In Haiti's shattered capital, metal scavengers take to the streets

In Port-au-Prince, Haiti, recovery is ongoing and any sense of normal life is still being pursued. To that end, foraging for metal to sell has become a common pursuit for villagers.
By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010

PORT-AU-PRINCE, HAITI -- They pound concrete. Smash it over and over. Smash it until it powders.

The pounding starts at dawn, when the men with the calloused hands crawl by the hundreds, antlike, over and into the ruins of this broken city, from the toppled old market-houses on the Grand Rue to the humbled schoolhouses of the central city, from the shattered shacks along the waterfront to the crumpled mansions up the hill. You hear them before you see them. Heavy hammers tapping out a beat.

Concrete played the villain's role in the Jan. 12 earthquake drama that savaged Haiti's capital. The city's dominant building material was weak when it should have been strong. The men with the hammers hit the stuff hard, as if exacting a kind of communal revenge, pulverizing a symbol of failure in a search for something more trustworthy.

Embedded in all that concrete are countless tons of steel and iron, there for the taking. Long rods of it, short planks of it. Sprawling, arching loops of it. Metal twisted, but still of value, still suitable to be melted down in China or some other faraway land with the money and means to turn pieces of Haiti into something new. The metal is everywhere. So much of it that Port-au-Prince should be a wonderland for the metal scavengers, the Caribbean conduits for an international scrap-metal market.

Should be.

The metal doesn't come easily, even with hands as strong as Fritz Mesca's. Mesca, a 28-year-old with a wide, flat nose and a worry-lined face that makes him look much older, leads a small band of scavengers. Each morning, they survey the cityscape for opportunity. Sometimes the prospecting takes hours, interrupted by false starts and demoralizing setbacks. Some days, his stumbles come in the form of police shooing him away, accusing him of looting. Sometimes it's rival scavengers, laying claim to entire buildings, even though there's plenty for all.

One time, the youngest of Mesca's three-man crew -- a puckish 14-year-old named Pyrus Jean Rousier -- tried to stand up to a territorial metal man. The sore spot on Rousier's upper right arm is a reminder of that encounter -- the claim was staked with a fist. "He was a big, big guy," Rousier says one afternoon. "It really hurts."

On this day, though, Mesca, Rousier and their friend Wilio Petit-Home find an uncontested hunting ground. And what a spot! A collapsed hardware store holding a trove of metal, not only embedded in the concrete but wedged beneath it. The rumbling earth left the structure a mere skeleton -- brick walls and arches intact -- but the meat of the place collapsed into a lumpy heap of cracked concrete and contorted rebar.

Mesca crushes concrete slabs with heavy hammers and wrests the metal out, straining to rip it away. The concrete, though too flimsy to stand during the quake, clings stubbornly to the metal treasures, unwilling to give them up without a fight. Mesca works so furiously that a concrete dust cloud forms, turning his face ashy white, like the ash-covered office workers fleeing the fallen towers on Sept. 11, 2001.

A fire charred the fallen building where the scavengers work. So when Petit-Home, a 26-year-old with a wispy mustache and sleepy, heavy-lidded eyes, clears a patch of concrete from the upper reaches of the collapsed building, he pulls out a curious sight. There in his hands rests a weighty, basketball-size lump of nails fused together in their bins by the heat into a grotesque form resembling a metallic porcupine. A big score.

Mesca works in bare feet -- his soles sturdier than any tattered flip-flops. He rakes debris with his fingers, sifting handfuls of the concrete he batters for nails and screws. Before the earthquake, Mesca roamed the fetid shoreline of Port-au-Prince's bay and combed its side streets for discarded metal. There were days when he found nothing worth selling. On this day, he finds so much, he's run out of room in the heavy bags he's brought along to carry his haul.

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