Port-au-Prince, January 12, 2011

On this, the first anniversary of the earthquake and a national day of mourning, Brillant and I left the hotel after he finished work at eleven. Traveling by tap-tap, we came upon a church whose worshippers spilled out into the street. Having stopped to check out the scene, I tried to take some pictures, but with the usual result of people fleeing the frame. After just a few minutes of this, Brillant asked a woman if we could get permission to photograph and she said we’d have to talk to the pastor. Given that the pastor was at that moment inside conducting the service, and that even if he gave his permission it wouldn’t matter to the people outside, I decided we should move on.

We took another tap-tap to the transfer point for the final ride down to the Champs de Mars, where the official commemoration was to be held. Although it wasn’t to occur until 4:53, the moment the earthquake struck, my idea was to go reconnoiter the scene and see if some preliminary activities might be taking place. However, we had some trouble finding a ride for the final leg, so Brillant suggested we walk a little ways to another tap-tap stop.

Strolling down the broad avenue, I noticed that the level of pedestrian activity, while still substantial, was significantly less than usual. Most of the roadside stands were closed, their wooden frame structures pulled back from the street, leaning against buildings. At the bottom of the hill we turned left and boarded a tap-tap for Champs de Mars. Luckily, as it turned out, we had to sit in the back.

As we were waiting for the tap-tap to fill up, I glanced back the direction from which we had come and noticed a large group of people dressed in white enter the intersection. White is the color of mourning in Haiti, so I knew immediately that this must have to do with the anniversary. While I watched, people continued to flood into view.
Hey, Brillant. There’s something going on down there.

Yes, yes.

Climbing down from the tap-tap we set out at a brisk pace, Brillant saying, Yes, this is what we are looking for.

Members of the Eglise de Dieu de la Verite commemorate the earthquake

When we got to the intersection, the crowd had halted at the exit, but was still flowing into the entrance. As the people waited to proceed, some of them, many holding Bibles, began to chant and spread their arms. Within a couple of minutes, traffic wardens dressed in light blue shirts, and dark blue skirts or pants depending on their sex, at the head of the march, followed by a young man waving a large flag, moved forward, walking up the street Brillant and I had just come down. However, within a couple of blocks, they stopped, and perhaps at a signal I didn’t perceive, or perhaps spontaneously, the marchers dropped to their knees and seemed to enter an ecstatic trance.

A member of the Eglise de Dieu de la Verite commemorates the earthquake

Some of them spread their arms wide. Some raised their arms up before them. Some leaned forward on all fours, hanging their heads. Others bent their foreheads to the pavement. All the while they chanted, praising Jesus, their eyes closed. This continued for at least five or ten minutes until, exhausted from their exultations, or, again, perhaps at a signal I didn’t catch, they slowly arose and formed up to move up the street.

Brillant and I continued walking with the group, which was the congregation of the Eglise de Dieu de la Verite, or the Church of God of the Truth, across the sprawling Delmas neighborhood to their church, a distance of probably three or four miles. But there were only minor outbursts, and no further collapsing to the pavement, the rest of the way. Looking down the long hill from the church at the stream of worshippers that looked to me to number at least a couple of thousand, I couldn’t believe they would all fit in the church, but almost all of them did. Brillant and I didn’t enter and left for the almost adjacent Acra Sur tent camp before the service concluded.

We spent a couple of hours at the camp before leaving for Champs de Mars. But that’s another story. With only an hour and a half until the commemoration ceremony was to begin, I was afraid we would have trouble getting to the site of the actual ceremony. I had visions of thousands, if not tens of thousands of Haitians, and a huge press presence, clogging access. I was half right.

Making better time than expected, we arrived almost exactly an hour before the time of the earthquake. As we walked down the street in front of the Presidential Palace, there were a lot of journalists, mostly foreign, about, but a surprisingly small number of Haitians. About halfway down the block there was a circle of people, so we made for that to see what was happening.

Dancers at the commemoration of the earthquake

I managed to work my way to a point where there were only a couple of people in front of me and in the center of the circle was a dance troupe performing a decidedly non-mournful repertoire. I suppose they were celebrating life. I raised my camera over the heads of the people before me, and with a few practice shots to get the range, succeeded in taking a few decent pictures.

When the dancing ended, a few staff members from the Universite d’Etat d’Haiti Hopital, the primary Port-au-Prince hospital, marched solemnly past the Palace. This was more of the atmosphere I was expecting and I followed them, or actually, led them, around the corner up the intersecting street on the side of the Palace. After a block or so, I peeled off and Brillant and I went back around front, where there was still a surprising dearth of action.

Staff from the Universite d'Etat d'Haiti Hopital in front of the Presidential Palace

Haitians and foreign journalists milled about, mostly separately. The low wall at the base of the fence in front of the Palace was lined with Haitians, but there didn’t seem to be any particular sense of anticipation. At the far end of the street, a stage had been set up and there was a fair size crowd listening to music, but it seemed to relate only tangentially to the upcoming ceremony. There were definitely no crowds pouring in to participate.

As the clock ticked ever closer to zero hour, Brillant and I continued to circulate, looking for a focus of the upcoming event. Then, just as we happened to be near the end of the road towards the stage and at about 4:50, I spotted a small group of twenty or thirty Haitians in white coming our way. I moved to intercept them and they stopped near the end of the Palace nearest the stage, close to the curb in front of the Champs de Mars tent camp.

Members of the Eglise de la Victoire observe a moment of silence

Having arrived before almost any other photographers, I had front row position. Right at 4:53, the group, which consisted of members of the Eglise de la Victoire, the Victory Church, observed a moment of silence, which actually stretched out for several moments. Following that, there was some chanting and singing, accompanied by arm waving, but less extreme than what we had witnessed earlier in the day. But then one or two members of the group were apparently seized by the spirit, shaking and quaking, but not falling to the ground.

And with that, the ceremony ended and the assembled press, myself and Brillant included, began to disperse into the gathering darkness. It seems like it was a very small commemoration of a very large tragedy. But then, I guess the real commemoration took place all day long in churches across the city.

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About vichinterlangphotojournalist

Vic Hinterlang has been a photojournalist for the past 25 years. He has worked in Central America, Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo, Israel and the U.S. His photos have appeared in The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, The Economist and The Texas Observer among other publications.
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