PORT-AU-PRINCE — Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, Gilbert Ménard, a taxi driver in his 40’s, remembers the joyful events held around the capital in the lead-up to and on Haiti’s Flag.
As May dawned, smaller activities began taking place in anticipation and promotion of or Jou Drapo. The National Palace, located in the Champ-de-Mars Park, set the tone with oversized red-and-blue pom-poms hanging along its exterior, silk ribbons wrapped around its stately pillars and green fence. A few blocks away, workers cleaned and tidied the National Plaza, home to historical monuments and founding fathers statues.
Weeks prior, street vendors set up stands to sell little flags, bracelets and t-shirts around the theme. Each night, the ambiance stretched all the way in the capital’s popular neighborhoods.
Menard knew, unquestionably, the date had an important meaning for him and other children.
“We have lost all of that today,” Ménard said. “It is the end of an era, those times are over in Haiti.”
“We can only keep hoping that things will change one day in this country,” Ménard added.
These days, with just a few days to go before the 219th anniversary of Haiti’s flag , the park’s state is far from the traditional head-to-toe cleaning of the space and its historical monuments. The monuments plaza is littered with trash and empty bottles, and has a foul odor. Nowhere are the large red and blue ribbons that adorned all official government offices overlooking the area. Absent are groups of Haitians donning their finest red-and-blue attire, headwraps and flags, heading out to official parade celebrations.
This year, such displays of patriotism have reached an all-time low across Haiti, many lament. Most Haitians around the capital are more worried about events such as the April 24 gang battles that left more than 100 dead and further paralyzed the country.
Today, the iconic 90-year-old National Palace that collapsed during Haiti’s cataclysmic 2010 earthquake is still not fully rebuilt. In the past year, the Champ-de-Mars area has become a refugee camp for residents fleeing gang violence in their neighborhoods.
“There cannot be celebration in this situation of uncertainty,“ Mariusca Alphonse, a law student and singer, told the Haitian Times. “We are forgetting the meaning of May 18, given the insecurity, rising cost of living and gang violence.”
“The people of Croix-des-Bouquets, for instance. are victims of gang battles and violence. How can they think about celebrating Flag Day?” Alphonse said.
Esther Joseph said celebrating or talking about the situation would not change anything.
“We are so tired of this situation. That’s the feeling we will celebrate with,” she said
Brief history of the bicolore
The Haitian flag was adopted on May 18, 1803, on the last day of a political congress in Arcahaie, a town about 28 miles north of Port-au-Prince. Originally, Catherine Flon sewed the flag with guidance from Haitian Revolution leader Jean-Jacques Dessalines. According to Haitian lore, the Dessalines took the red, white and blue flag of France, and ripped out the white part to signify the removal of the white colonizers from the land.
The resulting bicolore, two-color red and blue flag, is a source of pride for Haiti’s children and supporters worldwide. Its annual commemoration is among the nation’s most revered traditions.
Traditionally, on Flag Day, the country’s president went to Arcahaie to attend the “Te Deum” official ceremony and to address the nation. Most of the celebrations were still concentrated in Port-au-Prince, with activities organized jointly by the National Palace, and the ministries of Interior, National Education, Culture and Communication and of the Youth and Sports and Civic Action.
A week before May 18, Prime Minister Ariel Henry’s office had not made public any official events calendar around the celebration. The last time Henry attended a high-profile national event. Independence Day on Jan.1 in Gonaïves, a gun battle erupted as Henry and his entourage were leaving a cathedral commemorating Haiti’s freedom from France. Henry said at the time it was an assassination attempt.
When “life was beautiful” around Flag Day
More than an official event, the national Flag Day parade and celebration was an affair that rallies schools and youth groups, or scouts, and units of the Haitian Army, Police and Navy. The centerpiece of the celebration was the parade along Rues Oswald Durand and Capois before making its way to the National Palace. It featured marching bands from those institutions and government agencies and vintage vehicles rolling along as spectators cheered, adding to the celebratory atmosphere.
In the weeks leading up to the big day, the sound of drums, violins, trumpets and cymbals formed the soundtrack of life as students from various schools performed full dress rehearsals, adding to the patriotic mood in Champ-de-Mars. Four main public schools — lycées Firmin, Pétion, Toussaint and Jean-Jacques Dessalines — were at the helm of the celebration. Some military and police units dressed in musical garb and honors also practiced. In the afternoons, passersby, drivers, residents in nearby Bel-Air, Bas-peu-de Chose and Pacôt were kept busy watching, all happy and proud to have a sneak peek.
“When I was younger, it was a real joy to take part in the celebration of the flag with my church,” said Reynaldo Laurent, a high school senior whose Adventist church used to participate in the parade. “There is no longer the same enthusiasm, the same pride.”
“We used to do a street parade, people were looking at us, we were proud, life was beautiful,” Laurent explained. “The scouts animated people, educating parade goers of the significance of this date.”
Between gang wars and rampant kidnappings, students can no longer attend school as many have closed or are occupied by gang members. At the schools that manage to stay open, Flag Day rehearsals are no longer part of the students’ daily activities.
Laurent said the feeling today is more of grief, desolation and desperation as they live in uncertainty, insecurity and government failure to bring stability.
“May 18 is becoming meaningless,” he said. “Even if some schools decide to mark the day, what good would that do considering the situation of the country? ”
Read the next installment about Archaie, the historic birthplace of the Haitian flag, as it organizes festivities amidst the turmoil spilling over from Port-au-Prince.