A mother cradled her limp 2-year-old boy, gently bouncing him on her knee as though she would lose him if she stopped. Her lap was soaked.
The boy’s eyes were half-open and his face was ashen. His sister rubbed his withered feet.
Rosemane Saintelone could not let her youngest son die now. When they arrived at this hospital in the seaside slum of Raboteau on Monday afternoon, he was still alert , looking around, moving a little. Only an hour later, he was unconscious. His chest rose and fell faintly.
The hospital was filling up as a surge in Haiti’s cholera epidemic hit this city and the villages to the north and east. A city dump truck trolled the streets picking up unclaimed bodies to take to an empty area behind the main cemetery. Excavators digging burial pits unearthed the splintery gray bones of thousands of victims of two hurricanes in the last decade.
In terms of catastrophe, Haiti’s Jan. 12 earthquake was momentous in scale, killing more than 200,000 people. But the cholera epidemic shows how many Haitians live in stark proximity to death every day.
Saintelone, a 40-year-old mother of eight, lives in a thatch-and-clay hut on a plot of land up a muddy trail in the mountains northeast of here. Her family grows mangos, bananas, papayas, sugar cane and cassava. Seeking a little more security, her husband left three weeks ago to cut cane in the Dominican Republic.
Their son, Sebien, came down with diarrhea Thursday, but Saintelone heard rumors of a hurricane — just as she heard rumors of a disease in the water — so she stayed put until Saturday, when the storm had passed. Then she put some clothes and food in a bucket and set off down the trail, wading across the high, twisting Marmelade River four times before arriving at the little hospital in Ennery.
A brigade of Cuban doctors hooked Sebien up to an IV, and he slowly regained strength. But Monday they told her they didn’t have enough medicine. She would have to take him to Gonaives.
Her daughter and niece joined her for the five-hour journey down rutted mountain roads to this tattered gray port city, where Haiti’s founder triumphantly declared independence from the French more than two centuries ago.
They arrived at 3:15 p.m. and found a seat in the crowd. At least 40 people lay on gurneys with holes cut in the canvas, expelling diarrhea as clear as water into buckets. She waited about 20 minutes before a doctor from the Cuban medical mission came to hook up an IV. He struggled to find a vein in Sebien’s wrist — dehydration can collapse blood vessels — and instead put the IV in the side of his neck.
A woman down the hall erupted in screaming spasms when she found her husband dead. Patients lying around him gazed off with the same empty expressions.
A tall, hard-looking man in basketball shorts blasted into the room, carrying a withered old woman. “Move, move!” he yelled.
He found a gurney in front of Saintelone. “Grandma,” he said, “don’t worry, you’re not going to die.” He laid her down and put a rag next to her mouth.
Saintelone, a slight woman with high cheekbones, looked up briefly, then cooed and rocked Sebien, watching in desperation as his eyelids fell lower.
Nobody knows how many people have died of cholera in this city in the last few days.
The official death toll nationally Tuesday was 538, but people appeared to be dying at a rapid pace. In Port-au-Prince there were at least 73 cases, and health officials said they feared the disease could afflict hundreds of thousands over several years.
At the Gonaives hospital, the medical director said eight people had died between Nov. 1 and Monday afternoon. But in the next hour alone, three people died. Neighbors said more than a dozen bodies had been hauled off in a dump truck that morning.
Down the road, workers at the main cemetery said 10 bodies had arrived that night. They guided a reporter and photographer to them, laid on the ground or on top of tombs. A few were in body bags, others were covered with sheets, two were in rough-cut coffins.
They said they dumped 48 bodies into pits the day before. They showed the journalists the pits, filled with bodies, but it was impossible to tell how many.
The cemetery director, who didn’t want to give his name, said a total of 73 bodies had been dropped off since Saturday. It was unclear whether any of these were included in the official count attributed to the epidemic that began last month.
An American aid group, the International Medical Corps, had tried unsuccessfully to get the medical director to let them set up a triage tent to organize the intake of patients. Such an effort by relief workers elsewhere had been met with fierce resistance by residents, who burned the tents down because they feared the clinic would only bring more disease.
Saintelone wouldn’t stop bouncing her boy long enough to see whether his chest still moved.
About 4:15 p.m., a stocky doctor in a mask and scrubs came by. He abruptly pinched the boy on the speck of his left nipple. There was no response. He opened one of the Sebien’s eyes wide with his thumb and forefinger. He gave the pupil a glance, then motioned for the nurse to remove the IV.
Saintelone watched, still rocking him for a moment, before she understood what this meant.
She clutched him tight, leaned over and sobbed silently.
Saintelone’s daughter helped her put the little boy’s T-shirt on, and they put a towel over his face. The mother held him against her chest and carried him out the same way she had carried him in an hour before.
Outside, they stood in the rutted street, aimless and lost. They didn’t know how they would get home. They’d spent most of the money in their pockets, about $3, for transportation to the city.
As a cool breeze rose up, Saintelone bundled her son in a towel and they walked toward the highway.
They flagged down a taptap — a covered pickup truck with benches in the back — but the driver saw the body and refused to let them in. The same for the next one.
Eventually, they found one and made it to Ennery late at night. Saintelone trudged the eight miles back to her home in the dark. She knew the trails by feel. She and the girls took turns carrying the boy. Family members gathered as they crisscrossed higher into the mountains, where by dawn the sick would be again streaming down in the other direction.
They laid the boy down on a bed, covered him in a sheet, and put a flower stem over him.
On Tuesday, they paid a carpenter down the road to build a little whitewood coffin. They didn’t have enough money to have it painted. They moved the furniture outside and swept the house to prepare a voodoo ceremony for spirits to watch over him.
Saintelone tied a rag around her waist, as women do here in such times, to hold in the grief.
This Sunday, they will hike deep into the mountains and bury him in a plot among his ancestors, a ritual they know well.