By chance, my father and I were together when we heard the news. We had both just flown to Washington DC - he from Paris, I from Istanbul - to care for my grandmother, who¹d had a heart attack. Before the words "major earthquake in Haiti" came over the car radio, we were already under the impression that we were living through a serious family emergency. But after those words filtered through, the family emergency became far, far more serious.
My brother Mischa and his wife Cristina have been living in Haiti for nearly three years. Cristina, an Italian lawyer, has been working for the Justice Section of MINUSTAH, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. My brother is a novelist and journalist. Their first child, Leo, was born ten months ago. At the time the quake struck, Cristina¹s father Bruno was visiting them in Port-au-Prince. I have a reservation on American Airlines to fly from Miami to Port-au-Prince on January 27; I too was planning to visit. A strange thing is that since moving to Turkey four years ago, I've been writing with increasingly hysterical alarm about the lethal admixture of corruption, shoddy construction and a major fault line in Istanbul. I got the city wrong, but I certainly wasn't wrong about what the aftermath would look like.
Cristina, we now know, had not gone to work that day; she was at home with the baby and her father. My brother was in his office nearby. Those buildings didn¹t collapse. Just luck.
The number of people who have not yet received a message like the one we got - and the number who never will - is right now impossible to calculate, but probably in the hundreds of thousands. It is reasonably easy to avoid contemplating the agony of families without news when reading of catastrophes in far-away countries; not so easy when you have recently learned exactly what they are feeling.
Cristina Iampieri: I CANNOT GET IN TOUCH
They were able to access various Internet sites intermittently‹sometimes Skype, sometimes Facebook, sometimes MSN messenger, never for long. Mischa reached me on Skype to tell me they had decided to head for the UN logistics base. He cheerily reported that while the situation was assuredly "dramatic," they would all be well. I tried to relay the very limited advice I'd received from UN headquarters officials in New York, who at that point were not in better contact with Haiti than I was; he gave me names of people who were alive and asked me to find their relatives. He asked if I fancied a game of Scrabble.
A lot of time elapsed, or felt as if it did, between that conversation and receiving the news that they had arrived safely at the UN base. The Italian media meanwhile reported that Cristina had made a "desperate" call to her sister telling her they had no food or water, were barricaded in their house, terrified, and begging for help. Posts on Twitter grew more and more frantic:
"HELP HELP HELP Terror "aux Cayes" Prisoners are free setting fire in public offices. Terrified #Haiti his is beyond anything not want let my family die in from of me. #haiti 90% of the buildings in Leogane have collapsed. St Rosa of Lima school has 110 children trapped. #haitiquake #haiti #USArmy roting and looting in Rue Grand Rice. The orphanage is at: About 1 block away from Delmas 19. The situation is beyond dire.Need HELP,Marines SOMEONE- ..."
Elderly friends of my grandmother kept calling to ask how she was doing, speaking very slowly, unable to understand my plea to keep the phone lines free. If I hung up on them, they just called back.
I called the UN Headquarters in New York to ask if they had arrived at the logistics base. They were fantastically responsive, compared to the State Department, but called me back later to say that they had not. They asked me to contact Mischa and Cristina, if I could - because they couldn't - to get more information about the road they had taken, the make and color of the car they were driving. I called and called and called their numbers. Again no answer.
The woman on the other end of the phone at in New York was extremely kind and competent. The way she spoke to me was the way one should speak to a family member in this situation. How long, I asked her, would it be before she would allow herself to panic at their failure to appear? "Thirty days, at least," she said. "I am serious. In this situation, I am serious." I put out a message to everyone I knew, on Facebook, to please help me reach them, to try calling them over and over. Many of my friends did. Others responded by asking me to farm their Farmville plots.
They may some day wonder why I'm not answering their e-mails. That's why.
The State Department hotline still did not work - it was impossible to get through. I was exchanging information with Haitians and their relatives in America on Facebook and Twitter, the only communication channels that seemed to have up-to-the-minute information. About the most reassuring message I received was that things that sounded like gunfire could be other things.
I have heard frantic reports from other families (I cannot possibly say whether they are true) that the United States is too deluged to evacuate children of American mothers unless they too have US passports. This, for example, was posted on a blog written by US missionaries now in Haiti, one otherwise reporting information consistent with other credible, first-hand accounts:
If this is true, I am in no position to criticize the United States' response; I'm not there, it is obviously beyond imagination, and I am immensely grateful to anyone who is there and trying to help. I just find this story unbearable, as I find the whole thing.
My brother and Cristina are now in Italy. They sound okay, under the circumstances.
Claire Berlinski is an American journalist who lives in Istanbul. She is the author of There is No Alternative: Why Margaret Thatcher Matters.