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

By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 29, 2010; C01

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.

Petit-Home shreds an umbrella he's found into fabric strips that he twists into ties to close his bags of metal. Mesca starts collecting tools, but stops abruptly. He stands and calls out in a loud voice: "Where's the saw?"

He and Mesca all turn to Rousier, who shrinks under their glare, confessing he let another scavenger -- someone he'd never met -- borrow it. While they were distracted by tying the bags, the man -- a graying fellow with a kindly smile -- slipped over the back wall of the shop, and disappeared.

Rousier, nervously, begins to laugh. The saw was his responsibility. Mesca rages at him, but it's hard to stay mad at Rousier long.

"Just because you have pretty teeth doesn't mean you have to laugh!" Mesca says, pointing at Rousier's surprisingly glistening smile. Mesca's own teeth are stained and chipped, but Rousier was blessed with straight, bright choppers and parents who were not so poor that they couldn't afford toothbrushes.

Rousier tries changing the subject. Faintly, he says, "My heart is hurting. I'm tired. I'm hungry. I haven't had anything to eat since this morning." His pals don't even look up.

Out on the street, they assemble their loot: three heavy, waist-high bags of metal and a gangly pile of rusted rebar and scraps. It's too unwieldy to carry, so they wait in the shade of a building with Doric columns, now only a shell, a relic of pre-earthquake Port-au-Prince, but one with an air of shabby dignity. Twenty minutes pass before a spindly man comes along pushing a wheelbarrow. He agrees to be their hauler.

Rousier trudges alongside the overstuffed wheelbarrow. He struggles with a half-dozen six-foot-long bands of rebar slung over his right shoulder, flopping dangerously on the crowded street. He can't help but look around, distracted by the vendors selling cooking oil and the mashed vegetable stew called "legume," the rum stands and the ubiquitous lottery shops where impoverished Haitians place tiny quixotic bets. A woman bends at the waist, just avoiding being slashed by Rousier's bars. She yells at him and he drops his load.

The street clogs with tap-taps, the top-heavy, wildly painted pickup trucks with covered benches welded on the back. These serve as this city's main form of public transportation. Each is painted with a message, often in foot-tall letters: "Thank you Jesus," "Man proposes, God disposes," "God of Love," "Mercy."

Ten feet more and Rousier drops his load again.

They pass smoldering garbage piles, where rotting fruit mixes with burning plastic, kicking off a toxic haze.

Rousier drops his load for the third time. Finally the wheelbarrow guy comes to his rescue, heaping Rousier's tangle of rebar on top of an already wobbly pile.

An hour of stops and starts later, they wearily pull off along the roadside, where 20-foot-high piles of metal stretch the length of a typical city block. There's hollow tubing, metal boxes, girders, door frames, posts, window grates, scaffolding, a lacy screen door, a fan, a purple bicycle frame. Smaller piles conjure Gothic public art, abstract forms that take on emotional power.

To weigh the metal, the owner of this enterprise, a sour 24-year-old woman with a do-rag on her head and named Christa Rene, has dangled the screen of an electric frame, now serving as a weighing tray, from a swing set. The swing set balances on cinder blocks to get extra height. She will send the metal to a plant several miles away, where it will be compacted, stuffed into cargo containers and loaded onto ships.

The weighing and negotiating do not go well for Mesca's crew, who worked six hours in wilting heat to get to this point. Mesca is illiterate, and Rene's calculations confuse him. She imposes rules he's never heard of: less money for the first 60 kilos than the second, less money for the nails. Always less money. Bewildered, Mesca accepts her offer: 420 Haitian gourdes, the equivalent of $12. It's only two-thirds what he would have made before the quake, when there was less supply but the same demand.

And he won't keep much of it. The missing saw, borrowed from a friend, is going to cost him $2. The wheelbarrow guy gets $2. That leaves about $4 for Mesca, and $2 each for Rousier, Petit-Home and a fourth member of their crew who had to leave before they packed up. As soon as the money is in his hands, Mesca spends the equivalent of 50 cents -- one-eighth of his payday -- on an armful of plastic pouches of water, his first refreshment of the day. The temperature tops 90 degrees, but the water evokes cooler climes -- it's called Eau de Alaska.

Mesca feels good. He walks another hour to the huge encampment he's called home since the quake destroyed his house, killing his mother, a sister and an aunt. Along the way, he dreams modest dreams. If he could just get a little more money together, he would buy a motorcycle and start a sidewalk business selling clothes. But he knows the money he made today will be gone within minutes of his arrival. There's a girlfriend and son to support, and relatives to feed. Even though he's making a little, they'll still need handouts from relief groups to survive.

Navigating the labyrinth of tents, he steps past an elderly woman, naked to the waist, soaping herself without a hint of self-consciousness. A vendor sells edible brown patties called "Dirt," a favorite in Haitian slums, made of mud flavored heavily with salt. Finally, he gets to the 10-by-15-foot handmade shack he shares with six relatives, including an infant born to his cousin several hours before the quake. The walls are bedsheets fastened to wooden posts with nails punched through bottle caps. It's a grim existence, but better than their neighbors'. Mesca's door is made of corrugated metal.

God's house, man's sin

It's dusk on Rue St. Martin in Bel Air, a cramped, rough section of downtown Port-au-Prince where the gutters are filled with a gray, oozy slime. Since 7 a.m., Mathurin Lafontant has been picking at the remnants of his church.

Down below, beneath the concrete, lie the bodies of his friends, Rose Amicie Milorne and Issionesse Fontus. Long ago, the faithful gave up trying to find the women. They had been the guiding lights of the small Methodist church's women's association, but their spiritual home is now their grave site.

Lafontant is a tall, thin 47-year-old man with intense black eyes, long arms and long fingers. He and his friend, another churchgoer named Wilbien Valcin, race against the fading light. They've pounded enough concrete to expose 30 feet of intricately laced rebar and metal-support beams, which they hope to stash away before dark.

Using a set of rented pliers, Valcin, a 36-year-old whose toes stick through gaping holes in his high-tops, has spent hours untwisting the metal straps that hold the long strands of rebar to the heavier metal-support beams. It's as if he were deboning an enormous fish.

While they work, Lafontant frets to Valcin that the earthquake was a sign that "Jesus Christ is coming." The men are enraptured by their talk of Judgment Day. They are slow to notice the thickly built man with dreadlocks and a yellow basketball jersey who steps over the broken roof and jumps into the church's courtyard. The new arrival considers the scene before him, pacing with a confident swagger.

"You need to stop!" he says, startling Lafontant and Valcin.

"No, we're not," Lafontant calls down, and keeps tugging.

Within minutes, four other men strut into the churchyard, lining up alongside the man in the basketball jersey. One of them, a stocky shirtless man waving a sloshing plastic cup of clairin -- a clear, highly potent type of rum popular in the city's slums -- clambers onto the roof. He teeters uncertainly, woozy from the drink. Now he's in Lafontant's face.

"You're nothing to the church," the drunk man says. "Nothing! We took care of the church after the earthquake. We're the ones."

A crowd is forming outside the gate. Even the roosters, tied to a post nearby, are riled up. Their crowing competes with the escalating argument.

Another of the interlopers, cutting a lean sinewy figure, points his finger menacingly at Lafontant. His hands are clean and he wears a chunky gold ring, in the style of high school class rings, that says "LOVE." He says his name is Evens. He has a kind of stage presence, and he waits until everyone has stopped to look at him.

"We live in this area," Evens says to Lafontant. "We're going to fight for this metal."

Valcin, sensing trouble, untwists the final metal strap and drags one of eight long strands of steel up the side of the collapsed church, farther from the argument. The drunk man scrambles up after him, brusquely taking hold of the other end of the strand and yanking it out of Valcin's hands.

An official from the church appears from a doorway of the lone building still standing in the small complex. He pleads with the thugs, saying Lafontant and Valcin have been here since early in the morning and deserve the metal they've extracted.

"We can ne-gooo-tiate," Evens says coolly. "We want two pieces."

Lafontant is appalled. Two of the long strands of metal would amount to one-fourth of their treasure, he pleads. His voice shifts from confrontational to conciliatory as it becomes clear to him that he is dealing with neighborhood thugs who might be lethal.

Evens turns to the half-dozen people now watching through the bars on the churchyard's remaining wall.

Calmly, he makes eye contact with each spectator.

"No one around here," he says softly but firmly, "can do anything without my permission."

Flummoxed, Lafontant and Valcin freeze. The man in the basketball jersey mounts the rubble pile with two other men in tow. They reach down, clasping two long metal pieces -- the thugs' cut of the action. They drag the metal away. The drunk man laughs.

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