Despair and suffering at the Crossroads in Haiti

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CARREFOUR, Haiti (AP) — The sense here is helplessness. There is no one to be angry at over an earthquake, no political frustration to vent.

Misery does not discriminate in Haiti today. Everyone suffered equally — those who spent their days in U.N. penthouse offices, those who lived in hillside concrete shacks — when the Earth claimed their lives with an equally fatal shrug.

Now, with the police force depleted, hospitals destroyed and the mayor rumored to be either wandering town or gone, who can the mostly impoverished people turn to for aid?

Anyone who speaks or sounds foreign, to start with.

Stevenson Belgrade, a 22-year-old auto mechanic with halting but steady English, asked an Associated Press team for water, medicine and latex gloves for 40 families huddled in a Jehovah’s Witness hall. Someone had come by in the morning and thrown two bodies on their front door, he explained.

He persisted through several explanations that there were no provisions, only a few latex gloves to offer, never really giving up even as the conversation ended.

“When can I come back for help?” he asked, his voice falling slightly to a whisper. “We are beaten.”

Carrefour was not always like this. Its name means “crossroads,” and this community on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince has passed plenty in Haiti’s troubled history.

The town, so-named because it was here that the roads to a dozen rice-planting villages met near the sea, was once a leafy suburb, said Michael-Ange Ferdinand, a journalist for the town’s “Haiti Development” magazine.

Crossroads are an essential part of life in Haiti, where populations are spread over mountainous terrain and nearly everybody walks. In Voodoo, the lord of the crossroads is usually the first spirit invoked to make way for others, his intersections uniting past and future, the seen and unseen.

That sense of connectivity, and its location just a few miles down the road from the capital, made it a favorite spot for artists and swank social clubs in the era of the Duvalier dictatorship.

But overpopulation and mismanagement polluted its popular Riviere Froid, felled its trees for fuel and space, and transformed what was once a garden community into a dusty, rundown suburb of concrete shops and low-rise towers.

Then, in a matter of moments, this week’s earthquake created something far worse: an overwhelming sense of emptiness, frustration and a lost future.

The quake cratered an estimated 100 schools, cracked open hospitals and tipped over the mayor’s office, claiming the lives of 6,000 of the roughly 900,000 who lived in Carrefour, according to estimates by the local civil protection department.

As bodies were thrown into trucks and driven to the outskirts of town to be burned Friday, residents painted toothpaste around their noses and begged passers-by for surgical masks to cut the smell of the dead.

“If the government still exists and the United Nations is around, I hope they can help us get the bodies out,” said Sherine Pierre, a 21-year-old communications student whose sister died when her house collapsed.

Among the destroyed structures was the Institution Catherine Flon, a set of three four-story schools serving thousands of students in various shifts.

When the earthquake struck, physics teacher Leslie Lafond was ambling with his cane down the stairs after his 3 p.m. class. Suddenly the school’s middle tower crashed to the ground, taking half the rear tower with it. Those here estimate 250 people died inside.

In the days since, the staff has seen no firefighters, no soldiers, no aid. A city worker brought over a police generator light to illuminate the rubble, where on Friday the fly-swarmed legs of a student still stuck out.

A U.S. military helicopter flew by, and the women shouted at it: “Here! Here! We need help!”

Lafond, 52, tearfully recalled his students, all dead now. A colleague, Pierre Parnel, a history teacher he says was a rock of the community, also died.

“He was a very important person for this community,” Lafond said. “We are going to have about 50 years just to build again.”

There is a sense of the surreal as well.

Patients waited for first aid in front of a partially disintegrated Carrefour hospital as a man ran around with a bullhorn yelling, “All care is free! Do not give anyone money!”

Inside, a team from Doctors Without Borders examined a pregnant woman, Celine Gelsaint. She was due the day the quake struck but did not deliver, and since then her baby breached the placenta and died. She will die, too, they said, if she does not receive an emergency cesarian section that nobody in town can currently provide. A midwife could only watch over her as she received a saline drip.

“This hospital, we could re-equip” said Hans Van Dillen, country director for Doctors Without Borders-Holland. “They have nothing, but if we could bring in the materials and the people, we could have it up and running in a couple hours.”

Out on the streets, there is fear of what might come, even among the police.

Johnny Simplice, a 26-year-old who followed thousands of other recruits to Haiti’s re-forming National Police in the past year, moved his shotgun butt in the dirt.

“Everything is not OK here. People have been looting since the earthquake — guys who have escaped from prison,” he said. “Their objective is to dissolve the police.”

He wishes he could do more for his increasingly troubled people, who had come to see the police as a sign of hope and security instead of the aggressors they were in the past. But the earthquake has made that impossible.

“A lot of police died. We don’t have enough to work,” he said.