Joint Winner of the Letter Review Prize for Short Stories. Features: Themes of violence, warfare.
February 13, 2022 | The Before
I leave Alaska for Haiti in twelve days. I will be in Cité Soleil, abidonville of Port-au-Prince. I find myself here again, sucked by the swell of opposing forces. I crave home and stability yet outward I go, clutching Dr. Seuss, traveling beyond my edges. Your mountain is waiting, so get on your way!
Always, the growing pains of leaving comfort tear fiercely in the days before, trying to unstitch my tendons. The days when I anticipate long hours in the heat. When I don’t know if I will do a good job. When I am scared. When I wonder who the hell I think I am. You’ve done this before. You stood on the mountain. You can do this again.
Secretly, I am proud of myself. It will forever feel surreal: I get to go to Haiti as the medical manager of an Emergency Room project with Doctors Without Borders! What!? I dance alone in the kitchen when I first find out, happy and strange, wondering where the woman will come from that will do this thing. I still feel like the mighty pretender mouse, as I do before each nursing assignment to a foreign-for-me world.
My cabin is a cyclone of time inside out, yet I rest a little longer in the eye of my old yellow couch inhaling the breath of coffee. The fire is hissing and the sky is dumping steady streams of lace that cling to everything I love. This is the moment of greatest bravery. Do not run back to safer places, they are no longer meant for you. You will not stay comfortable. You cannot. Also, pack your French press.
March 1, 2022 | The Beginning
I call this the toughening. The part where I come in soft as dough, white as milk, and begin to sweat. The part where I pour bug dope on my swollen legs and force myself to wash. every. night. Where I dose Vitamin C and wear linen and feel a heat rash trail across my clavicles. Where I listen from my mosquito net to the hustle of the night; shouts and screeching, accelerating motos and barking dogs. Shielded by truck and brick as I move through the frenzy of often acute poverty — it’s the part I appreciate now. In the long long ago, I tore at my rib cage and screamed the world in, but now I like the cathedral of tall compound walls, their glass-shard gargoyles unmoving behind coils of wire.
I know nothing yet. But already snap-snap-click I am sorting the pieces. I am memorizing the project’s medical criteria. I am realizing I do speak French. I am morphing into the dragon, invoking a belly of fire. I go tomorrow to Cité Soleil, the largest slum in the Western Hemisphere, a place where gang fighting rages, and it will start to change me. I will have only days to pick up a country, a context, a people, a culture, and a project before I start to make decisions, before my choices fall precariously on the scales of life and death.
I am told in my security briefings that the stress level of the local medical staff is constant. One I will know little of because my Haiti will be only the hospital and our quarters beside it. There are mountains between us; I have never lived in a war. Walk gently. This is three months to me. This is a career and everyday reality for the people I’ll supervise. Remember, you know nothing. These are the dispatches from my second night in Haiti. Tomorrow I go to the heart of the world.
March and April 2022 | The Middle
In the space between Port-au-Prince and the Gulf of Gonâve, territory battles in Cité Soleil are becoming more and more frequent, beginning to divide north from south. Wounded patients arrive in larger numbers now. Many die. We can hear gun fire from the ER, the dinner table, and our rooms at night. It is dangerous for the Haitian staff and our patients to travel to the hospital, navigating hushed streets, the crush of the ordinary, the staccato of fear.
On uncertain days I wear my running shoes. I like to lay on the floor at night with my palms to the cool cement repinning my heart inside my chest. Breathe one, two, three. Out one, two, three. This isn’t about you. I try to remember, the most important thing is to listen, but sometimes I am brash, shocked, wounding.
For the first time I don’t know how to stay professional and start to weep on the third day of the first month and cannot stop. This is not for me this is not for me this is not for me I chant, stumbling around, tripping on language and culture and collapse of the healthcare system and the intricacies of ever-shifting turf wars between hundreds of gangs fighting over land and spraying lost bullets, balles perdues, among the people. I have worked as a nurse with Doctors Without Borders since 2014 — Haiti is my sixth field assignment -but still I was unprepared for the impossible conditions in Cité Soleil, and most of all for the fact that patients in our ER needed far more than we could provide. They needed life.
The public hospitals are on strike. I spend my days on the phone, looking for a receiving private hospital for critically wounded patients, trying to refer life or death cases that the Doctors Without Borders trauma hospital cannot take on, such as patients with brain injuries. Everyone else is also trying to find a place for the ones they love, or the lives in their care. It is disparate. Desperate. There are more patients than beds. There are more patients than beds.
The fighting in Cité Soleil south is intensifying, neighborhood by neighborhood, street by street. We hear rumors that those in the south are becoming increasingly trapped due to conflict and ever shifting front lines. There are people with no food. There are people with no water.
There is a disorientation here, a sense that the winds are shifting so fast I cannot learn the context necessary to anchor. Who is fighting who and where and why seems to change almost daily. There is brutality here, born from generations of unimaginable struggle, poverty, and a subsequent culture of fierce protest. I work and sleep in thick walls but many people in Cité Soleil do not. Theirs is an open land of tin and cloth, mostly treeless, low, with little shelter from lost bullets
History | The Beginning of Now
In 1697 the island of Hispaniola was divided between the Spanish and the French. The Spanish took what is now the Dominican Republic. The French ruled what is now the Republique d’Haiti, once the richest colony in the world.
The hospital staff I work with tell me things really started to get worse in 2017 and 2018. What were only a dozen or so gangs in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s have grown into armies, over 200 of them. Some specialize in weapons, others in drugs, others are known for kidnapping. In 2018 the government stopped subsidizing fuel, leading to mass protests and gang seizure of a key fuel depot. After the assassination of President Jovenel Moise in 2021, the unravelling accelerated: inter-gang conflict became even more intense, which players controlled which of the country’s assets became more and more critical.
Haiti is carved into held territories. There are multiple front lines, redrawn almost daily. Neighborhoods are emptied, then filled. Roadblocks are stacked, then burned. People go on between bullets, hungry for food, love, knowledge, dreams. All manner of people doing all manner of things go on.
April 4, 2022 | The After
We were just evacuated and suspended medical activities. We cannot keep our patients and staff safe unless all can access the hospital, unbarred. A father is dead.
I am in a fancy hotel on mini-break that was already scheduled, and a golden-feathered bird is pecking pineapple under the table. I write, frantic to record, about the worlds I am in, but everything I say is a lie because I have lost all truth here. Even from this oasis under the French oaks on the edge of Petionville, I can hear bullets at night.
I breakfast in the balcony corner, shaded by big trees and am served drinks by polite waiters in matching yellow shirts. The hotel speakers play a loop of soft love songs, La Vie en rose, life in pink. Pink. I imagine the froth of saliva mixed with blood. I imagine cheeks and brains and intestines and hearts. I imagine the color of roses. I know I am unwell.
What the fuck: the pool has a bar. Just outside, they are dying.
I asked not only for Pepsi on ice but also for a cappuccino and now I am drinking both. I tipped the normal day’s wage in Haiti as if that would absolve me from my sin of being here. I feel the shame of skin as I hand the bills to someone who likely rode a tap tap through unstable streets just to get here. I am judge and jury with a cigarette gavel. Guilty of being. They don’t know I just came from the wail of an ER in Cité Soleil. I don’t know what neighborhood they left this morning, or the names of friends they have lost. I want this to make us the same. It doesn’t.
I think of how I must look, surrounded by my border of whiteness, pulling bug spray from my backpack, sitting by the pool with my two drinks, scribbling, crisping from the outside in. I’m not like the others, I am not here to tour, not here to take. No, it is not for anyone else to atone me.
Discomfort is right: may it be so. We all know I did not bleed. We all know I will not stay. Oh! The places you’ll go! Maybe I, too, came to take.
…Quand il me prend dans ses bras / Qu’il me parle tout bas / Je vois la vie en rose…
When he takes me in his arms…
I will think of her forever. A truck backed up to the ambulance bay and it took me a moment to realize that she was barely breathing. It was more like a whisper, the pause too long. Agonal. She was resting in the arms of her husband, in the back of the truck, waiting for us to bring them in.
I sprinted for the on-duty surgeon. He came out: went back in. What? Qu’est-ce que nous faisons? I don’t want to give them false hope, he said.
This is what war looks like: a pregnant woman is burned to death by an explosion and no one even tries for her.
This is what war looks like: evil of inaction. And the good know that they have lost all righteousness.
She was worthy. Worthy of oxygen, worthy of breath, worthy of false false fake as fuck hope.
I will forever regret not heaving her out of the truck and breathing for her anyway. It would have been for him.
I sat outside on the cement stoop and began to see blurry as the truck rolled back into the street, his arms still a circle. Go home ye do gooders. I chant form to invisible whips that flagellate me still. It’s ferocious, isn’t it? Go home to what you understand.
Sacred medical ethos: first, do no harm. Have we done that?
I come from hospitals where we code the already dead and grandma doesn’t get to die in her living room. Where life is prolonged without consent and with little regard to quality. I come from the land of try too hard for the family and the legal chart, not for the patient’s comfort. Is it better? Is it perhaps, to quiet our own demons?
I am typing this as I argue about my bill. (I want to stand on the pool chairs, I want to scream her.) I hope that other people don’t hear me arguing about money with an American accent. I was charged double. That is ridiculous, I say.
I am also ridiculous, I want to say. I am sorry for being here, out of the fire and into a purple swimsuit. I am sorry I am drinking fancy coffee while I write about a burned woman whose name I didn’t learn. I’m sorry I had to leave Cité Soleil. But mostly, I am sorry for every person on the island who wants to fly away and can’t. I am also sorry for how stupid that sounds, I know there are many who live well, it’s just that I didn’t see them.
I am sorry I dishonor the color and beauty and culture of Haiti by recording this tiny slice of war in the only dot on the map I walked upon. Yet.
How are we so far from the end? Haiti is on fire. The ocean is outside our hands.
Almost anyone in Port-au-Prince who wants to avoid lost bullets on their way to work or to school will not have the means to legally leave. Every day, people take a desperate chance across turquoise water, trying to get to Miami. I will lay-over there next week, dazed and duty free, because my bosses have decided I am to leave. This is the border over which our hands brush as I take my second coffee. This is the chasm between our solemn eyes when my mouth smiles at the waiter and his mouth smiles back. Merci, shapes the lips of the one who leaves, de rien, it was nothing, says the one who stays.
Janna Wagner is an MFA candidate at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop. She has been a nurse with Doctors Without Borders since 2014 and writes from her home base at the end of the road in Homer, Alaska. Janna’s essay’s have been published in Spectrum Literary Journal, Yellow Arrow Journal, Exposition Review, and others.
Original Artwork Supplied by Art Director Kita Das