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Haiti: resilience prevails as people struggle to rebuild

23-02-2010 Feature

Five weeks on from the earthquake that shattered parts of Haiti on the 12th of January, the ICRC's Jessica Barry went to find out how people in and around the capital Port-au-Prince are coping now. The Haitian people are demonstrating remarkable resilience in the face of overwhelming destruction and personal tragedy.

©ICRC/Jessica Barry 
  Port-au-Prince. People go about their daily lives as heavy machinery clears away the debris    

©ICRC/Jessica Barry 
  A camp resident looks through the entrance of a first aid post run by the Haitian Red Cross, one of ten set up in Port-au-Prince with support from the ICRC    

©ICRC/Jessica Barry 
  Port-au-Prince. Haitian Red Cross volunteers are helping in many different ways. Here, Dimitri Quatre (left) and Mérilien François (right) encourage people in the Boliman camp to bring their children to be vaccinated    

One recent afternoon, I walked with a friend along the narrow paths that cling to the hillsides overlooking Port-au-Prince, so as to get a better understanding of the scale of Haiti's latest tragedy. In these heavily populated outskirts of the city, there was devastation everywhere. Collapsed buildings lined the path; others teetered at steep angles. A faint, sickly scent of death was still discernable here and there where unrecoverable bodies lay buried under the debris.

Accompanying us were two volunteers from the Haitian National Red Cross Society, part of a team who have been manning a first aid post set up on a football field near a camp for the homeless.

Both volunteers have been working flat out, providing first aid to scores of people daily. Their post is one of ten that have been opened over the past month around Port-au-Prince by the Haitian Red Cross, supported by the ICRC.

 Scores of volunteers helping to rebuild lives despite own tragedies  

Thousands of Haitian Red Cross volunteers have been mobilized since the 12th of January. Working together with the ICRC and with other members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, they are helping not only with first aid, but also with many other tasks. These include the tracing of missing persons, the mobilization of camp dwellers during vaccination campaigns, health promotion, and the distribution of food and shelter materials. In the quake's immediate aftermath they carried out search and rescue operations, and transported injured people to hospital.

Despite being victims themselves, the volunteers'dedication from the very beginning of the catastrophe has been extraordinary. " We wanted to help our people, " they simply say. Many of them lost members of their own families in the quake, or relatives, or friends, but kept going regardless. They deserve great praise.

 Home is what you make of it  

Leaving the footpaths behind, we walked along a wider road, and passed a young man sitting in front of a hut made of salvaged wood and corrugated iron. " I have just put up this small house for my aunt and her children, " he remarked as we stopped to say hello, " and over there, " he added pointing behind him, " I have built a room for my mother. My sisters will live there, too. "  On the door of the makeshift shelter was one word, written in English: HOME.

" Let me show you something, " said the young man, getting up. He walked a few paces and stopped in front of a pile of broken concrete, tangled iron rods, and crumbled masonry, all that was left of the house where his whole extended family had lived for years.

 Some sense of normal returning to the city  

Nowadays, a semblance of normality is returning to the streets of Port-au-Prince, at least on the surface. People are putting their lives back together all over the traffic-clogged city, just as they are doing on the sprawling hillsides. Makeshift shelters are going up close to ruined homes, and people can be seen atop collapsed buildings poking away at the rubble with spades and pick axes, trying to salvage their possessions.

Stacked up amidst the ruins are salvaged sofas and chairs, dust-covered tables, fridges and televisions, as well as more intimate possessions – p ictures, photo albums, clothes. 

For a country so tragically marked by both man made and natural disasters, Haiti is extraordinarily beautiful. Recently, I accompanied colleagues on a journey to Kenscoff, about an hour's drive from Port-au-Prince, along precipitous roads. The team was looking for the family members of children who had become separated from their parents or guardians during the earthquake. Such tracing in times of war or natural disaster is a fundamental part of the work of the Red Cross and the Red Crescent around the world. 

As the car left Port-au-Prince and started to climb, the air became cool. Above us hovered gossamer clouds.

 Sheltering the displaced becoming urgent as the rainy season approaches  

The rains that keep Kenscoff green up on the heights, are the same ones that will bring misery to the displaced down in the city when the rainy season starts in earnest in a few weeks'time. The other night, there was a foretaste of what is to come. Rain poured down from midnight on, and by morning both tent dwellers and those living under tarpaulins in the trash-filled camps were soaked. Such a torrent of water simply added to people's woes, and came as a pointed reminder how urgent it is to get the displaced under cover and safe as soon as possible. 

The view up in Kenscoff, where a distant, jagged horizon faded into a milky blue sky, and the air was sweet to breathe, was a welcome respite from the stifling heat and constant noise of Port-au-Prince. But thinking back, the green coolness of the land, and the beauty of the mountains with their ever changing play of light and shade, made the misery down in the camps seem all the more cruel.