x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

In the rubble of Haiti, one death - but untold victims

Wilczek Siemienski, who died in the Haiti earthquake, had worked for the Canadian International Development Agency and with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Fifty thousand, 100,000, 200,000. Perhaps we will never know the true toll in lives smothered by the earthquake in Haiti. For me, however, this natural disaster will always have a death toll of one. His name was Wilczek Siemienski. He was a friend, though one with whom I had mostly lost contact, perhaps once a year exchanging e-mails that tried, and generally failed, to encapsulate the life lived since the previous posting. Wilczek had worked for the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) and with the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe. He had had postings in Moscow, Ankara and Tbilisi.

His last was Haiti, where, through CIDA, he worked with the UN mission in Port-au-Prince as a senior political affairs officer. Mostly he was working in human rights. We had met in 1991 or 1992, at the chapel on the Loyola campus of Concordia University in Montreal. I remember seeing him sitting, almost lounging, on a front pew of the chapel, one leg crossed over the other, his arms stretched across the back of the pew. He could have been at home listening to music or engaged in relaxing conversation rather than hearing a sermon from our priest. And indeed he was equally comfortable at home and at church.

As a member of the chapel community, Wilczek was there for the baptism of my daughter, the Sunday after Easter in 1996. The last time I saw him was in the winter of 2000-2001, in Aylmer, Quebec. My wife had bumped into him in a hotel lift in nearby Hull, where she was signing books at a literary festival. He stuck around, we followed him home. In the last photographs we saw of him, Wilczek's eyes are closed because he's laughing so hard. He was tall, his beard grey, and his voice filled a room.

At the time he was between foreign assignments; just back from Moscow, where he had been asked to leave in one of those tit-for-tat expulsions of diplomats that Russia conducts every once in a while. His next posting was Turkey, but he was excited about Georgia and the work he hoped to accomplish in that hurting unit of a country. In Georgia, he was tailed by bodyguards. In Haiti, no bodyguard could have saved him.

Wilczek - some newspapers referred to him by his non-Polish Québécois name, Guillaume, or the anglicised William - was one of the good ones. He was doing good work, helping people, creating programmes to empower people and get them living the lives they deserve. And that's what hurts about this particular death. However much this tragedy will always remind me of Wilczek, it really isn't a toll of just one. Like a ripple on a body of water, Wilczek's death affects many. There is Maka Cielecka, his beautiful, irreverent, deep-loving artist wife. She had just joined him in Port-au-Prince. She was in their apartment when the Hotel Christopher, the UN temporary headquarters in the Haitian capital, collapsed. She lives, but the toll includes her. It includes their sons, Martin in Montreal and Christopher, whom everyone called Smyk, who went back to Poland to live with his new wife. That's five. Wilczek's parents, Wilek and Rosa, who have just turned 90. They live in Rawdon, a rural town north-west of Montreal. That's seven.

There are his in-laws, his uncles and aunts and cousins, like Wanda Romer-Taylor, a former member of our chapel, who the next time she visits and sings in the choir will, I suspect, look to the left and find someone missing from the pew. There are the 71 present and former chapel members who were on the e-mail list asking for prayers for Wilczek and Maka. We are scattered from Calgary to Albany to Abu Dhabi.

There is Hélène Rivard, another Montrealer, a CIDA consultant with more than 20 years' experience, who also died in the Hotel Christopher collapse, and the scores of other CIDA workers Wilczek had worked with and touched over the course of his career. And beyond them there will be the people denied the benefits of Wilczek's work in eastern Europe, Canada and the Caribbean. Fifty thousand, 100,000. Perhaps we will never know the true death toll in Haiti. In terms of the lives of those touched by just one man, it is almost infinite.

Raymond Beauchemin is deputy foreign editor of The National rbeauchemin@thenational.ae