herald

Wednesday 16 January 2019

A year on, and life is still a grim struggle for the children of Haiti

The progress made since last January's quake is minimal, writes Shona Murray on her return

One-year-old Marvin Joseph Polie was just an infant when the home he shared with his brother, his mother and her boyfriend was razed to the ground by last year's earthquake.

His life was never supposed to be a privileged one. His mother and her boyfriend didn't work and life in Port-au-Prince for the vast majority of people was already one of appalling poverty.

But on January 12 of last year, life descended into an incomprehensible catastrophe for this family and 1.5 million Haitians. One year on and that hell continues.

Home for the majority of Haitians living in Port-au-Prince is a raggedy tarpaulin tent or, in some cases, a shack made by corrugated iron -- impossibly hot in the summer and freezing in the colder nights.

Campsites hold on average 10,000 people with some holding up to 40,000. Dwellings are mounted in dangerously close proximity to one another and it is in these conditions that a sinister element in Haitian society has been able to exist.

Inhabitants fear the regular violence that breaks out amongst gangs and frequent domestic disputes where women in particular suffer greatly.

Mud, excrement and disease are responsible for much of the stink that emanates from within the camp sites, with the odd aroma of charcoal cooking temporarily replacing this.

Where aid agencies like Concern have intervened, some shacks and tents are being replaced by cement fibreboard -- providing some shelter against the unrelenting nature of the rain and hurricane season.



Hideous

Marvin, along with his two-year-old brother Kevin, his eighteen-year-old mother Pierre Polie and her boyfriend, has no such luck with his home. They live together in a dank, hideous shack, no bigger than two metres in width or length.

The earthquake completely levelled her house and now her home consists of little but four pieces of timber, crudely covered with a shag of tarpaulin with no flooring, just muck and stones for when the floods take hold.

"All I hope for is to get out of here and go somewhere even just a little bit better for my children.

"Sometimes it's hard to sleep at night when there are people fighting. Men and women fighting with each other and shouting.

"My brother gives me some money -- he is an amputee and he begs every day. We manage to eat some food every day.

"My son has been sick but if he gets any worse I do not know what I will do."

She relies completely on the treated water provided by Concern at her camp, Saint Bernadette, in downtown Port-au-Prince -- one of the worst affected areas -- to drink and to wash her children.

"I went to school until I was 12 and my sons will not go to school as I do not have any money for it. There is no hope to send them.

"I cannot find a job as I have my children and my mother to look after"

Age and innocence do not provide an escape for Marvin and Kevin as the anguish on their tiny faces is all too apparent.

Theirs are the faces that I cannot forget.

And they are the reason why the reconstruction of Haiti, however impossible a task, must be accelerated.

I came here last year at the beginning of the rainy season just before hurricane Thomas. The city was already on the brink of a violent social upheaval and an outbreak of cholera was inevitable.

Port-au-Prince was, and remains, a lawless, demented city -- and at every turn it is impossible to think of a worse place in the world for man, woman or child to live.

Yesterday I visited Martissant; a notorious slum and one of the most dangerous crime-ridden hell holes in Port-au-Prince even before the quake.



Rubbish

Putrid water trickling from the nearby shantytowns on the hill swarms the make-shift markets where bits of metal, fruit and petty commodities are bartered, while vast mounds of rubbish and uncollected rubble litter the streets for as far as the eye can see.

Ironically, more attention is now paid to the unfortunate souls that inhabit Martissant than before the earthquake.

Around 400,000 people live here and the local emergency clinic run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) sees up to 4,000 people per month for medical emergencies caused by gang violence, stray bullets, gun-shot wounds, rape, maternity care and, most recently, the cholera epidemic.

In October of 2010, MSF opened its first sexual violence unit in the area to provide trauma counselling to women, men and children as young as five that have been raped and sexually assaulted.

Sexual violence has always been an implacable blight on Haitian society, and in almost every campsite a pervasive and potent element stalks the ramshackle homes at night.

Men congregate in menacing groups and strike fear in the heart of vulnerable women -- and protecting them from these late-night predators is an unmanageable task.

Last April alone, up to 50 women reported being raped -- according to Amnesty International, over 250 reported being raped in the first 150 days of the emergency.

Figures are difficult to collate due to the dysfunctional nature of the Haitian police and justice system and rapists, more often than not, are free to attack with impunity.

Much criticism is being levelled at the slowness of aid agencies to spend the billions of euro donated by concerned taxpayers, but government ineptitude has added to the mammoth task that they have been struggling to take hold of.

Most NGOs have worked tirelessly to create some semblance of humanity to those so gravely affected.

Concern, for its part, has managed to restore some dignity to people living in some of the camps and slums here. Money donated by Irish people now ensures that the removal of human waste takes place at least once a week through a process of 'desludging'.

Clean, treated water is now available for most people, but even this has not stopped the spread of cholera which continues to ravage children and families.

It's something -- but there's a shockingly long way to go.

Shona Murray is a journalist with Newstalk's Breakfast show

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