Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Amid Haiti’s despair, hope

In a country devastated by a deadly earthquake,
resurrection begins, little by little

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti — At the bottom of a steep, muddy slope inside a wrought-iron fence encircling the prime minister’s compound, a baby named Patricia was born without medical care in a nylon camping tent on Mother’s Day.

A searing sun and temperatures in the upper 90s made the inside of the tent feel like an oven hot enough to bake bread. Flies and mosquitoes swarmed on the 3-day-old baby’s face. Her mother, Kimberley, waved a square of cardboard back and forth in a feeble attempt to fan the baby and shoo away bugs inside the inferno they called home.

The stench of overflowing portable toilets mingled with the smells of rotting fruit, sweaty bodies, charcoal fires and diesel exhaust from a busy road that rings the complex in the heart of downtown.

Against the odds, the baby, who was being breast-fed, appeared healthy despite the hellish surroundings. She and her mother were crammed together with more than 500 homeless families displaced by the earthquake into a scrum of tents hunched in the shadow of a gleaming, whitewashed mansion at the top of the hill.

The heartbreaking history of Haiti was encapsulated in that tableau: the exploitation of African slaves imported by French colonial rulers, a succession of brutal and corrupt Haitian dictators, political instability that caused multi-national corporations to pull out, and the collapse of the country’s economy that left it the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

But four months after a cataclysmic earthquake killed an estimated 230,000 people, injured 300,000 more, left 1.5 million people homeless and leveled tens of thousands of homes and buildings in the nation of 9 million, the bleak scene of block after block of crumbled structures was brightened somewhat by the indomitable spirit of the Haitians.

Families crammed together in tent cities with no running water or toilet facilities somehow managed to send their children to parochial schools in clean jumpers and blouses, with matching colored bows in neatly braided hair. Women carried heavy buckets of water for the day’s laundry back to their encampments, balanced atop their heads and resting on wadded towels for comfort. Men played the numbers, slapped down domino tiles and drank bottles of Prestige beer in the shade of corner kiosks in the early evening.

Only the government seemed to be missing in action.

“The government has done nothing and the prime minister hasn’t even come outside to talk to us,” the baby’s mother said in Creole, translated into English by Patrick Trenard, a guide and driver who lived for several years in New York City. The earthquake destroyed the home Trenard rented with his wife and three children and now they’re sleeping in a tent in a park.

During a week spent crisscrossing this sprawling, devastated capital, it was evident that the saving grace of Haiti resides in its resilient, courageous people and not in a paralyzed, disengaged bureaucracy symbolized by a crumbled presidential palace where no excavation work has been completed and a single backhoe sat idle. Nearby, all that was left of the Supreme Court building was a pile of rubble.

Street protests and demonstrations are fueling a rising anger from distrustful, displaced masses calling for the ouster of President Rene Preval and a return of exiled President Jean-Baptiste Aristide. People living in the prime minister’s compound and in encampments across the city are demanding a functioning, legitimate government after elections for members of Parliament were canceled in February and a vote for a new president this November is uncertain after Preval was granted emergency authority to govern without a Legislature.

A palpable sense that anarchy and violence lurks beneath a tense, jittery surface, as heavily armed Brazilian soldiers in U.N. armored vehicles rumble through rubble-strewn streets on security patrols.

Sleep deprivation didn’t help the tense situation. Many complained about a lack of sleep during May’s rainy season, marked by nearly daily deluges. A two-hour downpour the night before forced the mother, her newborn and six relatives crowded into the tent to stand. They clutched dry blankets and clothing to their chests and tried to keep their belongings off the ground until the rains subsided and a stream stopped running under the tent.

Leve-kanpe domi, they call it in Creole. The stand-up sleep.

Next month, the hurricane season begins, when punishing winds will wreak havoc on ramshackle shelters fashioned from tarps, cardboard, sheets and plywood. Even the camping tents donated from around the world likely will not withstand hurricane-force storms.

For a country that was already broken and teetering on the edge of crisis — with more than 80 percent of the population living below the poverty level and most people subsisting on less than $3 a day — the 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12 pushed Haiti into an abyss in just 35 seconds of seismic activity. The country is only beginning to emerge from the darkness of the catastrophe. An estimated 40 percent of the people living in tent cities remain too traumatized and afraid to move back into homes that are still standing and only marginally damaged — as aftershocks continue to stoke their fears.

Four months after the quake, distribution of food, water and emergency relief aid has ended. The international media have moved on. The world’s attention has focused elsewhere. The hot, dusty and fractured landscape of Port-au-Prince bore an eerie resemblance to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast after Hurricane Katrina, with pile after pile of ghostly, untouched concrete chunks where homes and stores had once stood.

“We need help” was scrawled in red spray paint above collapsed doorways and on the the edges of jagged piles of rubble, all long ago abandoned.

Atop these grim piles, a few clusters of people used picks, shovels and bare hands to move aside busted chunks of concrete. They dumped the jumbled mess into the road, further exacerbating traffic jams on streets laced with downed power lines and broken utility poles, already clogged with motorcycles and tap-taps, a type of taxi.

The metallic clang of hammers pounding on chisels rang out above the urban cacophony as salvagers chipped out steel rebar to sell at impromptu curbside scrap metal yards.

At a handful of sites in the capital, U.S. and French troops operated backhoes and dump trucks to clear rubble more quickly and efficiently, although their progress was slowed by the discovery of bodies under the thick debris of a destroyed school.

Built with cheap concrete blocks and flat concrete roofs, using a weak cement mix and minimal steel reinforcing bars to cut costs, five-story buildings pancaked to the ground or slid off steep hillsides and broke apart like sand castles on the beach at high tide when the earthquake struck.

It appeared that the next phase in Haiti, reconstruction, for which the international community has pledged $9.9 billion, has not begun in any significant way. Here and there, a few people tried to rebuild homes and businesses by mixing cement in cooking pots and troweling the mortar mix onto concrete blocks. They did not appear to be adding steel rebar, the same building technique that failed in January.

The only exception observed was the newly constructed palace of the mayor of Delmas, an upscale suburban district of Port-au-Prince.

Surrounded by tent cities and barely passable dirt streets, a freshly paved road led to the Delmas mayor’s mansion, a gaudy example of Spanish architecture with a palm tree-lined driveway, a luxurious fountain and a waterfall — and armed guards at the wrought-iron gate.

In contrast, down the narrow, choked side streets of Port-au-Prince, thousands of refugees huddle in tent cities in public squares, municipal parks and vacant lots, where open sewage stews and piles of garbage rot under a broiling sun. Roadside vendors sell Coca-Cola, mangoes, bananas, rice, beans, grilled ears of corn, charcoal and ice. Tailors, barbers, typists and auto mechanics plied their trades in curbside kiosks.

They were not waiting for help from a government that had failed them so many times before. They tapped an inner power and a strong vein of faith that runs through Haiti and is preserved in a deeply rooted and vibrant culture. It’s expressed in a popular Haitian proverb: Lespwa fe viv. Hope makes one live.

In the short term, comfort and sustenance are arriving in the form of small, grass-roots volunteer groups like the one from Albany, and church teams from Denver and Grand Rapids and Baltimore who were in Haiti to repair damaged buildings and dispense medical supplies. Mostly, they offered a show of solidarity and a reminder that the earthquake victims had not been forgotten while the rest of the world moved on.

Hundreds who waited for hours to receive a medical examination from Dr. Bob Paeglow, of Albany, complained of similar symptoms: headaches, stomach pain, loss of appetite, an inability to focus.

“Are you depressed?” he asked.

“Oui” came the reply, followed with an averted gaze.

A prayer, a handful of ibuprofen pills and a prescription for anti-depressants was all Paeglow could offer.

Paeglow is a veteran of dozens of medical missions to the poorest parts of the world and not even the horrors of refugee camps in war-torn Mozambique prepared him for the scale and depth of the earthquake’s destruction in Haiti.

And yet at the end of a day he spent treating 150 patients who had lost family members and their homes and were living in tents, he was stopped in his tracks when he heard something unexpected rising from the crowd: singing, dancing, clapping and heads thrown back in jubilation.

They were rejoicing in Kafou Fey, one of the hardest-hit areas on the outskirts of the capital, where only a trickle of emergency relief supplies had reached.

“That’s why I do this work,” Paeglow said. “To see such joy in a situation like this gives me hope.”

As a tap-tap rattled over battered roads leading back to downtown Port-au-Prince, the Haitian driver whispered a proverb in Creole: Piti, piti, wazo fe nich li.

Little by little the bird builds its nest.

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at pgrondahl@timesunion.com.

Times Union reporter Paul Grondahl traveled with a local group on a weeklong humanitarian mission to Haiti. To view a photo gallery, video, slide show and previous dispatches of the trip, go to http://www.timesunion.com/specialreports/haiti

This story is available only in print.

‘A Forum on Haiti,’ a discussion with Paul Grondahl and others who were on a recent mission to the devastated country, will be at the Linda 11 a.m. Thursday, June 3. View slides and hear audio from the streets of Port-au-Prince

Haiti

• Infrastructure: Port-au-Prince, the nation’s sprawling capital with a population of 3 million in the city and surrounding area, was decimated. A considerable portion of its infrastructure was damaged or destroyed, including factories, government buildings, large stores and offices, commercial facilities and more than 250,000 homes.

• Education: More than 4,000 public and private schools were damaged or destroyed. Many remain closed.

• Housing: Crowded tent cities and shantytowns have sprung up in parks, public squares and a golf course. These temporary shelters lack clean water and adequate sanitation and the close quarters exacerbate contagious and water-borne diseases. There has also been a reported spike in rapes and other violence in the camps.

• Relief: The Red Cross distributed tarps, tents and tool kits for 450,000 people; gave out more than 100 million liters of clean drinking water; built 1,300 latrines; and helped vaccinate 800,000 people against deadly diseases.

• Reconstruction: The Red Cross has spent more than $112 million so far in Haiti, about one-fourth of the amount it raised in donations from Americans. Officials vowed to spend the remaining money on carefully selected reconstruction projects, which are still in the planning stages.

• Ongoing aid: The international community has pledged $9.9 billion for Haiti’s reconstruction and the commission overseeing the rebuilding effort is led by former President Bill Clinton, a co-chairman, and Dr. Paul Farmer, Partners in Health co-founder and the deputy U.N. special envoy to Haiti.

Source: Associated Press, Red Cross

By the numbers

230,000 Estimated people killed.

1.5 million Left homeless in a nation of 9 million.

300,000 Estimated people injured, including 3,000 who lost a limb.

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