At a glance: Haiti

Field diary: Returning to Haiti, UNICEF staffer finds hope

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Haiti/2010/Monier
Women and children wash clothes in Camp Hope, 5 km from the Dominican Republic border.

UNICEF Regional Communication Officer Tamar Hahn sent this field diary after visiting a temporary settlement for earthquake-affected Haitian children and families.

PANAMA CITY, Panama, 5 May 2010 – I have just returned from Haiti, my first visit there since witnessing the indescribable destruction just after the 12 January earthquake.

I went to Haiti in the immediate aftermath of the quake and have been working to support UNICEF’s emergency response ever since. But now – more than three months later – I wanted to see firsthand how the country, its people and, most important, its children were faring.

Life in Camp Hope

I came back to Haiti seeking some hope. And that is exactly what I found in the form of Camp Hope, a settlement that some 1,500 displaced Haitians now call home. Just 5 km from the border with the Dominican Republic, the camp is a dusty, desolate tract of land with tents provided by the Red Cross and UNICEF.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Haiti/2010/Monier
Children play in Camp Hope, near the Haitian border with the Dominican Republic. All unaccompanied children here have been registered.

Touring the site, I was told that all unaccompanied children here had been registered. Adults who came to Camp Hope to collect their children in the weeks following the earthquake had to prove that they were relatives – a crucial step, as the trafficking of children across the border is a major concern.

Up the road from Camp Hope, the field hospital which had cared for 2,000 wounded Haitians after the quake was now treating just 25. The Harvard University doctors and nurses who ran it were dismantling the operation and getting ready to go back home.

It seemed that while Haiti was no longer bleeding, it was far from healed.

‘School is life’

At the camp, children were sitting on wooden benches under plastic sheeting to escape the beating sun. I sat by a small group of young girls and asked them how they were doing.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Haiti/2010/Monier
About 4,700 schools in Haiti were destroyed by the 12 January earthquake. UNICEF and its partners have begun to re-open hundreds of them.

“I am doing fine,” said Jessica, 17, but added, “I am bored, I have nothing to do … and I am hungry.”
 
Jessica also noted that sanitation remains a problem. “The water is disgusting and so are the toilets,” she said. “We all have rashes because of the dirty water.” Indeed, the doctors at the field hospital told me that the water at the camp was contaminated and that it had tested positive for E. coli bacteria.

Jessica’s mother, like many other adults in the camp, was spending her days in Port-au-Prince trying to re-start her business, a stall where she sells used clothes. During the day, Jessica remained in the camp.

Some 4,700 schools were damaged or destroyed by the earthquake and, last month, UNICEF began to open several hundred of them. Yet Jessica told me that, like many children, she still could not afford the uniform, shoes and books needed to attend. She told me that going back to school would make her happy. When I asked her why, she just smiled and said, “Because school is life!”

Continuing to survive

Returning for the first time, I saw a noticeable difference in the Haitian capital, Port-au-Prince. The city was full of life again – chaotic, fast-paced and noisy. The streets remain a colourful bazaar with hundreds of stands selling all kinds of goods, including shoes hanging from tree branches, corn roasted on the sidewalk, tires, pillows and even French champagne by the bucket.

UNICEF Image
© UNICEF Haiti/2010/Monier
Jessica, 17, is one resident of Camp Hope, near Haiti's border with the Dominican Republic. While UNICEF is helping to re-open schools in the area, Jessica - like many displaced children - still cannot afford to attend.

But despite the bustle, there is a quiet anxiety here. Overcrowded camps are everywhere. Their makeshift tents have now been replaced by real ones bearing the logos of UN agencies and non-governmental organizations. There are latrines, water and food – even though the water is not always sufficient and the latrines are often overflowing and unusable.

At night, the camps become dark, dangerous places. Women and girls have been raped, and aid workers warn parents to keep their children close.

For the hundreds of thousands of Haitians still camped in this squalor, life is only slightly better than it was right after the earthquake, when they bundled up whatever possessions they had left and took to the streets. The government has begun to move some of the displaced people into more permanent spaces, where they will be protected from the imminent rainy season – but progress is excruciatingly slow.

In the meantime, the inhabitants of Port-au-Prince continue to survive.


 

 

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