Peter Goodspeed in Haiti: Little relief amid the aftershocks in a shattered city
This is probably the poorest and most miserable place on Earth right now, but every night, just as the sun sets, crowds of frightened people gather together in streets and parks to spend the night singing and praying.
They praise God for their misery; thank him for sparing their lives and cheer each other up with rousing choruses of popular Haitian hymns.
At night, you can hear the hymns roll up Port-au-Prince's earthquake-shattered hills as if they were being delivered directly to heaven by angels.
Songs of praise and shouted prayers of joy rise like smoke from the shattered city.
Last night and every night since the earthquake struck last Tuesday, 1,000 homeless earthquake victims have gathered together in the Antoine Izméry soccer park on Martial Street in the Delmas region of Port-au-Prince.
They seek protection from the elements and their fears crowded together under makeshift lean-tos on the soccer pitch, the neighbourhood's only patch of green which is protected by whitewashed cement walls.
"This is our only home now," says Sidney Pierre, a 34-year-old unemployed labourer from the Delmas 33 neighbourhood. "This is the only place we can come for comfort, to sleep, to eat, to cry."
"Nobody can go back to their homes," says Luck Peter, a 27-year-old carpenter. "But we can sleep here at night and the people come here to pray."
Neighbourhoods all over Port-au-Prince repeat the pattern. Nearly three million people are sleeping in parks and streets every night here out of fear of the violent aftershocks that still rattle Haiti.
Since Wednesday there has been an emergency triage station in the Antoine Izméry soccer park. Local doctors working with 25 green T-shirted and baseball capped volunteers from the Klinik San Michel assess and try to help the injured.
They have virtually no supplies and can only look at the worst cases and try to transport them to hospital.
Luc Michel has been living under a tent made of tattered green sheets since Tuesday night. His head and left eye are heavily bandaged; his right hand has been roughly stitched together and his left knee is tied into a homemade split. The leg is obviously broken at the thigh, his knee is shattered and he is in tremendous pain.
His wife sits nearby, shading her eyes so no one can see her tears.
Mr. Michel can barely speak for his pain and simply asks to see a doctor. His voice is a whisper and he hasn't had his bandages checked for two days.
"We need help," he whispers. "We need the world's prayers."
At night, as he lies in his shelter, listening to the residents of Delmas 33 sing hymns, he can also hear the sound of international aid flights landing and taking off down the hill at Port-au-Prince's damaged airport.
But for now the medical volunteers in the soccer park can't even give him an aspirin. The best they can do is water and a small package of crackers.
People here have virtually nothing. Their only shelter is sheets tied to poles with strips of cloth. The poles are wedged into large cement blocks salvaged from their own toppled houses.
A few lucky ones have made a sleeping platform with an old door or scraps of wood that sit raised on bricks. Most sleep in the ground in the open on old bedding and whatever old clothes they were able to grab from their ruined homes.
Children cry all the time, women sit in clusters whispering. Men and teenage boys stand around in groups talking.
Yesterday there was a dead body covered in a purple sheet lying on the ground by the white cement wall. The victim was an older woman who died the night before. But now she sits alone, mourned over only by flies next to the visitors benches on the edge of the soccer field.
Death is so common here, with an estimated 45,000 dead from the earthquake, that many poor Haitians simply leave their dead near where they fell, hoping the government will give them a decent burial.
Yesterday, someone left a dead child, who must have been almost two, in a cardboard box in the middle of the sidewalk outside the Hospital Pe in Delmas. The box was covered with a white cloth, but the child's bloated foot stuck out and the stench of death was strong.
Hundreds of passersby merely sidestepped the makeshift coffin and continued about their business.
On the shattered street leading to the destroyed Roman Catholic cathedral in downtown Port-au-Prince there are still a dozen bloated corpses, haphazardly covered with pieces of cloth on the sidewalk.
Those who have died on the Martial soccer field are usually taken to the Hospital Pe, which is already overwhelmed with corpses.
Last night and every night since Tuesday, neighbourhood pastors have come to the soccer field to offer prayers for the dead and to lead the survivors in song.
Using small bullhorns, they don't really need to encourage their parishioners to join in. Those who can walk, crowd around the prayer leaders in circles 10 deep and shout responses to prayers at the top of their voices.
You can detect a tremor of fear and pain in the first few responses, but it's not long before everyone sways and sings with vigour.
The prayer sessions last all night, stopping every now and then for 20 or 25 minutes. But in the intervals, you can hear other similar neighbourhood groups singing elsewhere in Port-au-Prince.
All night long, the city is filled with prayer.
Early Friday morning, around 5 a.m., there was a severe aftershock that rattled and broke some homes that were still standing in Delmas. (The one I was in suffered severe damage to the second floor -- cracks on the foundation and ceilings).
But within minutes of the quake you could hear a chorus of hymns rising all over Port-au-Prince in the dark.
The people in the Antoine Izméry soccer field sang "Alleluia, Alleluia ..." over and over again. People passing in the street in the dark picked up the tune and sang along at the top of their lungs.
It was a mournful but determined singing and it helped take the edge off the people's fear.
"There is a lot of praying going on," says Mr. Pierre. "People sing and pray here all night," he says. "Their churches are all gone but they still have faith.
"Anytime the Earth moves, it's time to pray. You are going to hear a lot of prayers in Port-au-Prince when you're here. We need it."
from the National Post