More than three years after the catastrophic earthquake, Haiti still has a long way ahead.
For 13-year old Tania, chaos has become part of her daily routine. She picks up a wooden broom and starts to clean. But her floor remains dirty – it consists mainly of sand. A calendar hangs on her wall, but Tania has given up to count the days she has lived in the Pétion-Ville Club. Once, this place used to be the only golf course in Haiti´s capital Port-au-Prince. Today, hundreds of refugee tents line up on a sandy ground that used to be grass. Tania has lived here ever since the 2010 earthquake buried her country.
It happened on January 12. At 16.53 p.m. Haitian time, a natural disaster took place which devastated the entire south of the country. Haiti – a country with only 10 million inhabitants – suddenly faced 300 000 dead. “A country is dying,” the front page of German newsmagazine Der Spiegel read back then. The emergency aid workers who arrived shortly after the earthquake were confronted with images hard to describe in words. In the first days after the earthquake, victims were still shouting for help from under the rubble. But after one week it was very quiet in Port-au-Prince. The silence persisted for six months: There were no loud conversations or laughing on the streets, and music was muted. Everyone in Haiti knew a friend who had been killed in the earthquake. Death notices were no surprise any longer.
It was a surprise, if someone had survived.
“I want to go to the US,” Tania says very loudly, so that all the girls around here can understand her, and she smiles. United States of America, reads the logo on her grey tent in which she lives. After the earthquake, the US announced an extensive rebuilding program. American soldiers patrolled the streets in order to ensure security, and aid workers brought in tents. Now, more than three years after the catastrophe, the signs of this help can be found in lots of places. Construction workers hurry to build new houses, supermarkets and banks.
However, the money has not yet reached Tania. If the US does not come to her, she has to come to the US, she believes. But her smiles has disappeared from her face. The 13-year old girl knows that it is a long way from a Haitian refugee camp into the US.
Each rainfall can kill
Still, about 300 000 people live in these gigantic tent cities in Port-au-Prince and other cities affected by the earthquake. Haiti had more than one million refugees right after the earthquake – but not everyone has moved away from the tent cities, because alternatives are scarce.
On the outskirts of Port-au-Prince, slums continue to grow. From far away, you can already see the masses of grey hovels that are built on steep hills. Because of the sandy underground, every rainfall can cause death. Sometimes, the paltry houses collapse and bury their inhabitants. Here, nobody has the money to afford quake-proof houses.
In the city center´s “Grande Rue,” rubble is still spread alongside the street. A four-storied house skeleton, its walls have already fallen down tilts towards the busy street. The railing hangs from the rooftop, on top of which grass has started to grow. But right under the house, life has moved on. Street vendors are selling fruits as if this was just like any other street in the world.
There is still much devastation in Port-au-Prince, but there is also hope. Haiti has changed significantly within the last three years. Parks have been repaired, in which Haitians meet up on Saturday to play sports. The morning sun colors the park in one of the richer parts of the city red, while a man sprinkles water on the grass. Forty-year old Jean Pierre Moise walks to the newly-opened gardens each day. “Except Sunday,” he notes. Sunday is sacred to him and many other Haitians, who are devout Catholics.
Jean Pierre Moise has not found work yet, but sports helps him to get back to normal. “Especially for our young people, these new parks are important. Yes, we might have more pressing problems – but if they do sports, they will not become addicted to alcohol and drugs,” he says. Lots of young people were traumatized in the earthquake. Recently, natural catastrophes had caused crises nearly every year. The quake was followed by Hurricane Sandy last year. Instead of being able to rebuild their country, Haitians were starving.
Not that long ago, Haiti was a diverse Caribbean state, well known for its pictorial bays and hills that were covered with palm trees. It is the only country in the world in which a slave revolt was ever successful – once called “The Pearl of the Antilles.” But then, authoritarian regimes, military coups and political instability followed. Today, the tourists are long gone, and the country´s palm trees have been cut down. Haiti has lost lots of the things it used to be proud of. But the people still remember the time before.
Challenge for aid workers
Dirk Guenther arrived too late to get to know the “Pearl of the Antilles,” even though he has worked in Haiti since 1999. The 56-year old German development aid worker steers his white jeep through the streets, leaving motor bikes and broken buses behind. “Look at the new streetlights,” he says and points at the sidewalk. When Guenther looks out of his vehicle window, he sees his very own Haiti: A country he has tried to help for more than a decade. “I feel happy about everything which is new and works again,” he says.
If you drive through Haiti, you will see the poorest country of the American continent. You will see wonderful beaches, as well as rubble and destruction. But if you drive through Haiti with Dirk Guenther, you will get to know a country that is being rebuilt. Where others are only noticing destruction, he finds hope. The aid worker is the director of 180 mostly local employees. But above all of this, he is an optimist.
Just like any other aid worker, Guenther faces gigantic problems. More than 40 percent of the population are unemployed, nearly 80 percent have to live with less than two dollars a day. Prices for food are high which makes it even more difficult for the majority of Haitians to feed themselves and their children. Nearly half of the people rely on agriculture to survive, and chances are not high that a strong export industry will develop any time soon. One of the underlying reasons is that streets in Haiti are of too poor quality to transport goods from the fields into cities.
Haiti has also been a personal challenge to Guenther because development aid needs time. He had spent years fighting against poverty, but it took only several seconds to destroy decades of work in the country. The 56-year old did not learn about the death of some of his friends for months. But Guenther is not someone who leans back at home and cries. Instead, he worked day and night until he nearly collapsed.
Like his organization “Welthungerhilfe,” hundreds of aid agencies work in Haiti at this time. But their role has been criticized repeatedly after the earthquake. The basic argument was that instead of protecting people in the long run, NGOs only help as soon as the crisis is already underway. As a reaction, many organizations now try to work more sustainably. For example, instead of building only makeshift houses, some organizations have started to focus on the construction of quake-proof and long-term investments. In Jean Rabel, in the north of the country, trees are being planted to prevent the rain from flushing away the fertile ground. It has also become a main priority to hand over more responsibility to Haitians themselves ,because large parts of the country still rely on the UN and foreign aid. Boarding a plane in New York en route to Port-au-Prince feels like flying into a war zone. An “International Relief Officer” is on board in order to ensure a safe landing. Already from far away, one can see white UN helicopters and tent cities. UN soldiers sit on pick-up trucks and patrol around the runway. But the dependency also has an advantage: security.
To aid worker Dirk Guenther, the presence of soldiers is nothing exceptional anymore. In the meantime, he has arrived in his hotel where a UN jeep is parked. Guenther sits at a round table, with sand under his feet and waving palm trees above his head. Only ten meters away from him the waves of the Caribbean sea are sweeping. But he cannot relax: Next to him on the table his smartphone buzzes constantly. He oversees four big projects in Haiti as well as several smaller undertakings.
Waiting for the tourists
One of these projects focuses on strengthening the tourism industry. One year ago, Haiti´s president Michel Martelly announced a plan to create 500 000 new jobs by 2015 with the help of foreign capital. Tourism is expected to play a crucial in order to reach this aim. Eleven hotels and resorts will be exempted from taxes for the coming 15 years, which will cost about 160 million US dollars.
If more tourists will come to Haiti, Christophe Lang would also profit. The German-born Haitian stands on his big hotel-terrace and bends over his white banister. Below him, the see is foaming. Lang owns the biggest hotel in the coastal town of Jacmel, which was nearly completely destroyed during the quake. But Christophe Lang does not look at pictures from back then anymore.
“At some point, you need to stop thinking about the quake. Otherwise you will go mad,” he says, and stares at the sea. Only two weeks ago, a family from Switzerland stayed at his hotel for vacation. He has observed that more and more normal tourists are coming to Haiti. “I would by lying if I said that there are no problems in Haiti. But there is also another side to all of this and that is why I am here,” he explains. Christophe Lang loves Haiti and knows that he needs to help. Hotels like the one he owns are attractive employers and necessary for economic development. In a certain way, Christophe Lang is an aid worker, too. To him, Haiti is a paradise. To others, it still has to become one.
More quakes to come
A stay in one of Haiti´s better hotels costs you about 100 dollars per night. 40-year old Johanna Dabady would have to work for two months if she wanted to afford a night in a such an accommodation. The earthquake has taken nearly everything she loved, including one of her children. She prefers not to say whether it was a boy or a girl. No name, no photograph – even today, more than three years after the catastrophe. Johanna covers her face with her hands and remains silent. Finally, she point to the wall. “This was all destroyed”, she says without looking at it. It seems as if the rubble still lies in her house. On her wall sits a dustry round plastic clock, but its hands do not move anymore; Johanna has decorated her room with the clock without having money to afford the batteries.
After the quake, she did not have time to mourn. Johanna had to bury her child, then begin to search the rubble for items that belonged to her. In the end, she was luckier than others: One year after the catastrophe, a German aid organization rebuilt her house.
She says she is now better prepared for a new quake or hurricane than in 2010. Johanna stores water, petrol, some food products in a little plastic bag. Each evening she prays to god. She was never angry at him and has never questioned his existence – even when her country was torn apart.
The donations from all over the world have prevented her and her family from having to move into a slum or becoming homeless. But vast amounts of the donations are now exhausted. Johanna prepares herself for the time to come: She has learned to build up a future. Each morning she wakes up at three a.m. to cook food, which she sells to her neighbors at noon.
But nevertheless she cannot forget about what happened. During each rainfall, even if wind is blowing, she fears for the worst and runs out of her house – just like she did in 2010.
Johanna´s fears are a certainty among scientists. An earthquake like the one from 2010 will strike again.
This article is based on texts published in several German newspapers