Haiti: Two months later

TOPhaitiLEAD

The busy streets of the Haitian
capital were a subject of stimulus overload even before the 12 January
earthquake.

During the day, hoards of street
vendors carried miscellaneous items, anything from fried plantains to
flashlights, in large baskets perched atop their heads. Other vendors remained
stationary behind coolers full of Guinness and Malta beverages. Brightly coloured
“tap-tap” cabs jockeyed for position on the roads, challenged by a seemingly
infinite number of multi-person motorcycles and custom painted buses.

The traffic in Port Au Prince
supplied headache inducing honking that polluted the streets almost more than
the thick black exhaust that poured from the very same vehicles.  After sunset, people gathered on the street
sides to talk loudly to neighbours and laugh with passers-by. On public
transportation, it was common for someone to stand at the front of the bus and
face the passengers to passionately proclaim the importance of faith and
religion. These are a few examples of elements in the Haitian culture that the
7.0 magnitude earthquake did not change. 

In a city where the estimated
230,000 deaths account for almost one quarter of the former population, it is
difficult to imagine how busy the Port Au Prince streets must have before the
quake. Manoeuvring on foot through the city streets proves to be a taxing
endeavour. Every road and side street seems to be flooded with vendors, traffic
and rubble. Nearly every second building is damaged, if not completely
obliterated. The buildings that stood on the corner of the blocks have fallen
into the streets. Some buildings have collapsed onto themselves and now
resemble stacks of massive concrete waffles. Others no longer bear resemblance
to buildings at all, but randomly placed piles of twisted rebar and grey
blocks.

These concrete buildings were
suitable shelters during the annual hurricane season, but were inescapable
graves for many residents during the unpredictable earthquake. Most structures
that were erected using wood still remain upright, although they suffer at
least minor damages. 

Jean Claude Louis, a former
resident of Leogane, explains that a Third World country that often gets
ravaged by hurricanes cannot be built from wooden structures alone. The
concrete houses proved to be a reasonable solution to withstand winds and heavy
raining. The last quake that devastated Haiti happened in the mid 1800s, so the
people are used to planning for tropical storms, not massive earthquakes.

The streets after dark in Port Au
Prince are reminiscent of any 1980s post-apocalypse themed movie.

Groups of giant black and grey pigs
rummage through the garbage that has been piling up within the streets and
between buildings. Many of the trash heaps are set on fire, which only adds to
the opaque smog and horrible stench. The pungent odour is distinctly that of
decay and waste. Only eyes peer out as people cover their faces with bandanas
and shirts while staggering in between slowly moving vehicles, rushing and elbowing
each other to secure a wooden seat inside a tap-tap. A woman grabs the hand of
a resident who is escorting a displaced white man and shuffles them both onto
an already overloaded city bus. During all of the chaos, lights in the distance
from still-standing homes in the hills of Port Au Prince flicker and sparkle
like low hovering stars.

Throughout the capital, many tent
cities continue to expand in size and population. One particular tent city is
situated on a Catholic church owned property. 
A select group of men are acting as the security for the area but are
being challenged by government. They have been asked to vacate the premises permanently
and have been given just one week to find an alternate living situation.

The head of security is asked where
he and his community plan to set up residence. He replies that there is nowhere
for any of them to go. The tent districts are quickly becoming overpopulated
and filled with waste. Even with some of the concrete buildings still standing
in the city, the people are too traumatized to spend any period of time within
these structures. Two months is not nearly sufficient time to restore the
people’s confidence in the infrastructure that formerly existed.

Just miles from the capital, Leogane
is still is in dramatic disrepair.

Over 90 per cent of the structures
are unrecognisable. A school collapsed with over 150 children inside. Had the
earthquake happened a few hours earlier or a few hours later, only half of
these children would have been inside. Six weeks after the earthquake,
countless tent cities occupy the fields and line the side streets and alleyways.
Many of these shelters are not tents at all, but consist of four sticks propping
up ragged sheets or palm leaves. These will not be functional homes when the
unforgiving rainy season inevitably becomes manifest. Hunger and thirst remain
an issue. A water tank is stationed inside a compound with access to the clean
water from out in the street.

Phoebe, a resident of Leogane, says
that the amount of water provided is based on an estimation of how much the
people of the town will consume every 15 days. This measurement does not take
into account the amount of residents who will take water to bathe in and to
cook with.

Food is distributed in different
parts of the town each day.

Phoebe will not be able to walk the
four miles with her daughter and niece to reach tomorrow’s distribution
location. The 1,500 orphans that reside in a neighbourhood outside the heart of
Leogane will also not eat. In this neighbourhood, a man was shot in the stomach
during an altercation at yesterday’s food distribution.

In her native Creole, Phoebe
reveals her discontent and frustration with the efforts that are being made.
She knows that over $2 billion have been funded to aid in relief, but she has
not seen these dollars put to use. There is still not enough clean water to
keep people nourished, there is still not nearly enough food. She has seen the
bright white tents that have been donated by various countries, but wonders
when her town will see any significant assistance. She explains that she has
asked how this money is being utilised, but has received no answer.

In addition to the lack of food,
water and shelter, the Haitians are not receiving adequate medical care. In
Leogane, the hospital remains erect but the premises are vacant. All patients
are now in tents outside of the hospital, sweltering in the daytime heat. In
Port Au Prince, a few volunteer groups struggle to offer medical relief via makeshift
clinics, but are frustrated with the lack of medical supplies that are
accessible. Many of the children waiting to be seen by nurses have visible
parasites protruding from underneath the skin and some others have yellowing
hair.

One boy sits with his mother who
explains that he has had a hernia for over three years but has not been able to
see a doctor. The young mother also has a series of issues that require
attention.  She says that she has to
“drink and wash herself in bad water,” and this has lead to many complications
including vaginal infections. Her modesty and humanity are projected in her
radiant smile that does not seem to coincide with her current situation and
environment. Nearly every woman at this clinic shares this woman’s afflictions.

One man has suffered cracked ribs
after being crushed by what he says was a falling tree. Every adult describes
symptoms such as irregular heart beating, inability to sleep, loss of appetite,
stomach and chest pains. Clearly signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, these
symptoms will not be treated with the limited supplies available at this
clinic. It is evident that bandages and over-the-counter drugs prove to be less
effective than the counselling and instilling of hope that these nurses provide.
Many of the patients who have waited for hours are not seen.

A pastor explains in Creole that
they cannot be cared for today, but to keep praying and do not lose faith. The
people rise from their seats and exit the shelter, without a complaint or
frustrated word to be heard.

While travelling through the towns
and cities of Southern of Haiti, it is very uncommon to witness food
distribution. The delivery of provisions is usually characterised by a small
caravan of stationary small trucks followed by an endless string of people
patiently holding plastic and steel bowls.

Some small organisations have
formed teams of seven to 12 members with the sole task of feeding particular
tent cities each day. Some of these NGOs are very structured in the implementation
of the distribution, because they know the risk of rioting and distress if not
carried out properly.

Without the support of armed guards
or military presence, this has been a very real issue in the last few months.
Many of the tent cities have appointed leaders, who often act as security as
well as a governing body to maintain control and order.

The children of these camps come
exploding out of the sea of tarpaulin dwellings and chase the white trucks with
gleaming grins. They know that not only food has arrived but also desperately
request water, gesticulated by putting their thumbs into their mouths and
tossing their heads back. Portions of rice and beans are liberal, but
occasionally the supply runs dry before the entire camp is fed.

As military troops continue to
vacate the obliterated grounds of Haiti, many of the residents are left
confused, concerned and anxious. The people were already witnessing far less
support than what is required.

The streets remain decimated as
only a few excavators shift rubble about, appearing to make a statement about
presence rather than completing the task. This is regarded with indifference by
the local Haitian people, as they can see that the colossal quantity of
concrete will not be cleared in years to come.

The perception of the Red Cross’
influence is also quite dismal. In addition to the lack of required attendance,
the Haitian Red Cross in Port Au Prince is a grim reflection of how much is
offered versus how much is needed. The dusty studio apartment sized room is
completely empty with the exception of a wooden and canvas stretcher, and a
table with two small cases atop. Inside the cases are a few cotton balls and
Curad products. 

The Haitian people are aware of the
billions of dollars that have been contributed to provide relief, hopefully in
the form of food, water, and shelter. The funding is so substantial that the
people wonder why there is a shortage of these essential items. Wondering,
however, is often the extent of cognitive negativity for many Haitians.
Dwelling on how much support will be provided is counterproductive and
unnecessary. This is evident in the astounding resiliency of the collective
population. Six weeks after an unprecedented disaster devastated the nation, people
live each day as if moving forward is the only option.

Jean Claude Louis stands on a
corner in downtown Leogane and pivots, looking in all directions. “All of these
people are doing what they did months ago. They sell goods, they walk in the
streets and laugh, and they live. The people are the same, only the buildings
are destroyed.”  January 12th 2010 is a
day that dramatically changed the cityscapes and living conditions in the
already exigent country of Haiti; but the faith, spirit and determination of
its people has not been shaken.

Jason Kennedy is a former employee of Cayman Free Press. He has just
returned to his home country of Canada after spending several weeks in Haiti
working in clinics and distributing food.

TOPhaitiSTORY

Collapsed buildings in Port-au-Prince.
Photo: Jason Kennedy
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