Field Diary: Return to Haiti
By Tamar Hahn
I just returned from Haiti, my first visit since I was there in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake. I had been supporting UNICEF response ever since and now, three months after I witnessed first hand the indescribable destruction I wanted to see how the country, its people and, most importantly, its children were faring.
I came seeking some hope for Haiti and that is exactly what I found, in the form of Camp Hope, an IDP settlement just five kilometers away from the border with the Dominican Republic. Camp Hope is what 1500 displaced Haitians from Port au Prince call home these days. It is a dusty, desolate tract of land with tents provided by the Red Cross and UNICEF.
I was told that all unaccompanied children had been registered and adults who came during the weeks following the earthquake to collect their children had to prove that they were relatives. This is crucial as the trafficking of children across the border has been a major concern. Up the road from Camp Hope, the field hospital which had cared for 2,000 wounded Haitians was now treating just 25 and the Harvard doctors and nurses who run it were dismantling the operation and getting ready to go back home.
At the camp, children were sitting on wooden benches under plastic sheeting, escaping the beating sun. I sat by a small group of young girls and asked them how they were doing. “I am doing fine,” said 17 year old Jessica. “But the water is disgusting and so are the toilets and we have no privacy at the showers so we have to bathe very late at night or before the sun comes out. We all have rashes because of the dirty water.”
Indeed, the doctors at the field hospital had 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 restart her business, a stall where she sells used clothes. I asked Jessica what she did during the day, if she went to school. She said she did not because she had no money for her uniform, shoes and books. “I am bored, I have nothing to do. All I do is read this,” she said handing me a booklet of daily prayers entitled Messages of Hope. “And I am hungry.”
I asked Jessica what she needed to make her life better. She told me she wanted to go back to school. And when I asked her why she just smiled and said “because school is life!”
Port au Prince: No longer bleeding but far from healed
In Port au Prince I was asked by a colleague whether I saw a noticeable difference. I did. The city was full of life again. Chaotic, fast-paced, noisy life. A life of quiet anxiety. The camps are still everywhere, the makeshift tents have been replaced by real ones, bearing the logos of UN agencies and NGOs. There are latrines, water and food even though the water is not always sufficient and the latrines are often overflowing and unusable. The camps remain incredibly crowded spaces, filled with garbage, precariously built on barren, dusty squares and parks which are a rainfall away from becoming a toxic cesspool. And the rainy season is here, to be followed by the hurricane season next month.
For the hundreds of thousands of Haitians now camped out in squalor life is only slightly better than it was three months ago, when they bundled up whatever possessions they had left and took to the streets. The camps might have some basic services but at night they are dark, dangerous places where women and girls are raped, where aid workers warn parents to keep their children close for fear of kidnappings and abuse, where widespread disease is a constant threat.
The government has begun to move some of the displaced people into more permanent spaces where they will be more protected from the rain but it is an excruciatingly slow-moving process.
In the meantime, the inhabitants of Port au Prince, continue to survive. The streets are a colorful, chaotic bazaar with hundreds of stands selling everything and anything: shoes which hang from tree branches, corn roasted on the sidewalk, iron gates, tires, pillows, pipes, French champagne by the bucket, aspirin bottles, cell phone chargers, a pedicure, pregnancy tests, mangoes.
Haitians are trying to eke out a living in whatever way they can. And they do so surrounded by rubble and by the many bodies that are still buried under it. Every other building is a pile of broken cement and twisted wire. The process of removing the rubble is on-going but it is estimated that it will take two years to clean up the city. Every house bears a stamp at the entrance which is either green, yellow or red. The green stamps mean that the house is in good condition, the yellow ones that it needs reinforcement and the red ones signifies that it is unfit for living and will be demolished. The UNICEF office, which I was able to see for the first time, falls under the last category.
Port au Prince looks like an open wound. No longer bleeding but far from healed. I saw the words Nou Bouke spray-painted on the walls and asked my driver what they meant. He told me it meant “we are exhausted.”
Amidst the hustle and bustle, the garbage-strewn streets and the piles of debris children walk to school. Over 4,000 schools were destroyed by the earthquake and, last month, UNICEF began to open 120 of them. In a country where 55 per cent of children did not receive an education prior to the earthquake, the sight of these boys and girls negotiating piles of rubble, traffic and the chaos of this city dressed in perfectly ironed uniforms is the best sign of progress.