If Haiti was visited by an “apocalypse” or “Dantean” horror in the aftermath of the earthquake of 12th January, then there was one news story that perfectly captured it.
The streets of Port-au-Prince, the devastated capital, were littered with roadblocks made of corpses. Earthquake survivors, out of either anger or trauma, or perhaps Caribbean voodoo superstition, had piled bodies high across the streets, in protest at their neglect.
The story made headlines around the world. Oddly, though, for such a visceral image, the headlines didn’t appear to be accompanied by photos of the scene. Still more oddly, then, the story was attributed to a photographer, Time magazine’s Shaul Schwarz. Schwarz had told a Reuters reporter he had seen two such roadblocks on his travels across the city, and Reuters sent the story global.
By the time the story reached the Independent, it had acquired the further authority of being attributed to (nameless, but apparently numerous) “eyewitnesses,” rather than to a solitary photographer. Many papers distorted Schwarz’s comments to give the impression of these roadblocks being widespread, even as Schwarz himself was telling the BBC that he had seen one such roadblock, and hoped it might have been a “once-off.” The story fostered the impression of a city reverting to savagery in response to the savagery of nature visited upon it.
(If that impression seems familiar, think back to the stories of another natural disaster visited upon largely black, urban population, Hurricane Katrina. Then, when refugees filled New Orleans’s Superdome football stadium, there were widespread reports of mass murders, rapes and beatings taking place in the huge, improvised shelter. When the stadium was finally evacuated, the total number of deaths reported was six, none of them violent.)
This “reversion to savagery” has been a common theme, particularly in the early reporting from Haiti, as news organisations sent crisis reporters—many of them with war-reporting experience—to cover the quake’s aftermath. “Looting” quickly became a main story. “Haiti teetered on the brink of total anarchy tonight as looters rampaged through the streets of Port-au-Prince,” wrote the Daily Mail. There were dramatic photos and footage of fights between “looters”, with some showing Haitian forces with guns, or looters armed with rocks or machetes.