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Haiti earthquake: sleeping rough at the Primature

09-02-2010 Feature

Since 12 January, tens of thousands of people have been living a hand-to-mouth existence on the streets of Port-au-Prince, the Haitian capital. During a recent food distribution, Jessica Barry talked with families living in the garden of the prime minister's office, the Primature.

   

  ©ICRC/J. Barry/ht-e-00584    
 
  People waiting for the distribution to begin. Marie Rose (far left in blue)    
    Marie Rose, a 36-year-old mother of two, heaved the heavy bags of rice and beans along the well-trodden footpaths that snaked through the camp. She was making for a slanting tarpaulin shelter that was protected a little from the blistering heat by the branches of a tree. Her neighbour, 66-year-old Jeanne Stirat, followed her, shouldering a box of tomato paste, several bags of salt, and five litres of cooking oil.

The food Marie Rose and Jeanne were carrying came from the International Committee of the Red Cross and was part of a distribution of food that was taking place in the camp that day. The rice and beans – basic staples of the Haitian diet – would help tide the two women and their extended families over for the next couple of weeks, although it was only a token in comparison to the scale of their needs.

The garden of the Haitian prime minister's office where the camp is situated may once have been a tranquil place, but is now a grey-tarpaulin sea of seething humanity. Almost 4,000 people have been living there since the earthquake rocked the Haitian capital in the late afternoon of 12 January with such deadly force.

At the time, Marie Rose's mother was sitting on the balcony of their house on the Avenue Bourdon. " She had a miraculous escape, " volunteered Marie Rose. " The stairs where she was sitting collapsed, and as she fell she was caught by people passing by in the street. "

 

 
  ©ICRC/J. Barry/ht-e-00583    
 
  Jeanne Stirat prepares to return to her tent with some of the supplies she received during the distribution.    
     

" She only has bruising and pain in her knees, " Marie Rose went on, pointing to where her mother was sprawling inside the shelter, wrapped in thought.

Marie Rose's young niece was also lucky that day. After becoming separated from her parents in the chaos that followed the shock, she was spotted wandering the streets and taken back to her family within hours.

Whereas, before the earthquake, most families enjoyed a measure of privacy in their lives, this is no longer the case today. Now, in Port-au-Prince, life is lived on the streets, or in the gardens of official buildings, or in public parks.

At the Primature, over a dozen relatives and former neighbours live squashed together in Marie Rose's tarpaulin shelter, in addition to her own immediate family. " Some of our relatives went to the countryside at the beginning, " she said. " But others, like me, have stayed to keep an eye on our property. The problem is, " she went on, " we have nowhere to store anything that we rescue from the rubble. "

As the days pass, one of the most poignant things to emerge from this appalling tragedy is people's extraordinary resilience and dignity as they struggle to put order back into their lives; that, and their grace towards the strangers who have arrived in their midst to help.

Many Haitians are devoutly religious, and their faith has also undoubtedly played a part. Asked what she thought the future would hold for her and her family after such great loss, Marie Rose replied, " God alone knows. He has saved us until now. He will help us again. "