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Voices from Haiti: New book reflects on tragic earthquake

Published:Sunday | January 16, 2011 | 12:00 AM

Mel Cooke, Gleaner Writer

The amount of newsprint, airtime, bytes and sound bites gobbled up and spat out by last January's earthquake in Haiti is incalculable - and it continues one year later, what with the inevitable first anniversary commemoration on January 12. In all of the unaccustomed attention to a country to which human suffering is what aspiring musicians are to Jamaica (so common as to be unfortunately unremarkable), it is difficult for a single record of the tragedy to stand out.

Voices From Haiti Vault: A Testament to the Resilience of the Human Spirit does, the tragedy making for a very beautiful, all-colour, hardcover collector's item, chockfull of pictures and inserts.

Written by Major Allen Satterlee of the Salvation Army, Voices From Haiti Vault is of a definite Christian bent, even as it takes the reader through five stages of the earthquake and its figurative aftershocks - 'The Earth Trembles', 'The World Responds', 'Out of the Rubble', 'A New Haiti' and 'A Christian Response to Pain'. However, although the Christian bent is obvious, it is the voices of those who experienced the 'quake from numerous angles - on the ground at the moment the earth moved and afterwards as survivors, overseas and heading out on the rescue mission in uncertain conditions, medical personnel treating the injured with limited supplies and Haitians looking towards the country's future among them - and the sometimes startling pictures which give the book authenticity and lasting relevance.

Heavy, but not macabre

Physically, Voices From Haiti Vault is a heavy text, certainly putting more strain on the shoulder than a 4.5 pound laptop when carried around in a tote bag. It is meant to be a lasting testimony (at points as much Christian witness as journalistic and historical text). Interestingly, though, while the topic is as heavy as the tome, Satterlee manages to not get too macabre. So while the death count is inevitable, the detailed personal tales of passing which would make the text grim, are noticeably downplayed.

Even when the death gets personal, it is often told in a remarkably unemotional manner. Take the tale of Sister Marie Ange Pierre-Louis, a Salvation Army soldier and Home League secretary, Port-au-Prince Corps:

"About midnight we tried to see if my daughter was alive. We found her inside the house; we moved her and saw an iron bar inside her. She died in the earthquake. The earthquake happened Tuesday. Wednesday would have been her 23rd birthday."

And while there are many superb photos of the devastation (including pictures taken literally seconds after the earthquake struck), makeshift housing, medical attention being given and rescue efforts, there are very few pictures of the actual dead people. On page 70, in 'Voices Out of the Rubble', there is a picture of a body being carried on a door to a truck already laden with the dead, but the bodies are shrouded in sheets. There are no images of the rows of dead people left on the sidewalk which Voices From Haiti Vault records.

There is a heavy emphasis on hope and recovery, the former embodied in the singing of bereaved Haitians after the earthquake. So, in 'The Earth Trembles' Satterlee writes:

"But the Haitian people possess a strength developed through centuries of privation and tempered by merciless hurricanes that beat the island into submission. So it was that in those impromptu settlements - amid unrelenting pain, growing thirst, insistent hunger and terrifying aftershocks - the Haitian people sang in the night. Lyrics that pled for the mercy of God were mixed with those thanking God for his goodness."

However, one must remember that the book is written from the Christian perspective.

There are those who will take issue with the opinion on Jean-Bertrand Aristide, in the Apendix 'Born in a Storm', written by Amandine Dupin, who writes:

"A succession of short-lived presidencies followed by military coups reached a nadir in 1991 with the presidency of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, a former Catholic priest. The first freely elected president in the history of Haiti, Aristide established a regime so violently repressive that he was overthrown and driven from the country only nine months after taking power … Increasing violence and human-rights abuses followed Aristide's reelection in 2000, however, causing the United States to suspend aid to Haiti."

Quibbles with that opinion or not, however, Satterlee has put together a striking text, aided immeasurably by excellent photography, making for the consistent irony of art - beauty from tragedy.