the city, the woman’s body is still on the side of the road. No one has collected her.

She is clothed only in a dirty, blue plaid one-piece jumpsuit. She has sores on her face and cuts on her feet. Her right hand clutches a water bottle — so maybe she didn’t fall off a truck from the morgue after all.

Did she die on the street?

Then her left leg seems to move, almost imperceptibly as if the wind had blown it. Could that be right?

She sits up. Her name is Berley Marie Lourde, she is 50, and she hasn’t eaten in several days.

Her home in a nearby village was not damaged in the earthquake. But she says she was walking on Friday morning to try to find food when she passed out on the side of the road.

“I thought I would die in the street,” she says.

The journalists load the woman in the back of their SUV and ask people in a nearby village if they can help her. They shake their heads no. They’re hungry too.

“We don’t have food, either,” one woman says. “We can’t accept any more people here.”

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