I think many of us are simply overwhelmed by the scale of the human tragedy in Haiti, stunned by the scores of thousands of instant deaths and the tens of thousands dying slowly of injuries and thirst and, if we can be honest here, the years of neglect that predate the earthquake. It is very easy to flinch away from the enormity of this evil. As always happens in such catastrophes, though, there is a smaller, isolated disaster within the larger one that helps bring the human loss into focus: the heavy toll the quake took on the 3,000 United Nations workers who were there, trying to make Haiti a better place. As I write this, there are sixty-one confirmed UN deaths and some 180 missing, the largest single loss of life in the international organization’s sixty-year history.
Among the missing is a young German diplomat named Jan Hausotter, buried, we believe, in the rubble of the UN building in Port-au-Prince. I met Jan through his fiancée, Caroline Demarque, a young Belgian woman who also works for the UN in Haiti. A little more than two years ago, Caroline was studying in the graduate school for international relations at Seton Hall University, just a few blocks from my home in South Orange, New Jersey. We rented our third floor to Caroline and Jan, and quickly became friends. Within a few months, Jan left his job at the UN Security Council to work in the Haiti mission as a political affairs officer, and after Caroline graduated in the summer of 2008 she joined him there.
Even though they had both launched their diplomatic careers, Jan and Caroline wanted to keep a room in our house, just in case “we ever have to evacuate.” We more than kept in touch–on one of their rare shared visits to South Orange, Jan proposed to Caroline upstairs, then came down to announce she had accepted to a boozy party of journalists and artists. Happy toasts all ’round.
I am at least twenty years older than Jan, but our common ground, believe it or not, was a shared affection for westerns. I told him my 11-year-old son had no interest in the genre, that for him everything is Hellboy and anime; while I grew up thinking about confronting the nineteenth century, our kid is growing up with little interest in the past and barely enough attention to spare from video games to know the West is out there. Jan’s jaw dropped. “But westerns are how I see America!” he said.
High Noon was Jan’s kind of movie. What he liked, he said, was the implication that moral action was, in the end, simple. You might ride into a town that was dominated by a sinister gang, or corrupted by callow folk who would not stand up for justice. What you did then was shoot a couple of stubbly guys in worn chaps and ride out, leaving it a better place. Individual moral action was not only possible, it was essential. A mutual friend in South Orange, Allen Barra, author of Inventing Wyatt Earp: His Life and Many Legends, gave Jan an ivory-handled, nickel-plated six gun like the one Doc Holliday carries in Tombstone. Allen knew Jan’s questing idealism well enough to quote Doc’s line when he took on a gunfight Wyatt Earp could not win himself: “I’ll be your huckleberry.”
Jan and Caroline came by to say hey in December, before going back to Europe to arrange the wedding with their families, and they stopped in again when, on separate schedules, they cycled through New York on their way back to Haiti. Jan was last here the Wednesday before the quake, and he spoke yet again of how much he was learning from the Brazilian peacekeeper Luiz Carlos da Costa, the principal deputy special representative of the UN in Haiti and chief of the blue helmets on the ground. Da Costa was born in a favela, and he could walk into any neighborhood in Port-au-Prince and quickly suss out who was in charge and what the real cause of any conflict was.
Jan wanted to develop a similar confidence–he said he still wanted to be assigned to Afghanistan, the ultimate peacekeeping challenge in the world. But Haiti took its toll. A year after being deployed on the island, Jan was no longer asking why men who win political power “refuse to do anything for their people.” He saw Haiti as a struggle, a long, sad struggle. It was better than it had been, there were useful and possibly transformative innovations in governance being introduced; but it wasn’t a simple problem. Certainly not so simple that just shooting Lee Marvin could make it better. But Jan nonetheless believed in the work, and it meant something to try.
When we heard about the quake last Tuesday evening, we e-mailed Jan and Caroline but really didn’t worry too much. By the next morning, when I saw shots of the White Palace lying in ruins, worry began to dog us. I had been to Haiti as a journalist thirty years before, and I knew Port-au-Prince a bit; if that solid colonial pile had fallen, the city itself must be a disaster. Late Wednesday, the collapse of the UN building where Jan and so many other UN staff worked was confirmed. We got onto the MINUSTAH Facebook account that UN workers had set up to help them get word about missing friends and family, and we asked anyone to let us know about Jan and Caroline.
Thursday afternoon we finally heard, indirectly, from Caroline–she was unhurt, and she had been standing vigil at the site of the collapsed UN building. There were rumors that da Costa’s body had been found, but nothing definite. Caroline was staying with the wife of another UN official who was missing, just a couple blocks from the pancaked building. Then we heard that both the UN’s special representative to Haiti, Hedi Annabi, and da Costa had been found in the ruins, dead.
That’s really all I know right now. Three survivors have been dragged out of the collapsed UN building since it fell, one of them after five days (no need to explain the weird surge of hope followed by bitter self-disgust that good news brings when it isn’t the specific good news you want). I remembered that one of the reasons I liked westerns–something I never got to tell Jan–was that all the problems faced by lonely strangers in that long-lost century did indeed seem amenable to decisive, outsider action, unlike nuclear war or environmental devastation. Haiti, in fact, was the carbonized cinder left by the one major social crime the nineteenth century could never correct, that original sin of the settlement of the Americas: commercialized cultural racism.
Needless to say, the quake has not changed the fact that the United Nations is a political football to America’s right wing, so you don’t see all that much about its losses in the US media. Certainly not as much as was made of the firefighters and cops who ran into the World Trade Center as everyone else was running out. But that’s exactly what the UN personnel are like. If you don’t think Haiti has been a towering inferno for centuries, you don’t know your hemisphere.
Hollywood doesn’t make many westerns anymore–the mythic possibilities are pretty played out, I guess, and the new ones are all kind of derivative and tired. But I miss the country that demanded them. That was a nation that believed the common man could make a difference, that he was essential to moral understanding and that action could make things better. It was wonderful to believe in those things. And they are the best way to explain why a young German diplomat is the damnedest huckleberry I’ve ever known.
Late Thursday evening, January 21, MINUSTAH confirmed that the body of Jan Olaf Hausotter was found in the ruins of the UN building in Port-au-Prince.