Witness: Student ID card brings home loss from Haiti's quake

Tue Mar 16, 2010 5:55pm EDT

1 of 5. A man pushes a cart passed the building in Haiti's capital that housed the USA Alphama English School, in Port-Au-Prince, March 8, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Matthew Bigg

Matthew Bigg is the bureau chief for Reuters in Atlanta and covers the U.S. South, politics and national issues. He has had two reporting trips to Haiti since the earthquake in January and also reported from the country when it was hit by a hurricane in 2008. Prior to arriving in the United States in 2006, Matthew spent 10 years covering Africa for Reuters, reporting from 25 countries. In the following story, Matthew describes finding a student ID card at the site of a mass grave and trying to find out what happened to the woman in the picture.

By Matthew Bigg

PORT-AU-PRINCE (Reuters) - A mind-boggling number of people died in Haiti's earthquake but it took a student ID card to turn the bare statistics into a reality for me.

I found the card while reporting at a site in the wilderness outside Port-au-Prince where the government buried more than 120,000 dead in the days after the January 12 disaster.

The bodies were tipped without ceremony from dump trucks into unmarked mass graves. As mechanical diggers churned earth over them, the ID card had somehow remained on the surface.

It read: Mona Fabre, born 24th September, 1983. Student status: current.

Back at my home in Atlanta, the card weighed on my mind.

Who was the woman with braided hair and dark eyes who stared back at the camera? How had she lived and died? Perhaps it would be possible to track down her family, even bring some kind of closure.

The card identified her as a student of the USA Alphama English School. In an effort to find answers, I contacted the e-mail address given on the ID card, explaining that I had information about one of their students. There was no response.

Undeterred, I made time between stories on a return trip to Haiti to try to track the college down. It wasn't easy. There are many private colleges in Port-au-Prince and no one I spoke with had heard of the Alphama school.

On my final day I got lucky. Driving past a building near the center of town I spotted an advert for the school painted onto a wall, complete with an address and cell phone contact.

Ave. Muller is a narrow street, part residential and part commercial, which rolls across low hills. An open sewer runs under one section.

The college was there, but was reduced to rubble. As the ground shook on January 12, its concrete walls had popped open and now its roof almost touched the ground.

At least I knew how Mona Fabre died, or so I thought.

A man answered the college cell phone and said he would come and speak to me. So I waited, sitting on a stool in the shade and watching the street life pass by, amid the rubble.

A DREAM SHATTERED

Eventually not one, but three men arrived together, all leaders of the organization that founded the college.

One was a professor at the main university in the linguistics department, which had also collapsed in the quake. He survived because he was in the library at the time.

The second was an accountant who worked as an elementary school teacher because there was no work in his profession. The third said he learned English in the U.S. army reserves, but had returned home and now made his living as a bodyguard.

They said they had founded the Alphama English School a decade ago to teach English to the Haitian people. From humble beginnings it had grown to an institution with 1,000 part-time students in two buildings, and a third was planned.

Their vision was for something even bigger. Or it had been. Now Alphama was in ruins.

"I don't want to explain how I feel," said Alexandre Odil, staring at the collapsed ruin with tears in his eyes. "We had started something. We hope it's not lost."

All three men plus their families now live in temporary accommodation or in tents, like so many Haitians in the wrecked capital. Getting by day to day is a more immediate priority than teaching English.

"We will restart it one day but it will be a long-term project," Odil said.

Their story was a reminder that the quake took more than simply people. It also shattered plans and dreams.

But what about the students? Thirteen staff members were holding a meeting in the college when the earthquake struck, Odil said. Only three survived. Ten bodies were still trapped inside.

The students, however, studied at the weekend because it was a part-time college. The quake happened on a Tuesday.

Finally, I asked about Mona Fabre. They looked at me blankly. They couldn't recall that particular student and all their records were on computer, buried beneath tons of rubble.

Haiti's president says up to 300,000 people may have died in the quake.

I found Mona's ID card at the barren burial grounds and although I know the chances are slim, I'd like to think that it was picked up from the rubble of her college, that she escaped death and that, along with more than 9 million Haitians, she can still help build a better country from the ruins.

(Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Kieran Murray)

FILED UNDER: