NEW YORK — When she returned home to Haiti last December, Michele Montas wasn’t planning to stay. She had just gone back to recharge her batteries after two years as a spokeswoman for the United Nations secretary general. Then came the January earthquake.
Montas’ retirement from the U.N. came to a sudden end when the first shock hit, around 5 p.m. She was in her Petionville home waiting for her dinner guests, who included Hedi Annabi, the head of the U.N. mission in Haiti. Annabi was one of 101 staffers killed at the U.N. Port-au-Prince headquarters. An estimated 230,000 people died as a result of the quake.
Within days, Montas had returned to a U.N. job, this time as special adviser to acting head of the U.N. mission, Edmond Mulet, in Port-au-Prince.“My idea was not to stay, but of course the circumstances decided for me,” said Montas, who has extended her stay in Haiti indefinitely.
That means Montas will move about with bodyguards for the foreseeable future. She and her husband Jean Dominique ran the popular, feisty Radio Haiti-Inter in Port-au-Prince for 30 years, until he was assassinated in 2000. After she survived an assassination attempt in 2003, Montas left for exile — returning only for brief stays, like the one that began shortly before the earthquake.
Like other Haitians, Montas has had no time to process the immense tragedy of the earthquake, though it deeply affects her. During a visit to New York in March, Montas and her daughter were at Lincoln Center when she suddenly stopped and cringed.
“I just saw the building collapse,” she told her daughter.
“It was not reality, it was just me reliving what I had gone through,” Montas explained later, in a question-and-answer session with students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she received the Dean’s Medal for Public Service last month. “All of us have references in life. When suddenly, in 35 seconds, all of this is gone you no longer have anything you can anchor yourself in.”
Here are more excerpts from Montas’ discussion with Columbia students:
You talked about the shock of seeing your world collapse in a matter of seconds. How did people in Haiti cope with the loss right after the earthquake and how are they coping today?
We did ignore the psychological impact, but it was because there was so much to do. People found a lot of support in prayers. I remember the first two weeks after the quake we all slept outside, because we did not want to sleep close to the buildings. We had aftershocks constantly. My house is in Petionville, halfway between two squares where displaced people lived in their tents and makeshift shelter. You could hear people all night praying and singing. I think that’s what saved people’s mental health. Religion has helped keep hope up. You know, Haitians in general are a resilient people. However, this was such a blow that if it was not for the presence of churches, people would have been just totally desperate.
What do you think about a phrase we hear all the time, “this is such a good opportunity for Haiti"?
I think it’s a great chance. I think everyone is realizing we cannot rebuild Haiti the same way. I mean, Haiti was flawed before. The injustice, the fact that so many people in the country were never actually consulted about their lives, about their government, except at election times, when they voted and that was it. They never really had a say and I think it’s true that the issue of how to rebuild Haiti is as important as the money coming in. At the [international] donors’ conference [at the U.N. in New York in March], some of this came out. People said that decentralization is a must, not because of a fault line but because decentralization is essential to Haiti’s economic life, to Haiti’s well-being as a country. Everything ends up being in Port-au-Prince, even basic services like passports, identification papers, things like this, everything went through Port-au-Prince and everyone is aware now that this has to change.
Much was said about this unprecedented fundraising going to Haiti with its history of corruption.
Whose corruption are we talking about? Are we talking about the corruption of the NGOs? Of course there are corrupt practices in Haiti. Those are not new and we are not unique in that sense. However, before the earthquake, the government only received something like 5 or 6 percent of the money that came into Haiti. So talking about corruption is just like one of those things, like saying, “Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.” Every single reporter who writes about Haiti has that sentence, “Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere.”
At the donors’ conference at the U.N. everybody brought up the past and the need to change things and bring accountability. Do you think we will see some changes?
There is a complete ignorance of Haitian culture and how to best help Haitians. I can give you one example. When the rain started the U.S. army was given the order by Washington to move as many people as possible to safe places. They had an order, just transport 10,000 people. Except that people are not goods, they are people. They have their own culture, they have to be given a choice of where they are going and you should explain to them why they should go there. The tents are set up one next to the other, following international criteria, the same ones that were applied in Aceh. Camps are supposed to be so many meters away from each other and it was done the proper way. Except that Haitians felt totally estranged in those camps. Haitians live in communities, they talk to each other. You have several houses around one central area which is a common area. You raise kids together, the village raises the kids. A number of churches, NGOs and groups working in Haiti have the best intentions in the world. However, if you do not do things according to someone’s culture you will not get anywhere.
What is your relationship to your country today?
That’s a tough one. I love my country, that’s for sure. I sometimes experience it a little bit like a cross I have to carry. I don’t feel free in Haiti because to this day I can’t move around without bodyguards. It’s a difficult relationship, certainly a passionate one. I’m really committed to Haiti. However it’s difficult. I cannot tell you that it’s great, no, it’s difficult. But do I feel that I should be there? Yes.
This story is part of a joint project between GlobalPost and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. It was written by Columbia student Alice Speri.