Five Years After Earthquake, Haiti Teeters Between Chaos and Hope

Haiti

Faith, Hope and Chaos

On a grim anniversary, much is left to be done. But a brewing political crisis could put a dent in those plans.

January 12, 2015

Above, Haitians commemorate the earthquake anniversary by planting crosses inscribed with the names of loved ones lost in the rubble. (AP Photo/Jean Marc Herve Abelard)

JANUARY 12, 2015

As my plane began its descent into Port-au-Prince, I could already see the shoddy homes held together by low-grade cement, metal sheets and blue tarps that dot the landscape. Crumbling structures teetered on the mountainside, still vulnerable to any kind of natural disaster. It’s been five years since a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck Port-au-Prince; since then progress and rebuilding has been hampered by a slew of crises and political chaos. But, amid the political strife and abject poverty, small glimmers of hope appear. This is not the first time the Haitian people have faced tragedy and despair; my guarded optimism is rooted in their resilience.

On January 12, 2010, I was a senior in college. My winter vacation was coming to an end so I was at home in suburban Washington, D.C., with my parents, who are Haitian immigrants. Ask anyone with any sort of tie to Haiti where they were that day and they’ll recount it with such clarity that you’ll forget it was half a decade ago.

I was folding laundry in the family room when I heard my father’s hurried footsteps. He came down the stairs so quickly he nearly tripped. An earthquake had hit Haiti. “What does this mean?” I asked, panic rising in my chest. “Everything is gone,” my father replied in an eerily calm voice.

As reports rolled in from Haiti—my father’s worst fears began to materialize. The Haitian government estimated between 200,000 – 300,000 deaths. Many of the buildings in Port-au-Prince sustained damage, including the National Palace. The port had suffered damage so severe that emergency aid was certainly going to be hindered. Port-au-Prince’s already precarious hospitals were dealing with an unprecedented amount of injured people. Life in Haiti was forever altered.

On the fifth anniversary of the earthquake, Haiti appears to be moving forward, but at a snail’s pace. The frenzy surrounding the recovery effort in 2010 has fizzled out. For the first few weeks after the earthquake, Haiti was the center of attention in the media and in the international community. Politicians and celebrities descended upon Port-au-Prince, benefit concerts and fundraisers were held in major cities in the U.S.

But as with all disasters, everyone quickly lost interest when other humanitarian catastrophes came along. So, without the watchful eye of the media and the public, Haiti began its rebuilding process—but the effort was flawed from the beginning.

The United States Agency for International Development allotted 1,490 contracts for the reconstruction of Haiti; only 23 of them went to Haitian firms. The remaining contacts were awarded to U.S.-based firms and for-profit companies. Essentially, the United States was tasked with rebuilding the country, leaving the natives no say about their own future.

To add insult to injury, in October 2010 a cholera epidemic began in the Artibonite region of Haiti. After toxic sludge from a United Nations base staffed by Nepalese soldiers was discovered leaking into the Artibonite River, scientists quickly linked the strain of cholera sickening Haitians with the same strand that was endemic in Nepal. As of today, more than 9,400 people have died of the introduced pathogen, and more than 780,000 have been infected. The U.N. effort to eradicate Haiti’s cholera has been dismal and Secretary General Ban-ki Moon non-apology was laughable at best.

While the cholera outbreak raged and Haiti attempted to dig out from the rubble, President Rene Preval’s term ended and, as chaos reigned, a new president had to be elected. Michel Martelly, a famous konpa singer also known by his stage name, Sweet Micky, was elected in what was regarded as an election decided by the international community—namely the United States. Martelly does have supporters, but his opposition remains a force to be reckoned with. After failing to hold parliamentary elections for more than three years, demonstrations against the Martelly government reached a fever pitch in 2014. With no elections, the terms of both houses of government expire today. At this writing, Haiti is poised to face its milestone anniversary of its most devastating disaster with no functioning government.

Martelly, then, will begin his rule by decree—an alarming aspect for a country with a tumultuous history fraught with dictatorships and tyranny.

 

Since its inception after a hard-fought and bloody slave revolt against its French colonial masters in 1804, Haiti’s development has been hindered by disasters both man-made and natural. Feeling threatened by the slave revolt and fearing a slave revolt in the U.S., the American government refused to recognize Haitian independence until 1862. The resulting embargo barred Haiti from participating in global trade, crippling its economy and preventing its development. Not to be outdone by the U.S., France demanded reparations of 90 million francs for its loss of property (slaves) during the revolution; until 1947, Haiti actually made such “reparation” payments to France.

Haiti was plagued by coups and a cycle of political violence throughout the entire 19th century. After President Vilbrun Guillaume Sam was overthrown and his mutilated body was paraded through the street in 1915, the United States sent its own military to the island nation; the U.S. occupied Haiti until 1934. After the U.S. retreat, political instability in Haiti remained the norm until Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier came to power and eventually named himself President for Life in 1957.

(AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery)

A man writes in Creole "Down Martelly" on a wall during a protest demanding the resignation of President Michel Martelly in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Sunday, January 11, 2015. At the same time, Martelly and opposition officials were locked again in negotiations at a hotel, trying to forge a last-minute deal to resolve a standoff stalling elections. Martelly will rule by decree if they don't resolve the political crisis by the end of Monday. 

The Duvalier reign was marked by violence, disappearances of critics, and fear. After his death in 1971, his son Jean-Claude “Baby Doc” Duvalier was named his successor. Baby Doc was 19 when he assumed power. A playboy unfamiliar with politics, he was run out of office in 1986. Haiti saw five presidents between Baby Doc’s exile and the 1991 election of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the first democratically elected president of Haiti. His presidency didn’t last long, though, as he was overthrown in a military coup just eight months into his presidency.

From 1991 to 1994, Haiti was run by a violent paramilitary, many of them former members of Papa Doc’s police force, the Tonton Macoutes. Aristide was re-installed by the international community, but was overthrown again in 2004. The United Nations sent a peacekeeping force after the second coup against the elected president, and they’ve remained in Haiti ever since. In 2008, four tropical storms killed hundreds and destroyed much-needed crops. And in 2010, while the country was still reeling, the earthquake came and destroyed what little progress had been made.

 

Toussaint L’Overture International Airport is modernized and clean, if a little warm. While visitors and citizens alike wait in the passport control section, large-screen televisions replay a message from then-Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe (who was forced to resign on December 13 ), touting the regime’s tourism expansion. Lamothe is clean-cut and light-skinned—a sign that he belongs to the tiny Haitian elite.

If the airport is orderly and efficient, the roads of Port-au-Prince provide direct contrast. The gridlock on the streets of the capital city makes the Wednesday before Thanksgiving in any northeastern American city look like a well-organized exercise. My uncle’s personal friend, Dr. Kerby Alcindor, drives through the streets with the amazing dexterity, patience and fearlessness required for driving in Haiti.

As Dr. Kerby, as he likes to be called, maneuvered the truck through a combination of new roads and pothole-ridden side streets, sidewalk merchants packed up their goods for the day. Friends darted in between cars laughing and chatting while cars honked at them. On Delmas Boulevard, activity is buzzing. The road is lit with solar panels; men sit in barbershops, children tell secrets underneath trees and teenagers walk down the street with their eyes glued to their cell phones.

The winding roads settle down and get wider as we approach Petionville, the well-to-do suburb where my hotel is. It’s nighttime, but you can tell that we’re in wealthy territory. The people are well scrubbed and electrical poles are still covered in Tet Kale posters—a nickname for President Michel Martelly, and a term of endearment conferred upon bald men—from his 2011 campaign.

It’s strange to be in such an upscale hotel after driving through the crowds and poverty of Port-au-Prince. Up in the hills, I had electricity, running water, internet, cable and access to lavish food; down below some were struggling to feed their families and living in squalid conditions.

 

(AP Photo/Dieu Nalio Chery, File)

In this January 9, 2013, file photo, residents of the Jean-Marie Vincent camp for people displaced by the 2010 earthquake, wait for customers outside their tent where they have set up a stand to sell rice, oil and canned goods, in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. More than a million people were left without homes in Haiti after the quake.

According to the International Organization for Migration’s Camp Coordination and Camp Management Cluster in Haiti, 79,397 Haitians are still living in camps for the internally displaced as of December 2014. The housing situation in Port-au-Prince was already a plague; lack of land titles and building codes has led to overcrowding and dangerous situations. Immediately after the earthquake, approximately 1.5 million people were rendered homeless.

Before I head out to visit one of the IDP camps, my guide for the day, Jean Maret Josef, has me change into a long, blue conservative dress so I draw less attention to myself. As I pack my bag to head out Josef exclaims, “Oh!” and walks out of the room. He comes back tucking a gun into his waistband for “extra protection.” He doesn’t think we’ll need it, but you can never be too sure.

The tent camp in Carrefour is tucked behind a concrete wall. Sticks, wooden slabs, tarps and even blankets hold the tents together. When I arrive, a dozen people poked their heads out of their tents to catch a glimpse of the visiting American journalist. Solomon, 56 and free of timidity, stands at the front of the group, ready to talk to me. Dressed in a black t-shirt and gray basketball shorts, he describes what life is like for him in this camp.

(AP Photo/David McFadden)

Women in the camps are giving birth in squalid conditions. In this June 30, 2014, photo, Evelyn Melisma holds her 7-month-old baby outside their tent home in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, as his fever spikes with a newly arrived mosquito-borne illness. 

“Animals live better than this,” Solomon says shaking his head. When it rains, everyone must stand up because the flooding is so severe. No organizations bring food, water, or supplies and all of their toiletries are done in the ocean. Before the earthquake, Solomon was living in a house. After its destruction, he moved to this tent camp and he’s been here ever since with his five daughters.

There are children younger than five toddling around the camp, indicating that women are giving birth in these conditions. With no job prospects, some seem to be settled permanently in the tent camps.

When I ask if I can talk to a woman, a shy 20-year-old timidly steps forward. Her name is Etemar, and she seems like she wants to say more but is nervous with all eyes on her. Etemar was in high school when the earthquake hit. She, too, has been in the camp for five years; she wished she could have finished high school and gone to college, but when she couldn’t afford to pay tuition she was kicked out of school.

When I ask Etemar what she does all day, she shrugs. “I just sit here,” she says, ruefully.  If she had her way, she’d be back in school. Etemar believes that the Haitian government should help more young people like her. On the other side of the wall, the streets are flooded with children and teenagers who are fortunate enough to be able to afford school. It’s time for lunch; those whose parents have food will be fed, but some will go back for afternoon lessons on an empty stomach.

 

Jean Maret Josef is the principal of Institution Chrétienne d'Haïti (ICDH) a school of about 200 children—which is quite small for Carrefour, where some schools have thousands of children crammed into tiny, hot classroom. Josef appears to be a benevolent principal. When I arrive at the school, there are two young boys on their knees—a genou—as a form of punishment. He quietly lectures them on behaving and sends them back to their classrooms. He doesn’t believe in spanking children, unlike many Haitians of his generation.

The children I speak with are matter-of-fact about their earthquake stories. Everyone in Haiti lost someone on January 12, 2010. A 12-year old boy tells me that even though his house wasn’t destroyed he slept outside with his family out of fear of aftershocks causing more damage.

The school is two levels, with air-conditioned classrooms and a big open courtyard in the center. The children wear uniforms and speak impeccable English. Inside Josef’s office, which is adorned with certificates and awards, he launches into his personal earthquake story.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon, his students had gone home and Josef had dozed off while watching a James Bond movie in his office. “I heard a lot of dogs barking and a lot of noise in the street. I was trying to raise my head and see what was going on, but I couldn’t get up. I thought I was dreaming.” Josef was on the fourth floor of a five-story building. His wife and children were down below.

The entire building collapsed and he was buried for eight hours, waiting for death. “The dust covered my mouth and my nose. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t talk. I prayed to God, ‘Let me go peacefully.’” While Josef lay in the rubble, his wife and children perished down below. Sensing pain, I didn’t push the details about his loss.

Eventually, neighbors came around and pulled him from the rubble. Luckily, he had connections at the United States Embassy and was eventually taken to a Miami hospital by helicopter. After 13 days, Josef finally opened his eyes. “They couldn’t save my fingers,” he said, showing me his hand with only two fingers left.

“I stayed in the U.S. for 10 months. I came back to Haiti on November 28.  Everything was…functioning. Not back to normal, but functioning.” Jean Josef thinks the future of Haiti is rooted in education. As an educator with formal training, the only way Haiti can truly move forward and recover from centuries of mismanagement and the earthquake is to focus on the young people.

Institution Chrétienne d'Haïti

Students at Institution Chrétienne d'Haïti pose for a photographer.

“It hurts me to see young people finish high school and then not have a place to go to [college],” laments Josef. He’d also like to see political stability, the rebuilding of infrastructure and environmental work. And, he believes, teaching the upcoming generation how to achieve those goals may just be the key.

Nearly everyone I interviewed in Haiti mentioned education. Education is not a cure-all; but Haitians see a better future through a younger generation educated about politics, environment, economics and history.

In Port-au-Prince, the streets are now mostly free of earthquake rubble, but trash and debris still litter the city. There have been slight improvements—new roads, a new construction projects—but saying that the reconstruction effort has brought about tide-turning change to the capital would be a stretch. High unemployment and abject poverty still run rampant. Petionville is up and coming, but tens of thousands of Haitians are still living in tents.

Has Haiti improved in the last five years? Yes and no. Small things, like Josef’s school provide hope. Other small successes, like new roads leading out of the city to provincial Haiti, and the orderly, efficient airport, challenge the notion that Haiti is a lost cause. But with no justice for the victims of cholera, the explosion of the political crisis, and the slow reconstruction process, Haiti’s future remains uncertain.

If the Haitian government can come together without the meddling of the international community to promote a progressive, sustainable economy and an inclusive society, maybe the 10th anniversary of the earthquake will seem more promising.  

 

 

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