herald

Saturday 16 December 2017

Family fled devastation of Haiti ... into their second earthquake nightmare

The Desarmes family left their native Haiti two weeks after the devastating earthquake, joining their eldest son in Chile for what seemed a refuge from the chaos of Port-au-Prince.

Their sense of security lasted barely a month. It was shattered at 3.43am last Saturday when one of the most powerful quakes on record shook a swath of Chile.

All the Desarmes' immediate family survived both quakes. But twice cursed, the family now sleeps in the garden of a home that the eldest son, Pierre Desarmes, found for them just south of the capital of Santiago.

"I left my country and came here because of an earthquake," Seraphin Philomene, a 21-year-old student and cousin of the Desarmes family, said. "And here, the same thing!"

"My God, I left my country and I didn't die, but I'm going to die here."

Mr Desarmes (34) managed to get his family out of Haiti thanks to contacts at the Chilean Embassy and the armed forces. A total of nine members of his family -- his parents, two brothers and their families, and three cousins -- arrived in Santiago on a Chilean air force plane on 23 January.

Mr Desarmes, the lead singer of a popular reggaeton band in Chile, still gets choked up when he recalls seeing his family for the first time stepping off the plane. "I saw them but I didn't believe it. I said, 'My God, they're here'. It was a very difficult moment," he said.

Saturday's earthquake, now estimated to have killed 279 people, has made a difficult transition even more traumatic. "When the aftershocks come, they refuse to stay in the house," Mr Desarmes said, sipping a fizzy drink at a table in the garden, his relatives sitting nearby.

"I have to talk to them all day long telling them, 'There are no problems, it's a country that's prepared for earthquakes, it'll pass, it's not so bad'. But they don't hear me. Psychologically for them, they're still really affected by it."

Ms Philomene, his cousin, plans to stay, hoping to bring the rest of her family to Chile. She was the only member of her immediate family to get out because she was living with the Desarmes family in the Haitian capital to finish her studies. Her mother, father, two sisters and a brother are still in Cap-Haitien, about 90 miles from the capital.

"I've had no news from them," she said, choking up. Reached late on Wednesday by the press, Ms Philomene's father, Luigene Philomene, was elated at the news that his daughter was safe.

He said he hadn't heard from her since before Chile's earthquake and had been trying to reach relatives for an update.

Mr Philomene said when he heard that his daughter had been in the Chile earthquake he thought of a Haitian saying that loosely translates as "we saved her from the river and she ended up in the sea".

Now he feels she has divine protection and the 43-year-old said he would eagerly join his daughter in South America if he could. "God is looking for out for us," he said.

Francius Pierre, a cousin of Ms Philomene's in Port-au-Prince, had already learned from a brother that his relatives in Chile survived. Pierre, a university student who injured his knee in the Haitian quake, said Ms Philomene and his other relatives moved from Haiti for safety. "If they knew something like this could happen again they never would have gone," he said.

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