Letters from Port-Au-Prince: After the Quake


Haiti's National Palace after the January earthquake

"THIS IS WHAT A CAMP should look like," says Patrick Duigan, a 28-year-old Australian doctor, as we pull into Tabarre Issa, one of the first official relocation camps for Haitians made homeless by the 12 January earthquake that killed around a quarter million people. Here they have medical clinics and extra-wide toilet units for the disabled. At the edge of a landscape of white tents, women are filling up at a water pump, and freshly washed clothes are drying on the line. Still, in the merciless summer heat, this treeless patch of Haiti looks anything but hospitable.

Until today, one of these tents hosted 15-year-old Farah Azor and her father, Jean Felix. Farah's story drew the world's attention when, after nine days trapped and left for dead in the rubble, she emerged alive. She spent several months recovering in the Dominican Republic, and today will move into a transitional shelter, or 'T-shel,' on the lot where her house once stood. I climb into a minivan with Farah and her father to make the trip, and find her smiling shyly, staring out the window.

Farah was born with a mental disability, and she's been traumatised by her experience. When the quake struck she was bathing in the back of the house, which caved in, sealing her inside. After the tremors subsided, one of her younger sisters had been crushed to death by a computer. There were no signs of life from the back of the house, and the smell of death was everywhere. "We knew that Farah was dead," Jean Felix says. Only nine days later—after they held a funeral for their daughters, and the neighbours set fire to the ruins of their home to burn off the stench—did her cousin return to look for his passport. A section of wall had given way and he found his cousin alive. She was rushed to the hospital then transferred to the Dominican Republic.

The family was grateful she was alive, but their sense of relief did not diminish the grief over the loss of their other daughter. We are driving through congested streets flanked by piles of rubble, and soon we pass the prestigious private high school where Farah's sister, who was two years above her grade level, enrolled at age 13. Jean Felix's gaze falls to his hands and for a moment he remains speechless. "I dream of her every night," he says. Mournfully, Farah watches the school glide past outside the window.

Farah's remaining sister, who is still attending school, has been living with her mother in a tent on a friend's property. Farah and her father have been visiting on weekends. IOM had arranged for them to stay in a hotel, but Farah was afraid the building would collapse, and refused to enter. IOM found them a space in a camp, paid to have the debris cleared from their property, and constructed a Tshel on their small parcel. Jean Felix's wife is apprehensive about moving back, he tells me. They fear it will be a daily reminder of their tragedy, and she worries that she won't be able to give Farah the care she needs. But they are still better off than most of the displaced, who are renters and don't have land to return to. "They were the lucky ones who owned the land," as Duigan puts it.

Haiti occupies the western side of Hispaniola, a Carribean island shared by the Dominican Republic. After a successful slave rebellion in 1804, Haiti became the first independent nation in Latin America and the world's first black-led republic. "France imposed a huge debt that strangled Haiti," The New York Times' Nicholas Kristof wrote in the country's defence. "And when foreigners weren't looting Haiti, its own rulers were." Haiti remains the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Today, roughly 1.7 million Haitians displaced by the quake are living in nearly 1400 officially recognised camps. Initial plans called for the construction of 125,000 hurricane- resistant shelters—a fraction of what was needed to begin with—but only about 5000 have materialised.

The death of many federal employees, and the destruction of nearly all the municipal buildings in the capital, Port-au- Prince, has crippled the government. Only a fraction of the billions of dollars pledged by world leaders has arrived, and some analysts warn the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission— a body made up of Haitians and international donor representatives, chaired by former US President Bill Clinton and Haitian Prime Minister Jean-Max Bellerive—must make progress soon or donors will lose interest.

For his part, Jean Felix is grateful for the international aid that has sustained his family, but unconvinced he can count on it to feed his family tomorrow. Finding work in Haiti has always been about personal contacts, he tells me, and the earthquake destroyed the sales centre where he worked as a driver. His boss has since fled the country.

Outside the window are clusters of people squatting on the roadside, fending for themselves under blue tarps distributed months ago. We pass the road leading to the St. Christopher Hotel, to the UNICEF headquarters, to the place where UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon's Special Envoy was killed.

We turn into their neighbourhood and stop in front of a small shed-like structure at the edge of an embankment. Farah's mother, who spent the night in the shelter, is waiting to greet her. Neighbours and aid workers have gathered to watch. Farah steps slowly out of the van and her mother, a smile breaking through the fatigue, takes her daughter's hand and leads her purposefully toward the door.

After a while, Nelsidor Jean Dit Joseph, a middle-aged neighbour with a bushy moustache, stops Duigan to ask for help: his house collapsed and his family is living in tents on the land of a neighbour who now wants them gone. He could at least move their tents onto his own land, he explains, if only he had help clearing the mountain of debris. But the organisation can't help everyone, Duigan explains—Farah's situation was unique.