From now on, when I hear the song "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" I think that I will always think of Sunday, the first day of May - of Coca-Cola floats with strawberry ice cream; of a charred, headless body being devoured by skinny dogs; of the leering face of a teenage gangster, his hand on the gun at his hip; and of late-night egg sandwiches on whole wheat toast smeared with mayo and ketchup.
Going to church in Blanchard has become such a comfort to me. We arrived late, with Sunday school already started, so I sat in back and watched a little boy move his collection money from his shirt pocket to his pants pocket, then back again. He felt very important.
We sang the song, "Am I a Soldier of the Cross?" and our minister talked about it in his sermon. We need to look back through history at God's people and the battles they have to fight. That makes it easier to see ourselves in proper perspective. We are just a tiny piece in the history of the world that is prone to fighting and unrest. We are not the only ones to experience this problems, tho sometimes it feels like the rest of the world cannot really understand life on this tiny island.
On the way home, we bought a plastic bag stuffed full of carrots, spinach, tomatoes, cabbage, militon, and a green papaya to make legume. I went out in the yard and picked a few eggplants and fresh basil to add. I convinced Zèzè that I was too pregnant to make lunch alone, and he helped me peel the big pot of vegetables. It was his first time using a potato peeler, which he deemed "white people stuff." I'm pretty sure most of the world has heard of potato peelers tho, so I refuse to admit to being fancy for using one.
The food was finally ready well after 2 PM, and choir practice starts at 4, so we didn't have much time for naps. I felt half groggy as we left our house.
And then we arrived at the entrance to our neighborhood, and saw them. They hang around there a lot, our neighborhood gangsters, usually asking for money, sometimes filling in potholes in the road with shovels. They would be harmless men in their young twenties, but we know what they stand for, the power behind them, so we treat them with respect. But tonight was a bit different. It was broad daylight, but every single one of them was carrying a handgun in plain sight, and they had bandannas tied around their necks, ready to pull up as masks.
One pointed a gun at us and Zèzè rolled his window down and said we were going to church. They motioned us through. It all happened so fast, and we couldn't just turn around and go home again, because we didn't want to look scared. There were also other cars on the road, so we continued.
Zèzè called a neighbor for more information, and when we got to church we heard everyone's version of the story. Earlier that morning, the Chen Mechan gang had killed a man from the 400 Mawozo. There seems to be a little group of them stuck in this area that can't get back to their own base in Croix des Bouquet. The man was running away, and they shot at him multiple times, but the bullets would not kill him. The 400 Mawozo is known for being protected by very strong voodoo. So they chased him down, killed him with machetes, cut off his head, and burned the rest of the body. Like me, I'm sure you have questions. Specifically, what did they do with the head? But they are gangsters, and maybe we don't want to know all their dark secrets and rituals.
I was very nervous all thru choir practice. There was no way I wanted to go back through there in the dark, when everyone is more jumpy and volatile. I had seen one of the gangsters stooped over something in the street, almost like he was going to light a fire, tho there hadn't been the telltale pile of tires and branches that you usually see when they're preparing to barricade a road.
It didn't help that we were singing the song "We Have This Moment" over and over again. My uncle and aunt that were killed in a car accident on the way to church sang it as a duet in church just a few weeks before they died. I kept thinking of that, and the song seemed very sinister to me.
So we left after choir practice, before the service. On the way back, we saw the body. I would not have recognized it as a human corpe - it was just a blackened lump on the side of the road, a faint bit of red where the head had been severed. Three skinny dogs were gnawing at it's bones. One the other side of the road stood a long gangster. He looked not much older than a teenager, but his face seemed either deformed or just twisted into a hideous leer. His hand was on the gun at his hip.
At our entrance, the gangsters were nowhere to be seen. We looked for them, and I imagined them watching us from behind a wall where they usually hang out. But whatever business they had in the streets was finished.
I was craving Coke, a common occurrence during this pregnancy, and I told Zèzè I thought I deserved one after all the drama! (Haitians are very strict about Coke being terrible for pregnant women.) So he went out again and bought a whole case actually. Along with a couple bags of bread and two little containers of strawberry ice cream!
I made a float with my Coke and strawberry ice cream. Zèzè had never had a float before, and loved his! Our cat, who has been fending for itself for the last few days by killing and eating lizards and barfing them up, crunched contentedly on its new bag of cat food. For a bedtime snack, I made Haitian fried eggs and we ate them on whole wheat toast smeared with mayo and ketchup.
Yesterday morning, Zèzè tried to go to work along with several of his coworkers from our neighborhood, but they turned around because the roads were deserted. All except for Carrefour Clercine, where there is a big police station. He said the road was thick with police and they even had a huge, bullet proof excavator out in the street. I've never seen anything like it before, but apparently they sometimes use them as a military weapon to break into houses. We have no idea what their plan was or is. Maybe they're just trying to look busy.
In the afternoon, we heard that the 400 Mawozo had invaded a little neighborhood called Bigarad where three families from our church live. We drive this road several times a week, every time we go to church and to Zèzès parent's house. I looked for our church friends in the picture being passed around, but it's just too blurry. I know all three families were probably in this crowd tho. The little boys holding hands in the front break my heart. They are the same age as Frè Daniel's boys, tho I can see that it's not them, and it doesn't seem fair that children should have to experience something like this.
I cleaned out our closets and suitcases full of extra sheets and other things we've accumulated until my feet hurt too bad to even walk anymore. As it was getting dark, I asked Zèzè where all those people in that crowd were. We knew our church people were safe: one family was at his parents' house and the others were with family members. He said probably a lot of them had nowhere to go and were just sitting in the little park by the rum factory. Of course I thought about the two little boys holding hands and wondered.
Our little neighborhood seemed extra quiet and peaceful. There was less gunfire, and Zèzè and I sat in the front of the house until after 10 o'clock. I asked him about the Bible verse that says if you have faith, you can move a mountain into the sea. What does that verse mean for Haiti? How can we keep faith that God could easily end all this? How do we trust that he really does love this little island country and all of its suffering people?
After we came in, I turned on my string of Christmas lights in the living room, even though they use a ton of electricity. We sang together for a long time, and one of the songs was about mountains. "Quietly, he lifts the mountain, gently carries it away, and without a splash or ripple, makes it vanish neath the wave..."
Quietness is what Haiti longs for. A gentle solution to all this - the opposite of a big splash or explosion of violence where the innocent people always suffer the most.
Zèzè said maybe God could make the gangsters drink contaminated water and they could all get cholera. You never know.
I woke up this morning just before it got light. A single bird was chirping and that was the only sound. No gunfire. It seemed almost strange and I tried to remember when I had last heard a bird. I wondered why was it singing in the dark.
When I woke up again, it was to the sound of a truck engine, and someone banging on the gate. One of dad-in-law's cousins needing a place to park his huge delivery van. He had a depressing story to tell.
He lives closes to the base of the Chen Mechan gang, and a group of 400 Mawozo have been hiding in that area. They took over a house close to him as a base. He'd see them looking down over the neighborhood from the second story, and once when he walked by, the gate was open a few inches and there was a guy with a gun guarding it. He has a pretty large boutik, a little corner store that sells pantry staples.
This morning the gangsters broke into his house and held him and his son at gunpoint. His wife was thankfully staying with family some other place. They demanded all the money he had in the house, and almost refused to believe it when he had given it all to them. Then they asked for his gun. He didn't have a gun, and they kept saying they would kill him if he didn't give it to them. He finally convinced them he didn't have a gun, and managed to flee the property with his son in his truck.
This story made us fairly nervous because of how much they seemed to know about this man. Of course we know the gangs have spies everywhere. And Zèzè and I have a big house which would make us a perfect target for the same scenario if they managed to invade our neighborhood.
Zèzè went to work for a few hours, and left me with some neighbor guys who were cleaning up in the yard. When he came back the first thing he said was , "I'm calling your dad. You need to get out of this area because my family is in danger and I can't protect you and also take care of them. I don't know when I can even take you to the doctor again, and you need to leave the country."
Before he was finished explaining the situation to my dad, his little brother was knocking on the door. The rest of his siblings were right behind. They had left Blanchard this morning with a huge crowd of people, just like the others did the day before, and walked all the way to our house. The worst part was that dad-in-law had stayed behind.
Zèzè left right away to go get his dad and brother on the motorcycle. I started packing, while praying for his safety. And the rest sat on the couch and loudly discussed the situation. This morning they had made a huge pot of spaghetti with hot chocolate for themselves and the other family that they were supposed to be sheltering. They didn't have time to eat it, nor did they seem interested in food anymore. A few had backpacks and someone had grabbed all their passports. But that was all.
Thankfully, they let Zèzè back into the Blanchard neighborhood because he was raised there and a lot of people recognized him. There are a lot of Chen Mechan gang members living in that area, and they were all out with their guns. The local police were out too, along with whatever backup they could get. Many men from the neighborhood had stayed behind to guard the streets with machetes and long knives. You can't imagine how much they hate the 400 Mawozo gang. And I do hope so very much that they can protect that neighborhood. I'm very glad that all our family is out of there. So far I haven't heard a lot of news from the rest of people in the congregation.
I had my bag packed and dad had a plane ticket for me by the time Eliezer got back. It all happened so quickly, yet it felt like dejavu somehow. Like we had always known this would happen and there was nothing to do but continue on with the inevitable.
On the way to the airport we passed our cousin with the boutik. He was sitting on the sidewalk talking to someone and still looked a bit dazed. This morning he was a business owner with a way to take care of his family. Now what does he have? If the gangsters need supplies, they will just raid his little store. And now he has no money to buy new inventory.
We ate sandwiches at a little gas station by the airport. And one last Haitian coke that this baby in my belly loves so much. I cried so much in the airport line that all the Haitian ladies around me in the line asked what the matter was. Haitians hate to see tears. They said they were sorry, and that I should be strong for the baby.
And I'm trying to be strong for the baby and for all my Haitian family and friends that are so relieved that I'm leaving because it's one less person to worry about. They don't know what it's like to be the one person that is safe when everyone else is in danger. But this time that is my battle to fight. Goodness knows they have their own battles that are big enough. Or maybe we're all fighting the same battle, just in different ways.
I always wondered what it would be like to live through a war. Maybe this situation can't totally be compared to wars where there is bombing and whole countries are attacking each other. But I imagine it feels somewhat the same.
The interesting thing is how time slows down in a crisis. You notice the little things. How the minister's beard is getting overgrown and your brother-in-law needs a haircut. Actually all the men seem extra hairy right now. Priorities. How totally quiet it is in the evenings when the gunfire stops for awhile. The bright colors of the gangsters' bandanas. The exquisite taste of strawberry ice cream and Coca Cola. A blurry picture of two little boys running, holding hands. The soft light on your husband's face as you sing together on the couch. The smell of a cinnamon vanilla candle. The chirp of a single bird in the early morning hours. How the couch sags under the weight of so many people unceremoniously dumped in your living room. The girls' mismatched clothes and headscarves. The little lurches of the precious baby growing in your belly. The tiny maze of crowded Port au Prince streets, guarded by mountains on every side, as the plane takes off and you leave it all behind.
Maybe a crisis puts your senses on high alert. Or maybe you just truly feel how temporary and fragile this life is. How you could be in the next group, running into the street, spending the night in a little park with nowhere safe to go. You could be the next one asking a distant family member for a place to park your car. Your cozy house with the burning cinnamon vanilla candle could be the next gangster base tomorrow. And the bullet that hit your gate could have hit any of your many precious family members instead.
There is no place like Haiti. Even now on the plane, I hear soft gospel music in French, coming from somewhere in front of me, and my bysitter sings along. I smell something familiar, and see that across the aisle, a little girl is eating rice from a Tupperware container. As we stand to get up, this plane has the atmosphere of a giant metal tap tap. Everyone is having one last discussion about the situation in Port au Prince. "This country cannot stay like this. No. Things are too exaggerated." And I know that I wouldn't trade my life that has become so entwined with this island for anyone else's. No. Never.
We get off the plane into a world that just doesn't understand. Haiti is a small place, half of a little island in the Caribbean, populated by a race of people that has been exploited throughout history. I know the world is large and full of problems right now. We must trust that God sees, even when the rest of humanity forgets.
They say that time makes things fade, and maybe this will someday be a distant blurry memory. Maybe we will all forget the leering gangster guarding the burned corpse, the days of endless machine gun fire, the endless discussions about the news.
I hope I do always remember my husband helping me make lunch with my "fancy" potato peeler, the lazy mornings spent singing and drinking hot chocolate, and how eating strawberry ice cream with Coca-Cola on a Sunday evening can make you feel like the luckiest person around.
But life in general is so bittersweet, with incredible moments scattered amid other moments that seem way too hard. This gangster war is part of our story. And I think it deserves to be remembered. And that is why there are two bullets tucked away in the drawer of my nightstand. The Lord willing, someday I will show them to this child I am carrying. I will say, "You lived through a war before you were born. Your daddy and I were strong for you. Also, you gave me a reason to hope."
That kitchen sink full of dirty dishes
I want to wash them.
I want to clean out all the cupboards
Feel the satisfaction
Of throwing away
All that clutter.
The floors are dirty too.
So is the bathroom.
I want to eat the bean sauce
I left in the fridge.
Make cinnamon rolls for you
One last time.
Savor the last few handfuls
Of chocolate chips and marshmallows
For afternoon snacks.
Finish the loaf of whole wheat bread
You bought especially for me.
I want to water the plants
We planted together
Just last week.
To pick the tiny eggplants
By next Sunday they will be ready.
On the vine by the trash pile
Is almost ripe.
I was going to make soup tomorrow
With the one on the counter.
I just want more of us.
More late night chats under the stars.
More songs in the mornings.
More hot chocolate.
More fried egg sandwiches.
I was not finished.