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Homage to Haiti

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PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti–The hundreds of journalists who showed up here right after January 12 missed a key element of the story; the killer earthquake did not strike hardest in the very poorest areas. Out in the seaside shantytowns to the north, in Cite Soleil and La Saline, the single-story scrap metal and cardboard shacks that collapsed did injure people but did not usually kill. It was the working- and lower-middle class Haitians, who lived in concrete dwellings in crowded city neighborhoods like Carrefour Feuilles and Pacot, who died in the rubble in such large numbers.

Here’s how hard-working and hard-saving Haitians like my friend of 15 years, the guide and small shopowner Milfort Bruno, build their homes in a country where bank loans are nearly unknown. "First, you buy the land," Milfort, who is 62 years old, explains. "You start with zinc walls and a roof. Then you slowly get the building materials. You buy sand. You buy 5 or 10 iron rods at a time. You go and pay for the cement every month, but you don’t take delivery until you are ready to build because you want the cement to be fresh. You hire a local builder to mix the blocks, 200 or 300 at a time. You add a room. You add another room. Then you add a second story. It all takes years."

Milfort Bruno is lucky; the Ministry of Public Works inspectors marked his damaged home with yellow paint, meaning he and his family can move back in after major repairs. (Homes are also coded in red or green.) But he says half the people in Port-au-Prince are still unemployed, including most of his family, and it will take them years to rebuild. Milfort Bruno and other Haitians know that backyard construction methods contributed to the tremendous death toll, which is estimated at 230,000. (The 1989 earthquake in the San Francisco Bay Area, of the same intensity, killed 63 people.) For now, the Bruno family is living in a tent next to their damaged home.

Some Haitians died because of their commitment to education. The earthquake struck just before 5 p.m., but many children and young people were still in school. We passed by a 9-story high school in Carrefour Feuilles which had pancaked down to a striated pile of gray rubble less than a story high, killing just about everyone inside.

But Haitians are already rebuilding. Temporary schools of plywood and zinc are going up all over town, and kids in their brightly colored school uniforms are picking their way past the debris. Men wielding sledgehammers are dismantling the most damaged buildings, working by hand because there are very few pieces of heavy equipment in the country. Up in Petionville, we saw children going to class inside parked forest green schoolbuses.

Port-au-Prince has always been an energetic city, and the street vendors and sidewalk workshops are back in business from morning to night; right in the open air you can get your car battery charged, your watch repaired, even have some photocopying done.

In some areas, the capital does not even look hugely different than it used to. Even before January 12, the city resembled a refugee camp partly because it was – for people who had fled from the even more impoverished rural areas. Most people who lived in Port-au-Prince bought their water from women who delivered it in buckets, used backyard privies instead of flush toilets, and enjoyed electricity for a few hours a day at most.

Some of the foreign help is getting through. Every square inch of what was open land is covered with tents, many of them donated by the United States. You see water trucks and rows of portable toilets, and people waiting at clinics run by Medecins sans Frontieres; Haitians also have high praise for Partners in Health.

Despite the tough circumstances, there has been surprisingly little violence. There are reports of sexual assaults in the tent cities, partly possibly because the collapse of the main prison in Port-au-Prince during the earthquake freed thousands of inmates, but so far no major tension, riots, or armed clashes.

But Western generosity, although impressive, is accompanied by even greater efforts from the more than 1 million Haitians who live overseas and are sending money home. All over Port-au-Prince, you see people lined up outside banks to collect remittances from their relatives, hard-working hospital workers in New York or Boston, taxi drivers in Montreal, who even before the tragedy were transferring to Haiti the astonishing figure of $1.5 to $1.8 billion a year. (By contrast, the entire U.S. government pledge at the March 31 donors conference in New York was $1.15 billion over 2 years.)

Not all the help is reaching the people who really need it. Milfort Bruno and I talked with Dieudonne Pierre, a 40-year-old construction worker who lives in the tent city in the Champs Mars, right across the street from the damaged presidential palace. He explained that certain Haitians dress up in suits, misrepresent themselves to the relief agencies, and acquire food ration cards and tents that they then sell over in the market. He does not know where to complain. Monsieur Pierre says he is worried what will happen to his tent-dwelling neighbors now that the rainy season has started. 

There is a more long-term threat to Haiti’s future. My flight into Haiti had far more white passengers than on my usual visits. In the seat just in front of me a young man, 30 or so years old, too well dressed for Haiti’s climate, was reading a document called "Action Plan for Recovery and Development of Haiti."

My jaw dropped; this is the rough equivalent of looking over a manual on brain surgery before you have mastered elementary first aid. Even Haitians who have spent their entire lives studying the culture, history and economy of their remarkable nation are not sure exactly what to do next.

Unfortunately, the "Action Plans" so far seem to call for more of the same – the same failed economic policies manufactured in Washington that helped get Haiti into its current mess, relying on the same Haitian elites who have turned their nation into one of the most unequal in the entire world. Unless the vast majority of ordinary, hardworking Haitians participate in the recovery – just as they are already rebuilding their destroyed homes, block by block – Haiti’s extraordinary energy and intelligence will continue to be partly wasted.

James North
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