‘Our heritage is abandoned’: burning of Haitian church fuels anger at politicians

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Damage to part of Unesco world heritage site is emblematic of uncaring government, critics say.

Cultural leaders in Haiti have described the gutting by fire of a celebrated 200-year-old church as an avoidable tragedy that highlights the fragility of the Caribbean nation’s patrimony – and the need to preserve its historical treasures.

The Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception church in the town of Milot is part of a Unesco world heritage site that includes the ruins of the Sans Souci palace and the Citadelle Laferrière, an imposing fort that looms over Haiti’s northern plains.

Fire tore through the church on Monday, causing its distinctive black wooden dome to collapse. The cause of the blaze has not been determined, but some saw it as indicative of the malaise of misrule that has long bedeviled the island – some of it locally rooted, and some imported by more powerful neighbors.

Milot Church on fire, 2am local time on 13 April 2020.
Milot Church on fire, 2am local time on 13 April 2020. Photograph: © Projet de Préservation du Patrimoine et d’Appui au Secteur Touristique (PAST)

“[For years] we have been asking the state to ensure the protection of these colonial dwellings, which are important as monuments of slavery, yet nothing has been done,” said Laënnec Hurbon, a sociologist with the State University of Haiti.

“But the state spends its time buying luxurious cars for ministers, functionaries and parliamentarians. It is therefore not surprising that everything concerning the national heritage is abandoned.”

The church was constructed between 1810 and 1813 by Henri Christophe, one of a cadre of revolutionary leaders including Toussaint Louverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines who helped Haiti oust the French and end the system of slavery.

Christophe went on to declare himself King Henry I and ruled in autocratic splendour over northern Haiti until his death by suicide in 1820 amid a protracted civil war.

On Christophe’s death, the church was ransacked, and its dome had collapsed following an 1842 earthquake. In the 1970s, the renowned Haitian architect Albert Mangonès led an effort to restore the complex. It was named a world heritage site in 1982.

Some worry the legacy that the buildings at Milot attest to is being lost amid Haiti’s current political upheaval.

“The structural inequalities in our society mean there has never been an education accessible to all that would teach the idea of the common good,” says the Haitian author Yanick Lahens.

Haiti has been shaken by often violent unrest for months, prompted in part by a long multibillion-dollar corruption scandal which has engulfed the administration of President Jovenel Moïse.

Despite the political battles, however, the church seems to pierce to the heart of Haiti’s national identity, across party lines.

In a letter to the government after the fire, educational and civil society figures called on the nation’s political leaders to “stop this denial of our history as a people [as] only these monuments remain, testimonies of our history of struggles, suffering and hope.”

One former president, Prosper Avril, who ruled the country from 1988 to 1990, has called for a taskforce to protect the country’s cultural heritage.

In a land that often seems beset by internecine political vendettas, some hope that even in this dire moment, the church’s reconstruction might serve as a point of unity.

“The royal chapel of Milot is a testimony to the history of our people,” said Erol Josué, director of Haiti’s national bureau of ethnology (BNE). “The Haitian state should engage all layers of the population in its reconstruction, because this is our heritage.”

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