Monday, March 22, 2010

A Life Revealed

A Life Revealed
Her eyes have captivated the world since she appeared on our cover in 1985. Now we can tell her story.
By Cathy Newman

She remembers the moment. The photographer took her picture. She remembers her anger. The man was a stranger. She had never been photographed before. Until they met again 17 years later, she had not been photographed since.

The photographer remembers the moment too. The light was soft. The refugee camp in Pakistan was a sea of tents. Inside the school tent he noticed her first. Sensing her shyness, he approached her last. She told him he could take her picture. "I didn't think the photograph of the girl would be different from anything else I shot that day," he recalls of that morning in 1984 spent documenting the ordeal of Afghanistan's refugees.

The portrait by Steve McCurry turned out to be one of those images that sears the heart, and in June 1985 it ran on the cover of this magazine. Her eyes are sea green. They are haunted and haunting, and in them you can read the tragedy of a land drained by war. She became known around National Geographic as the "Afghan girl," and for 17 years no one knew her name.

In January a team from National Geographic Television & Film's EXPLORER brought McCurry to Pakistan to search for the girl with green eyes. They showed her picture around Nasir Bagh, the still standing refugee camp near Peshawar where the photograph had been made. A teacher from the school claimed to know her name. A young woman named Alam Bibi was located in a village nearby, but McCurry decided it wasn't her.

No, said a man who got wind of the search. He knew the girl in the picture. They had lived at the camp together as children. She had returned to Afghanistan years ago, he said, and now lived in the mountains near Tora Bora. He would go get her.

It took three days for her to arrive. Her village is a six-hour drive and three-hour hike across a border that swallows lives. When McCurry saw her walk into the room, he thought to himself: This is her.

Names have power, so let us speak of hers. Her name is Sharbat Gula, and she is Pashtun, that most warlike of Afghan tribes. It is said of the Pashtun that they are only at peace when they are at war, and her eyes—then and now—burn with ferocity. She is 28, perhaps 29, or even 30. No one, not even she, knows for sure. Stories shift like sand in a place where no records exist.

Time and hardship have erased her youth. Her skin looks like leather. The geometry of her jaw has softened. The eyes still glare; that has not softened. "She's had a hard life," said McCurry. "So many here share her story." Consider the numbers. Twenty-three years of war, 1.5 million killed, 3.5 million refugees: This is the story of Afghanistan in the past quarter century.

Now, consider this photograph of a young girl with sea green eyes. Her eyes challenge ours. Most of all, they disturb. We cannot turn away.

"There is not one family that has not eaten the bitterness of war," a young Afghan merchant said in the 1985 National Geographic story that appeared with Sharbat's photograph on the cover. She was a child when her country was caught in the jaws of the Soviet invasion. A carpet of destruction smothered countless villages like hers. She was perhaps six when Soviet bombing killed her parents. By day the sky bled terror. At night the dead were buried. And always, the sound of planes, stabbing her with dread.

"We left Afghanistan because of the fighting," said her brother, Kashar Khan, filling in the narrative of her life. He is a straight line of a man with a raptor face and piercing eyes. "The Russians were everywhere. They were killing people. We had no choice."

Shepherded by their grandmother, he and his four sisters walked to Pakistan. For a week they moved through mountains covered in snow, begging for blankets to keep warm.

"You never knew when the planes would come," he recalled. "We hid in caves."

The journey that began with the loss of their parents and a trek across mountains by foot ended in a refugee camp tent living with strangers.

"Rural people like Sharbat find it difficult to live in the cramped surroundings of a refugee camp," explained Rahimullah Yusufzai, a respected Pakistani journalist who acted as interpreter for McCurry and the television crew. "There is no privacy. You live at the mercy of other people." More than that, you live at the mercy of the politics of other countries. "The Russian invasion destroyed our lives," her brother said.

It is the ongoing tragedy of Afghanistan. Invasion. Resistance. Invasion. Will it ever end? "Each change of government brings hope," said Yusufzai. "Each time, the Afghan people have found themselves betrayed by their leaders and by outsiders professing to be their friends and saviors."

In the mid-1990s, during a lull in the fighting, Sharbat Gula went home to her village in the foothills of mountains veiled by snow. To live in this earthen-colored village at the end of a thread of path means to scratch out an existence, nothing more. There are terraces planted with corn, wheat, and rice, some walnut trees, a stream that spills down the mountain (except in times of drought), but no school, clinic, roads, or running water.

Here is the bare outline of her day. She rises before sunrise and prays. She fetches water from the stream. She cooks, cleans, does laundry. She cares for her children; they are the center of her life. Robina is 13. Zahida is three. Alia, the baby, is one. A fourth daughter died in infancy. Sharbat has never known a happy day, her brother says, except perhaps the day of her marriage.

Her husband, Rahmat Gul, is slight in build, with a smile like the gleam of a lantern at dusk. She remembers being married at 13. No, he says, she was 16. The match was arranged.

He lives in Peshawar (there are few jobs in Afghanistan) and works in a bakery. He bears the burden of medical bills; the dollar a day he earns vanishes like smoke. Her asthma, which cannot tolerate the heat and pollution of Peshawar in summer, limits her time in the city and with her husband to the winter. The rest of the year she lives in the mountains.

At the age of 13, Yusufzai, the journalist, explained, she would have gone into purdah, the secluded existence followed by many Islamic women once they reach puberty.

"Women vanish from the public eye," he said. In the street she wears a plum-colored burka, which walls her off from the world and from the eyes of any man other than her husband. "It is a beautiful thing to wear, not a curse," she says.

Faced by questions, she retreats into the black shawl wrapped around her face, as if by doing so she might will herself to evaporate. The eyes flash anger. It is not her custom to subject herself to the questions of strangers.

Had she ever felt safe?

"No. But life under the Taliban was better. At least there was peace and order."

Had she ever seen the photograph of herself as a girl?


She can write her name, but cannot read. She harbors the hope of education for her children. "I want my daughters to have skills," she said. "I wanted to finish school but could not. I was sorry when I had to leave."

Education, it is said, is the light in the eye. There is no such light for her. It is possibly too late for her 13-year-old daughter as well, Sharbat Gula said. The two younger daughters still have a chance.

The reunion between the woman with green eyes and the photographer was quiet. On the subject of married women, cultural tradition is strict. She must not look—and certainly must not smile—at a man who is not her husband. She did not smile at McCurry. Her expression, he said, was flat. She cannot understand how her picture has touched so many. She does not know the power of those eyes.

Such knife-thin odds. That she would be alive. That she could be found. That she could endure such loss. Surely, in the face of such bitterness the spirit could atrophy. How, she was asked, had she survived?

The answer came wrapped in unshakable certitude.

"It was," said Sharbat Gula, "the will of God."

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Was this man the first terrorist of the modern age?

Page last updated at 11:08 GMT, Wednesday, 7 October 2009 12:08 UK

Was this man the first terrorist of the modern age?

Emile Henry at the Cafe Terminus combing
Emile Henry's attack on a cafe in 1894, which killed one person

It's eight years to the day since the first shots were fired in America's War on Terror. But can the terrorism tactics it sought to crush be traced back to a single attack on a Parisian cafe more than 100 years ago, asks Professor John Merriman.

On February 12, 1894, a young intellectual anarchist named Emile Henry went out to kill. And, in doing so, he arguably ignited the age of modern terrorism.

As he had looked down on Paris from near his miserable lodgings in the plebeian 20th arrondissement on the edge of Paris, he vowed war on the bourgeoisie. His specific goal was to avenge the execution of Auguste Vaillant a week earlier.

Unable to feed his family, Vaillant had thrown a small bomb into the Chamber of Deputies, slightly wounding several people. His goal: to call attention to the plight of the poor.

Emile Henry
Unlike previous anarchist bombers, Henry was an intellectual

Now, armed with a bomb hidden under his coat, Henry walked up the Avenue de l'Opera, pausing at several elegant cafes, but he moved on because they were not full enough. He entered the Cafe Terminus, which is still there, near the Gare St Lazare, ordered two beers, and a cigar.

With the latter he lit the fuse of his bomb, and threw it into the cafe, leaving carnage behind. Amid thick, acrid smoke, marble tables, metal chairs, and mirrors had shattered. The screams and shouts of those wounded joined the smoke.

Henry ran away, before being wrestled to the ground after a fierce struggle. In the cafe, 20 people had been wounded, some very seriously, one of whom would die.

Along with the bombing of the Liceo theatre in Barcelona, the attack on the Cafe Terminus signalled a marked change in targets of terrorists.

Where before it was policemen or heads of state - the French president Sadi Carnot was assassinated the same year - who were the targets of violent anarchists, now it was ordinary people. The bourgeois.


At his trial, Henry described how his love for humanity had been transformed into hatred for the ruling classes. Fifteen months earlier, one of his bombs had killed five policemen. Now he had gone out to kill bourgeois because they were who they were.

Henry at guillotine
Henry was executed, by guillotine, three months after his attack

He had "no respect for human life, because the bourgeois themselves have absolutely none".

Emile Henry was guillotined at age 21.

There are of course salient differences between the terrorists of the 1890s and those in our world. For one thing, the role of religious fundamentalism, such as so-called jihadists who subscribe to al-Qaeda's world view, was not a part of anarchist attacks.

However, can we find useful parallels between Henry's bomb, or "deed" as the violent anarchists used to call such attacks, and terrorism today?

Then, as now, terrorists targeted anyone identified with their enemies. Moreover, both cut across social boundaries. Unlike the notorious French anarchist bombers Ravachol and Vaillant, who were decidedly down and out, Emile Henry was an intellectual.

Both groups have used weapons that levelled the playing fields. Dynamite, invented in 1868 by Alfred Nobel, represented as one contemporary put it "a modern revolutionary alchemy".

Kamikaze pilots

An American anarchist crowed, before being hanged in Chicago following the famous police riot at Haymarket, "in giving dynamite to the downtrodden millions of the globe, science has done its best work."

Both share a fervent belief in ideology, and confidence that eventually they will win - providing an apocalyptical, even millenarian aspect to terrorists

Likewise, road-side bombs in today's world have emerged as a weapon of choice. And then, as now, terrorist practitioners seek "revolutionary immortality" - hoping to inspire others with their heroic demise. Suicide bombers, however, with the exception of Kamikaze pilots, are a new phenomenon.

Both sets of terrorists target a powerful enemy, a structure they set out to destroy. For the anarchists, the enemy was the state, and the pillars that supported it - capitalism, the army, and the Church, with Henry adding the bourgeoisie.

For the anarchists, only the destruction of the state could bring equality and thus happiness.

In the case of jihadists today, the West and particularly the power of the United States stand as the target.

Moreover, both share a fervent belief in ideology, and confidence that eventually they will win. This provides something of an apocalyptical, even millenarian aspect to terrorists, many of whom are young, intent on changing the world.

In dealing with terrorism, both the French government more than 100 years ago and American officials in the early period of the Iraq and Afghan conflicts, had a tendency to look for a centrally organised, massive conspiracy. Instead, they ought to have acknowledged the role of small groups or even isolated individuals undertaking locally organised, or freelance operations undertaken by "self-starter" terrorist groups.


Yet, there remains a fundamental difference between revolutionary violence and resistance violence, although they may well share tactics. The latter has in the 20th Century and beyond, been directed at occupying powers, for example, Israel, French forces in Algeria, and the US in Vietnam and Iraq.

Revolutionary and resistance terrorism, however, have in common that their violence is directed against states that they view as oppressive and whose presence they consider unjust.

Madrid bomb
The Madrid bombs of 2004 - an attack on civillians, not police or military

The anarchist attacks in the 1890s remind us of another dimension of terror where some people accuse the state itself of terrorism, undertaken often violently by a repressive state against its own people (or against those in places it invades or occupies).

This variety of terrorism is often conveniently forgotten or overlooked.

Indeed, one theory has it that "terrorism" began with the state, during the radical phase of the French Revolution.

Henry had been deeply affected by the state's increased repression of all dissidents. His father had seen state terror up close, condemned to death in absentia for having been a militant in the Paris Commune of 1871, after which at least 20,000 Parisians perished.

The over-reaction of state authorities in France, as well as in Italy and Spain, during the heyday of anarchist attacks did not work. Anarchists arrested in the systematic repression by the police in 1894, including a number of anarchist intellectuals put on trial that same year, accused of being in an "association of evil-doers," were not terrorists.

The French government used the panic that the anarchist bombs understandably brought to crack down on dissidents. The repression undercut the government's claim on moral authority. The French government in the 1890s did not torture prisoners - their Spanish counterpart did - public revulsion turned against the government and indeed the wave of attacks ended.

More than 100 years later, it is a policy from which today's elected leaders could, perhaps, learn.

John Merriman is the Charles Seymour professor of history at Yale University and author of The Dynamite Club: How a Bombing in Fin-De-Siecle Paris Ignited the Age of Modern Terror, published by JR Books.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Did the discovery of cooking make us human?

Page last updated at 11:30 GMT, Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Did the discovery of cooking make us human?

By Clare Kingston
BBC Horizon

Learning to cook created 'big brains'

Cooking is something we all take for granted but a new theory suggests that if we had not learned to cook food, not only would we still look like chimps but, like them, we would also be compelled to spend most of the day chewing.

Without cooking, an average person would have to eat around five kilos of raw food to get enough calories to survive.

The daily mountain of fruit and vegetables would mean a six-hour chewing marathon.

It is already accepted that the introduction of meat into our ancestors' diet caused their brains to grow and their intelligence to increase.

Meat - a more concentrated form of energy - not only meant bigger brains for our ancestors, but also an end to the need to devote nearly all their time to foraging to maintain energy levels.

As a consequence, more time was available for social structure to develop.


Harvard Professor Richard Wrangham believes there is more to it than simply discovering meat.

Australopithecus was ape-like but walked upright like humans

He thinks that it is not so much a change in the ingredients of our diet, but the way in which we prepare them that has caused the radical evolution of our species.

"I think cooking is arguably the biggest increase in the quality of the diet in the whole of the history of life," he says.

"Our ancestors most probably dropped food in fire accidently. They would have found it was delicious and that set us off on a whole new direction."

To understand how and when our bodies changed, we need to take a closer look at what our ancestors ate by studying the fossil records.

Our earliest ancestor was the ape-like Australopithecus.

Australopithecus had a large belly containing a big large-intestine, essential to digest the robust plant matter, and had large, flat teeth which it used for grinding and crushing tough vegetation.

None the less, it was Australopithecus that moved out of the trees and onto the African savannah, and started to eat the animals that grazed there.

And it was this change of habitat, lifestyle and diet that also prompted major changes in anatomy.

Bigger brain

The eating of meat ties in with an evolutionary shift 2.3 million years ago resulting in a more human-looking ancestor with sharper teeth and a 30% bigger brain, called Homo habilis.

Scan of human head
The brain consumes 20% of a person's energy while sitting

The most momentous shift however, happened 1.8 million years ago when Homo erectus - our first "truly human" ancestor arrived on the scene.

Homo erectus had an even bigger brain, smaller jaws and teeth.

Erectus also had a similar body shape to us. Shorter arms and longer legs appeared, and gone was the large vegetable-processing gut, meaning that Erectus could not only walk upright, but could also run.

He was cleverer and faster, and - according to Professor Wrangham - he had learned how to cook.

"Cooking made our guts smaller," he says. "Once we cooked our food, we didn't need big guts.

"They're costly in terms of energy. Individuals that were born with small guts were able to save energy, have more babies and survive better."

Professor Peter Wheeler from Liverpool John Moores University and his colleague, Leslie Aiello, think it was this change in our digestive system that specifically allowed our brains to get larger.

Energy transfer

Cooking food breaks down its cells, meaning that our stomachs need to do less work to liberate the nutrients our bodies need.

This, says Wheeler, "freed up energy which could then be used to power a larger brain. The increase in brain-size mirrors the reduction in the size of the gut."

Significantly Wheeler and Aiello found that the reduction in the size of our digestive system was exactly the same amount that our brains grew by - 20%.

Professor Stephen Secor at the University of Alabama found that not only does cooked food release more energy, but the body uses less energy in digesting it.

He uses pythons as a model for digestion as they stay still for up to six days while digesting a meal. This makes them the perfect model as the only energy they expend is on digestion.

His research shows that pythons use 24% less energy digesting cooked meat, compared with raw.

So being human might all be down to energy.

Cooking is essentially a form of pre-digestion, which has transferred energy use from our guts to our brains.

According to Professors Wheeler and Wrangham and their colleagues, it is no coincidence that humans - the cleverest species on earth - are also the only species that cooks.

Dinosaur extinction link to crater confirmed

Page last updated at 23:49 GMT, Thursday, 4 March 2010

Dinosaur extinction link to crater confirmed

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, The Woodlands, Texas

Artist's impression of space impactor (BBC)
The dinosaurs were one of many groups to go extinct

An international panel of experts has strongly endorsed evidence that a space impact was behind the mass extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs.

They reached the consensus after conducting the most wide-ranging analysis yet of the evidence.

Writing in Science journal, they rule out alternative theories such as large-scale volcanism.

The analysis has been discussed at the 41st Lunar and Planetary Science Conference (LPSC) in the US.

A panel of 41 international experts reviewed 20 years' worth of research to determine the cause of the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) mass extinction, around 65 million years ago.

The extinction wiped out more than half of all species on the planet, including the dinosaurs, bird-like pterosaurs and large marine reptiles, clearing the way for mammals to become the dominant species on Earth.


Their review of the evidence shows that the extinction was caused by a massive asteroid or comet smashing into Earth at Chicxulub on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

When the 10km-15km space rock struck the Yucatan, the explosive energy released was equivalent to 100 trillion tonnes of TNT - over a billion times more explosive than the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The huge crater that remains from the event is some 180km in diameter and surrounded by a circular fault about 240km in diameter.

"You can actually trace debris right up to the rim of the crater from across the world," Co-author Dr David Kring, from the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, told BBC News.

"You can start in Europe, cross the Atlantic and it just thickens as you approach the Chicxulub impact crater."


BBC's David Shukman: Asteroid was '20 times faster than a bullet'

In the new study, scientists examined the work of palaeontologists, geochemists, climate modellers, geophysicists and sedimentologists who have been gathering evidence about the K-T extinction.

They conclude that the Chicxulub space impact is the only plausible explanation for the devastation evident in geological records.

The initial impact would have triggered large-scale fires, huge earthquakes, and continental landslides which generated tsunamis.

Dr Gareth Collins, one of the review's co-authors from Imperial College London, said the asteroid hit Earth "20 times faster than a speeding bullet".

He added: "The explosion of hot rock and gas would have looked like a huge ball of fire on the horizon, grilling any living creature in the immediate vicinity that couldn't find shelter."

Dr Joanna Morgan, another co-author from Imperial, commented: "The final nail in the coffin for the dinosaurs happened when blasted material was ejected at high velocity into the atmosphere. This shrouded the planet in darkness and caused a global winter, killing off many species that couldn't adapt to this hellish environment."

K-Y boundary ()
The ejected debris (white) can be seen in rocks from 65 million years ago

The review confirms that a unique layer of debris ejected from a crater is compositionally linked to the Mexican crater and is also coincident with rocks associated at the Cretaceous-Tertiary (K-T) boundary.

The team also says that an abundance of shocked quartz in rock layers across the world at the K-T boundary lends further weight to conclusions that a massive meteorite impact happened at the time of the mass extinction. This form of the mineral occurs when rocks have been hit very quickly by a massive force. It is only found at nuclear explosion sites and at asteroid impact sites.

"Combining all available data from different science disciplines led us to conclude that a large asteroid impact 65 million years ago in modern day Mexico was the major cause of the mass extinctions," said author Dr Peter Schulte, assistant professor at the University of Erlangen in Germany.

David Kring explained: "I have been invited to give colloquia at a number of universities across North America and I had always been surprised by the number of people who didn't think the connection was as firm as it was.

"I think it was very important for this distinguished panel of experts from around the world who have seen the evidence from their own geographic quarter to debate the issue and come to a final resolution. I think it is that international consensus that is so important in this case."

Shuttle image of Yucatan (Nasa)
Today, the crater is buried under Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, but weaknesses in the overlying rock have produced a ring of slumping that is visible from space

Scientists have previously argued about whether the extinction was caused by a space impact or by volcanic activity in the Deccan Traps in India, where there were a series of super-volcanic eruptions that lasted approximately 1.5 million years.

These eruptions spewed more than 1,000,000 cu km of basaltic lava across the Deccan Traps - enough to fill the Black Sea twice. These were thought to have caused a cooling of the atmosphere and acid rain on a global scale.

Despite evidence for relatively active volcanism in the Deccan Traps at the time, marine and land ecosystems showed only minor changes within the 500,000 years before the time of the K-T mass extinction.

Furthermore, computer models and observational data suggest the release of gases such as sulphur into the atmosphere after each volcanic eruption in the Deccan Traps would have had a short-lived effect on the planet.

The panel also discounted previous studies that suggested the Chicxulub impact occurred 300,000 years prior to the mass extinction event.

Scientists estimate that this type of impact occurs on average about once every 100 million years; about five have occurred during the evolution of complex life on Earth.

The importance of Chicxulub was cemented by the announcement in 1991 of the discovery of shocked quartz in a 1.6km-deep drill hole from the crater.

David Kring, Alan Hildebrand and William Boynton presented their results at that year's LPSC, then held at Nasa's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Dr Kring explained that he was "elated" with the consensus about the link between Chicxulub and the K-T mass extinction.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Voodoo religion's role in helping Haiti's quake victims

Page last updated at 07:43 GMT, Sunday, 21 February 2010

Voodoo religion's role in helping Haiti's quake victims

By Henri Astier
BBC News, Miami

A Haitian man takes part in a voodoo ritual in Port-au-Prince in November 2009
Some argue voodoo should play a leading role

A month before Haiti's devastating earthquake, prominent musician Theodore "Lolo" Beaubrun and a few friends were summoned by spirits who tried to warn them about the impending cataclysm.

"They told us to pray for Haiti because many people would die," says Mr Beaubrun - the frontman of the group Boukman Eksperyans.

"I thought it was about politics. I didn't know it was going to be an earthquake."

The spirits may have failed to make themselves understood, but according to Mr Beaubrun - whose music and outlook are steeped in voodoo culture - they are standing by the Haitian people in their hour of need.

"We are extremely traumatised," he says.

"We have seen death. But the spirits entered the minds of people to advise and help them heal. They speak to us. It's like therapy."

But Mr Breaubrun's idea that voodoo should play a leading role in helping victims of the country's worst-ever natural disaster is currently little more than a hope.

Voodoo relief

Haiti's traditional religion has kept a low profile in the aftermath of the earthquake.

The songs and prayers heard amid the rubble and tent cities around Port-au-Prince are overwhelmingly Christian.

Theodore Lolo Beaubrun
Some Christian communities do not want to give food to voodoo followers
Theodore 'Lolo' Beaubrun

The voodoo religion may be practised by many Haitians - the exact number is unknown - and has not been totally absent from the aid effort.

Louis Leslie Marcelin, another singer who also describes himself as a spiritual guide and healer, has used his home in Port-au-Prince as an alternative school and a care centre.

"We work with children and parents," he says. "We work with poor people whose relatives have died."

But such efforts by voodoo leaders have been few and far between. The bulk of the religious relief aid work in Haiti has been carried out by Catholic and Protestant groups.

"For a religion that's supposedly the national religion of the Haitian people, it's amazingly absent in the earthquake phenomena," says Gerald Murray, a University of Florida anthropologist who has carried out extensive fieldwork in Haiti.


Some argue that voodoo's conspicuous absence in the aftermath of the quake is due to prejudice. Many Christians - especially Protestants - regard voodoo as devil worship.

This idea was expressed in its most striking form by the US televangelist Pat Robertson, who said shortly after the quake that Haiti had made a "pact with the devil" when it defeated French colonists two centuries ago.

According to Mr Beaubrun, such attitudes have been in evidence during relief operations.

"Some Christian communities do not want to give food to voodoo followers," he says.

"As soon as they see people wearing peasant clothes or voodoo handkerchiefs, they put them aside and deny them food.

"This is something I've seen."

Quake rubble in Port-au-Prince, 10 Feb 2010
The 12 January quake left more than a million homeless

Hostility to voodoo - which blends elements of Christianity with West African animistic beliefs and practices - is indeed rife among some evangelical groups in Haiti and elsewhere.

However most mainstream Christians - notably Catholics - have insisted on not marginalising the voodoo faith.

Father Reginald Jean-Marie of Notre-Dame, the largest Roman Catholic church in Miami's Little Haiti, insists: "Any system of belief that people cling to especially in a time of crisis can be of help to them."

Blaming voodoo for the country's problems, he says, is "theological nonsense".

"When the (Asian) tsunami happened it was not because people did wrong," he says.

"Things happen because they are natural disasters. If you claim that voodoo is responsible for those things, then is God responsible when bad things happen to good Christians?"

Faraway god

The three days of prayer held for earthquake victims on 12, 13 and 14 February pointedly included voodoo practitioners.

And, perhaps equally pointedly, a houngan (voodoo priest) taking part in the event stressed the common element between his faith and Christianity.

People pray among the ruins of the Sacre Coeur church in Port-au-Prince on 14 January
Religious faith plays an important role in Haitian society

He told the BBC he would "pray to bondye" - referring to the voodoo supreme god, while not stressing the "loa", the lesser spirits that are at the centre of rituals.

This suggests tension between Haiti's rival faiths is not the main reason for voodoo's lack of visibility after the earthquake.

The principal factor, according to anthropologist Gerald Murray, could be theological.

In the voodoo belief system, natural disasters are not caused by the "loa", but by a distant "bondye".

The supreme being that unleashes the forces of nature is an unfathomable entity which cannot be influenced.

Only the lowly "loa", Mr Murray notes, can be accessed or propitiated - often through rituals led by houngans.

The main role of these specialists, Mr Murray adds, is the diagnosis and healing of an individual's illnesses.

"They have not traditionally played a role of national, social leaders of any type," he says.

"They will continue to be spirit healers for people who believe that their problems have been caused by the loa - but this earthquake was not caused by the loa."

Many Haitians will find solace in voodoo, which remains an important element of Haitian identity.

But the coping strategies it offers in the aftermath of the earthquake may be limited.