Haiti 6 Months Later: Frozen in Time
Six months later and sometimes it feels like we will be stuck in January 2010 forever. It as if we are frozen in time, looking out on the hillsides covered with tents. Every once in a while we will notice a change, like the empty space where the church used to be on Delmas 53. For years I would stay in the hotel across the street and be awakened by singing from that church. In January, when I returned to the hotel, the church was a mound of cement and twisted iron with a cross that dangled precariously into the street. Now there is just a hole, an empty space that still echoes with the voices of the choir.
Sometimes we notice the ever growing piles of rubble that spill out into the street as people carefully clear out their houses. The city dump is expanding beyond its capacity as new trucks and equipment bring in daily loads of rubble, trash and sewage. Every day truckloads of crumbled cement are being moved out of the city, but as quickly as the streets are cleared they are filled with fresh rubble. The problem is so large that when looking out from the inside change is nearly imperceptible.
It seems easier to see the things that remain unchanged since January 12. The crumbled palace that still looks out onto the sprawling camp at Champs de Mars where over 6000 families live huddled together, increasingly afraid for their safety as the pressure to relocate mounts. The skeleton of the National Cathedral still hovers over downtown Port au Prince. The only change since we walked through the collapsed pews in February is a fence of corrugated metal sheeting that keeps out mourners and awe struck visitors. Each time we drive down Delmas I am struck by the gaping façade of the old Caribbean Market, where you can still spot the shining metal of shopping carts, a reminder of the hands that pushed those carts.
There are more than 1000 camps for displaced people within the city and the Haitian government estimates that 1.5 million people are living in tents. Though there are some programs to relocate people back to their homes, the majority of displaced people were renters with uncertain property rights and 50% of the buildings in Port au Prince are now uninhabitable. Most of the camps are located on private property and pressure to relocate has been intense and at times violent. With nowhere else to go, many families are forced to endure terrible conditions and human rights violations only to sleep under a leaky tarp.
As I write I can feel the air getting heavier around me and I wonder how everyone keeps moving forward when there are so many obstacles in the path. And then I remember the moments of standing in the camp near our house when, lost in children’s laughter, you could almost forget that it was disaster that brought everyone together on the soccer field. I think of the brave young women who wash clothes in the blazing sun so that their children can go to school proud of their pressed uniforms. I think of the dedicated young men who spend days waiting outside metal gates praying for a day’s honest work, still finding the humor to share a joke with a friend. Each day I concentrate on the unbroken spirit of the people and the shattered buildings melt away.
Working in Haiti, one has to accept that tragedy can strike with one blow but recovery will always be a series of small victories, a job, a meal, a hug, a soccer game. So we cannot lose hope by focusing on the frozen landscape, we must learn to search for hope in the eyes of a friend, to find strength in the gratitude of a stranger.
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