Lessons Unlearned in Haiti As Memory of the Earthquake Fades

Five years ago on Jan. 12, my friend Charles had just left his office in Port-au-Prince when the 7 magnitude earthquake hit. Once he learned that his wife and children were safe, he ran to find his sister at her university. What he saw, he says, will forever be engraved in his memory. The building had collapsed and all he could see were rocks, slabs of concrete, and dust. He heard the screams of people inside the building as well as those standing outside. That night and across the next few days he was able to save dozens of people as he looked for his sister. But Charles never found her. Five years later, he still dreams about one day seeing his sister walk through the door alive.

Millions of people like Charles were affected by the earthquake in Haiti and more than one million were displaced, forced to live in tents. Haitians put their lives on the line to save complete strangers with their bare hands or minimal equipment. Then the international community came in very fast and was able to save thousands of lives through clearing rubble, distributing massive amounts of food, and providing doctors and nurses that treated and saved millions of people.

While the rest of the world commemorates the earthquake, in Haiti the situation is very different. On Jan. 12, 2015, Haiti's long game of electoral brinksmanship will run out as the parliament dissolves, leaving President Michel Martelly with a constitutional mandate to rule by decree. It will be a day of political controversy rather than a day when we, as a people, remember our collective pain from the earthquake, or when we, as a country, promise to do our part to prevent this scale of devastation from happening again.

The lack of commemoration is indicative of Haitian attitudes toward the tragedy.

Today, most of the rubble has been cleared and the majority of people who were living in big tent cities are back in small housing. The schools and health care systems that were hit the hardest are slowly being rebuilt. Even though international construction companies like Miyamoto have opened offices in Haiti, not enough people are using their expertise as the majority cannot afford their services. Many of the new houses are being built without respect to building codes, as if Haitians have learned nothing from the killer quake. Many prefer to believe that God will protect them and will prevent another quake in Haiti, so they can live their lives as usual without thinking about the future. Or they expect the international community to always be there to save the country. The U.N. Security Council plans to visit Haiti later this month to press for new elections, but it is unclear if Haiti's political leaders will listen.

This mentality goes beyond the earthquake. The problems we face in Haiti are numerous. There are thousands of Haitians who lack access to clean water or an education which are among the most basic rights. Water-borne diseases are one of the leading causes of death for infants and children. More than half of the population (59 percent) is still living on less than $2 a day. To cope with these problems, we have a population that tends to put their faith in God. Because of the political instability and the economic situation, many people have learned to take life a day at a time. But this needs to change if we want to see Haiti grow and prosper and become the "Pearl of the Antilles" once again.

Even though billions of dollars were raised and spent in Haiti as emergency response, the funds pledge for the recovery phase have not materialized as promised. We need to put more pressure on the international community to commit to their pledges for Haiti's reconstruction. But, more importantly, if we want to see Haitian people be safe in the future, we must put politics aside and do something ourselves. The government, the parliament, the press, civil society, and the people -- including myself -- need to come together to find a solution for Haiti to prevent another natural catastrophe or our internal conflicts from destroying us.

We can start by educating people on how to protect themselves in case of a natural catastrophe and reminding them it is necessary since the island lies on top of two major fault lines. We can continue by helping people remember the hundreds of thousands of people that have died -- the nightmares that families had to endure -- by creating the memorial that was originally planned but never built. There we can pay our respect to those that passed away.

We also need to create a day of remembrance. Even though my country is in the middle of political turmoil, Jan. 12th should have been reserved as a day when we think about our past to preserve our future. It is too late to change the agenda of such an important day now, but I ask my government to pledge that on the January 12ths of the years to come they will allow us to pay our respects and ensure that the memory of all those that have died -- and all the families who are still mourning -- are honored.

The 2010 quake was too devastating for my country for the population to forget. Yes, it is painful to remember, but too many times in Haiti we forget the lessons of the past and are therefore unfortunately called to relive them over and over. It is time for this to change. We need to stop, remember, and say to ourselves: never again.