On a seaside road winding north of Port-au-Prince, two cars separate us from a brightly-painted bus trundling along the dusty strip of gravel. One by one they overtake the bus, their white roofs carrying with them a white burst of sunshine in the midday heat.
We move closer to the back of the bus, slowly changing gears, and get to within a few metres before we saw it. Him.
There was a man. Dangling. Wedged between the back door of the bus and the ladder that carries luggage and the occasional passenger to sit on the roof.
His head and his arms were limp and his feet were dragging and bumping grotesquely along the road.
Someone in the car with me screamed. The driver pushed his fist into the car’s horn to try to attract the bus driver’s attention. I rolled down my back window, hoisted myself up onto the sill of the door and started waving frantically at the passengers on the roof. They saw me but didn’t seem to react. I shouted and screamed at them but my noise was lost in the backward rushing air.
We pulled alongside the driver and he looked at us but ignored my signal to pull over. Pulling back into the right lane we slowed down and the bus eventually stopped. We all jumped out and raced to the back. The man was still there. His eyes closed; his forehead dented against the yellow paint of the bus.
We lifted him out of his entanglement and lowered him gently onto the road. We tried to look for signs of life. There were none.
The passengers started to get off the bus. I was struck by what seemed like their feeling of annoyance and mild curiosity rather than surprise or horror. It was as if a flat tyre had interrupted their journey, not this.
Luckily, and in one of those coincidences that seem only to happen in times of already great drama, a truck driving in the opposite direction slammed on the brakes as it passed. A man jumped out and shouted a doctor’s introduction. The rest of us stood back, amateurs relieved to have been absolved of the responsibilities of further action.
The doctor, whose name I didn’t get but whose presence I was so thankful for, tended gently to the man for a few minutes. And then: a flicker. The man’s eyelids fluttered for a tiny second before shutting down again. We lifted him into the truck. The doctor told us he had to rush: the man would either be dead in an hour or he would likely survive. We took his number and promised to call later.
What does it mean, to die, in a place like Haiti? What matters one life so soon after hundreds of thousands of others lose theirs in one fell swoop? The passengers’ nonchalance to this event seemed to suggest that one more – one more unknown – wasn’t worth worrying about after all they’d seen and felt and grieved.
Stalin once said that while one death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic. And even though I’m witnessing the immediate aftermath of the ‘million’ (or one-fifth of, at least) every single day here, to see what appeared to be that one singular death, as it happened, has affected me on a level that is the only thing I can compare to those who, on January 12, saw that very thing: the death of a human in action.
It chilled me to the bone. I can still see the limp body with his feet bounding on the road: one bouncing in a soiled grey trainer, the other, dragging, bare and bloodied.
We called the doctor this evening. The man will live. We still don’t know how he got there, into his gruesome perch. But those of us who were in the car together felt a connection in this news. Not just relief, or thanks. But it somehow matters, in the context of the death and destruction we’re living with here, that we didn’t just witness another tragedy.
In a way, I guess, we may have helped to avert one. And isn’t that why we’re here?