MAY 18 – Haitian National Flag Day: Can You Celebrate When Independence is Being Stepped On?

Posted on May 18, 2010

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Haitian National Flag Barely Surviving in the Rubble

  

“The 18th of May?” said Annette “So Ann” Auguste, a singer and supporter of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who turned her Port-au-Prince home into a shelter for quake victims. “What do I have to celebrate” when “independence today is being stepped on?”

 

As Haiti looks forward, it looks back at its birth

Haitians will mark the birth of a nation, even in a difficult time.

BY JACQUELINE CHARLES
jcharles@MiamiHerald.com

ARCAHAIE, Haiti — Its red and blue colors have long symbolized strength, the coming together of two separate groups of freedom fighters, joining forces in their quest to become the first independent black nation.

Now as Haiti prepares to honor its beginning, the 207th anniversary of the flag that has long symbolized its strength — L’Union Fait La Force — the nation finds its people struggling to reclaim their identity in the midst of handouts, foreign troops and an uncertain future.

“The independence of Haiti is the symbol for the dignity of man, black men in particular,” said Dr. Georges Michel, a Haitian historian who helped draft Haiti’s current constitution. “Flag Day must be celebrated even if we have an occupation of a polyglot of foreign troops.”

Four months after the 7.0-magnitude quake, the Haitian government, along with international aid groups, struggle to clear public plazas and private land of an estimated 1.5 million victims. Other challenges include organizing elections for a new president and parliament against a backdrop of increasing demonstrations, and keeping budding frustrations at bay.

“The 18th of May?” said Annette “So Ann” Auguste, a singer and supporter of exiled former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who turned her Port-au-Prince home into a shelter for quake victims. “What do I have to celebrate” when “independence today is being stepped on?”

But for every mixed emotion over commemorating Flag Day, there are also pockets of pride over its dawning, especially in Arcahaie, a town of 102,000, 29 miles north of the ravaged capital.

Largely spared the destruction of its neighbors, the city is nevertheless feeling the effects of the quake.

Town leaders estimate that 10 percent to 15 percent of Arcahaie’s buildings, many of them more than a century old, were damaged or destroyed.

One is St. Francois d’Sales Catholic school, where students attend classes in an annex constructed from pieces of cardboard and used University of Miami banners. The century-old school building is uninhabitable, Sister Jeanne Jean said.

“It’s with a lot of difficulty that we are trying to ensure that the students don’t lose the school year,” she said.

Like most people in this sleepy coastal town, Sister Jeanne can’t say with certainty how many people fled to Arcahaie after the disaster. What she does know, she said, is that a lot are here — even if the town is absent of the tent cities that blanket Port-au-Prince.

“We received dozens of requests,” she said of parents wanting to enroll their children, adding that the overcrowded school could only take 12 more students.

But even with those pressures, Patrick Delatour, the government minister leading Haiti’s reconstruction efforts, sees a chance for Arcahaie to return to its former glory as the place that developed the whole coffee plantation system and as the one-time capital of the British occupation of Haiti.

Maybe so, say residents, but it will take more than wishful thinking to help this region where the first flag was sewed to once again play a leading role in Haitian history.

“Arcahaie is stacked with problems,” said Father Bichara Délisca, whose century-old Roman Catholic church and rectory were both badly damaged. “ The health center can’t meet the people’s needs; there are no professional schools; there aren’t enough grade schools.”

Still, the town hasn’t done all that bad, he and the mayor concede. As workers gave City Hall and the church a quick face-lift last week, the place was abuzz with talk of a new market to replace the one shattered in the quake.

President René Préval, who will join Haitian and foreign dignitaries in the modern public square for a celebration on Tuesday, recently sent a generator for the local health clinic and bags of cement for Délisca, who sleeps in a tent in the rectory’s yard. A new road being built by the government has led to the rediscovery of a coffee plantation, colonial homes, and Fort Drouet, among dozens of forts built after the revolution to keep out French invaders.

Days before Flag Day, a festive mood enveloped the town as residents cleaned in front of their doors, konpa music filled the air and giggling teens looked on as workers built a concert stand in the square.

Mayor Jean-Yvon Nestor said while the town can always use more help, it has done well by both Préval and Aristide, who built several modern structures including the dome-shaped City Hall and a monument dedicated to flagmaker Catherine Flon, the Betsy Ross of Haiti.

Nestor acknowledges that while the veil of grief shrouding a post-quake Haiti is nothing to celebrate, his small town’s giant place in history is.

“We will glorify it, and put flowers at the foot of the monument,” he said, referring to a marble hexagon figure depicting the various colors of the Haitian flags over the years.

“We may be materially poor, but spiritually, we are rich,” said Michel, the historian.

“The worth of Haiti is not in the materials, it’s a spiritual one and it’s an intangible asset.”